Miles Johnston is a young classical guitarist from Melbourne. He recently won the 2018 Adelaide International Guitar Competition, and the Melbourne Recital Centre Great Romantics Competition. As a result of his victory at the latter, he will perform a solo concert at the 2019 Peninsula Summer Music Festival, playing music by Bach, Nikita Koshkin,Giulio Regondi and Australian composer Richard Charlton. He spoke to Limelight about his emerging career, winning the two competitions, the people who have inspired him, and his plans for the future.

Miles Johnston. Photographs supplied

When/how did you first pick up a guitar?

I first started learning the guitar at age four, at the beginning of prep. My parents are both lounge room guitarists and wanted my brother and me to play an instrument because they knew that music teaches you so many important life skills. I was lucky enough to have a fantastic teacher at the beginning, Peter Draper, who taught me Suzuki Method, as well as jazz and blues on the side.

When did you begin studying as a classical guitarist, and start to take it seriously?

The first moment I began studying classical was when I began lessons at age four, although it wasn’t until I was accepted into the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School in 2010 that I started to really take the guitar seriously. I was in an environment surrounded by some of the best musicians my age, which was very motivating and is one of the reasons I am where I am today. 

What is it about the instrument that you love?

The thing that I really love about the guitar is that it has such a diverse range of repertoire, and not just classical, but across the board in jazz, acoustic, and electric. The guitar can play pretty much anything. Beethoven said that the guitar is like a miniature orchestra, which is completely true. It has a huge tone colour palette, and I personally love the sound the guitar can make. Due to the wide tone colour potential, the guitar can put a unique spin on music originally written for other instruments.

Are there particular musicians/teachers who have inspired you?

Throughout my musical journey there have been many people who inspired me. The first person was my first guitar teacher Peter Draper. He was such a kind and brilliant musician who constantly inspired me to want to continue and get better and better as a musician. One of my biggest inspirations throughout high school and into my professional career was the Grigoryan Brothers, Slava particularly. My older brother Ziggy (who also plays classical guitar) and I both started learning from Slava in 2013, working on duos mainly, with a little solo on the side. Over the years he has taken our solo and duo playing to the next level and beyond. Learning from someone like Slava, who is one of the best musicians in the world, has been incredibly inspiring, partly because of his incredible musical knowledge, but also due to his professional experience. He has given us a very real insight into the life of a professional musician, including the very real and shocking fact that it is one of the hardest industries to make a decent living in, especially as a touring performer who is on the road for long periods at a time. Although despite this, I still find the possibility of being a professional touring musician extremely exciting. I know how difficult it is, but I love performing in front of an audience, and I am willing to put in the hard work to make my dream a reality.

But the biggest inspiration has been my mum, dad and brother. Mum and dad have all always inspired me and taught me that hard work always pays off, and that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. I’ve always been trying to catch up to my brother’s musical and technical standard, and I’m not sure I’ll ever get there, but his knowledge and experience is a constant reminder that no matter how hard you work, there is always someone better and someone to catch up to. 

How important have your wins at the Adelaide International Guitar Competition and the Melbourne Recital Centre Great Romantics Competition been for you?

My wins at these competitions have been extremely important, both from a career building perspective, as well as being an incredible personal achievement. I have been in the finals of the Adelaide International Guitar Competition since 2014 (age 16). Each time I competed I made it my goal to win, and even though it took me a while to achieve my goal, each year I got closer and closer, receiving 2nd place in 2016, then finally winning in 2018 (age 20). Winning this year was a real personal achievement as I am the second and youngest Australian to win this competition. My victory has made me very well known throughout the Australian guitar community, which has made it easier to gain an audience for concerts for concerts I put on around Australia. As part of the 1st prize I also get to perform a concert at the 2019 Adelaide Guitar Festival.

This was my first year being able to compete in the finals of the MRC Great Romantics competition and was honestly quite a surprise that I won! I auditioned last year but didn’t make it through to the final round, however my brother Ziggy has competed in the finals of this competition from 2014–2017, receiving 2nd place in both 2015 and 2016. Ziggy decided not to enter this year, but instead helped me to win, as the piece I played in the finals, Introduction et Caprice by Giulio Regondi, was a piece Ziggy has played before. Part of the prize for this competition was the opportunity to play a solo concert at the 2019 Peninsula Summer Music Festival, which is a huge honour to be a part of, as it is one of the biggest classical music festivals in Australia.

Can you tell us about the solo concert you have planned for the 2019 Peninsula Summer Music Festival? Was it challenging to settle on what repertoire you would play?

My concert at the Peninsula Summer Music Festival will be the first entirely solo concert I have done. I’m really passionate about my program for the Festival. The performance features my interpretation of Bach’s beautiful BWV 1001 Sonata, surrounded by gems from the repertoire including romantic composer Giulio Regondi’s Introduction et Caprice, Australian composer Richard Charlton’s Threnody for Chernobyl, and Russian composer Nikita Koshkin’s Introduction and Vivace.

Choosing this repertoire for this concert was quite simple, as it is mostly music I used for the Adelaide competition, and the MRC Romantics Competition, but it also happens to be some of my favourite music to date. Bach’s BWV 1001, which was his first violin sonata, is one of my all-time favourite compositions, and Regondi’s Introduction et Caprice is very playful in character. Charlton’s Threnody for Chernobyl is an ode to the tragic Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and is one of the most serious, dark pieces I have ever played. Although despite this, it perfectly retells the events of the tragedy through the music, which is why it is one of my favourite guitar compositions. Introduction and Vivace by Koshkin is one of the most relentless, pandemonium-filled compositions I have ever played. It is kind of like a nonstop roller-coaster carnage but is an extremely fun piece and a great way to finish the concert.

What do you have planned for 2019?

I have many exciting things planned for 2019. My brother and I are thrilled to be a part of the 2019 Melbourne Recital Centre’s Local Heroes concert series and are the youngest ensemble to ever be featured in this series. We have two concerts, one on April 18 called Globetrotting, which features music influenced by different styles from around the globe, including music from America, France, Spain, and Japanese and Indian influenced works. Our second Classical Masterpieces concert, is on July 9, and features three major classical period piano works arranged for two guitars – Mozart’s Piano Sonata No 11 in A, K.331, The Barber of Seville Overture by Rossini, and the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven.

We are in the process of finalising various concerts around Australia including Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra and Adelaide, and we also have the pleasure of being featured in a concert with the Melbourne Mandolin Orchestra in July.

In 2019, Ziggy and I might be studying overseas in either London, America or Europe. We have auditioned for the Royal Academy of Music in London and are waiting for the result. We have also applied for the Peabody Institute and the Juilliard School of Music in America as a backup plan.

Miles Johnston plays at the Peninsula Summer Music Festival on January 6