At thirty, guitarist Miloš Karadaglić has joined the superstar one-names—Madonna, Cher, and Midori—and is now simply Miloš. Handsome, fit, and photogenic, his first CD, The Guitar/Mediterréo, sold over 150,000 copies. He is being hailed as the new hero of the guitar, has a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon, and was presented as such in the Celebrity Series of Boston Debut Series on both Wednesday and Thursday nights at Longy.
To these ears the evening did not begin auspiciously. Karadaglić began J. S. Bach’s marvelous Suite in C minor, BWV 997, and, as he admitted before the second set, this was only the second time he had played it in public. It sounded tentative at times, very laid back at others. This was generic-sounding Bach, almost Bach Lite, more suitable for background music than a major concert hall in Boston.
The Suite is a piece I’ve loved for 40 years since I heard it on a record with Osian Ellis playing it brilliantly on the harp. Sharon Isbin recorded it on guitar, and set the bar very high with her performance. This was Bach without pizzazz, rhythmic propulsion, musical intrigue Karadaglić explained, quite bizarrely, “Although Bach loved the suite very much, he couldn’t play it. That’s why sometimes we have too many notes.” What?! The form of this suite is most unusual, beginning with a Prelude followed by an extremely long fugue. Next a stately Sarabande occurs, which gave Karadaglić a chance to show off his occasionally over-elaborate ornamenting chops. A Gigue and its virtuosic Double end this work which guitarists have appropriated as their own (in the more comfortable key of A minor)—and no wonder. Its chromaticism makes it Pedal Hell on the harp, but a few brave people play it, usually with a missing fugue.
Karadaglić spoke, or warmed up the audience, after the Bach, and mentioned that just before the concert “I managed to split a nail.” During intermission a guitarist came to his rescue with a temporary solution, but I still think the Bach, while a great program opener for most, was a bad choice for this particular instrumentalist whose interpretive gifts clearly lie elsewhere.
From the moment, Karadaglić began his set of four pieces by Heitor Villa-Lobos, a far more confident musician emerged. Karadaglić’s playing sparkled the rest of the evening, and seemed to be enjoying himself musically as well as tour guide to the pieces he was about to play. But why do musicians so frequently felt the need to engage an audience by talking when there are perfectly good program notes? Am I the only listener who feels this is part of a dumbing down of the classical music experience?
Prelude No. 1 by Villa-Lobos, from his lyrical last guitar work, the Five Preludes (1940) has its melody in the tenor voice, (played on the guitar’s fourth or fifth string) as does Etude No. 11 from his Twelve Etudes (1928). Despite Villa Lobos’s love for the guitar and his ability to play it, his training as a cellist shows up here in cello-like tunes. Etude 11, with its throbbing repeated note accompaniment and Etude 12 with its sliding chords, chromatic outbursts and tremolos in the bass were composed for Andrés Segovia, who called the etudes unplayable. Karadaglić proclaimed Etude No. 12 an “etude in crazy-tremendous fun to play.” The program notes are charming here: “Not all guitarists would agree, but Segovia’s feelings are understandable: only twenty years after the polite salon miniatures of Francisco Tárrega, this music would have landed on Segovia’s desk like a wild and terrifying Amazonian bird.” All of the Villa Lobos pieces were compellingly and beautifully performed, but the Valse Choro gave the biggest hint as to why Karadaglić has an enviable reputation.
After intermission, Karadaglić quipped, “It’s always a relief when the audience returns.” Well, at most of the seats going for fifty dollars a pop and such fabulous P.R., why not stay? None of the pieces on the second half was known to me or, I suspect, to other non-guitarists, but the quiet, hypnotic Milonga that develops into a tango-like piece by the Argentian composer Jorge Cardoso (b. 1949) was among the best and the most deftly played (It’s on Karadaglić /Youtube, like much of his other recorded music). Isaías Sávio (1900-1977), a guitarist who taught in São Paulo, often composed with Brazilian rhythms as he did in Batacuda which refers to a style of African-influenced, percussive samba. Karadaglić played this and the other alluring guitar pieces on this half with charisma and charm.
Agustín Barrios (1885-1947) was represented by Un Sueño en la floresta which shimmered with melodic slides and mandolin-like tremolo, reminding me, as did much of this program, of café music. Many in the audience sighed at its end. The final programmed piece, Koyunbaba Opus 19 by Carlo Domeniconi (b. 1947) has four short movements based on a Turkish folksong. Full of hypnotic repetitions, it requires the guitar to be re-tuned to C-sharp minor. “I heard it at 16,” Karadaglić recalled, “one of my colleagues played it. It is almost a cure for my nostalgia for Montenegro.” The second movement, a mournful andante with spare accompaniment, was the highlight of this listener’s evening. “How about more tremelo?” Karadaglić asked after returned for a curtain hall. Another lovely Domeniconi piece followed.
Oddly, there was no standing ovation, an occurrence so rare it is worth noting. But during intermission, I bought Miloš Mediterráneo and immediately understood his huge popularity. It is fabulous, and deserves its own Standing O. Karadaglić seems more alive on this disc than he did in person; if you crave hearing him talk, just head to YouTube.