With his extravagantly flowing locks, gothic fashion style and show-stopping virtuosity, violinist Nemanja Radulović is a throwback to the Romantic composers of a bygone era. He’s also a one-off in the world of classical music. While some use gimmicks to sell themselves, Nemanja prefers to let the music speak for itself – and his violin do his talking for him. “I try to find the sound of the human voice,” he explains. “For me the violin is the best way I have found to express myself.”
Not yet 30 years old, Nemanja is a former child prodigy who has overcome all sorts of obstacles to bestride some of the world’s greatest concert stages.
Born in 1985, he took up the violin by chance at the age of seven in his home town of Niš, in southern Serbia. Taken to a music school, the boy was found to have perfect pitch and given his first violin. Two weeks later he had amazed his teachers. “I had already reached the end of the three-year programme,” he admits with a blush.
His parents relocated to the capital, Belgrade, so that he could continue his studies. Just six months after first picking up a violin, he made his debut in a concert at his new school – as the seven-year-old soloist in a Vivaldi concerto.
It was the moment he fell in love with performing. “I loved the stage immediately. That first connection with the public on stage was amazing. I discovered you could make people laugh. I felt I could make people cry. I’ve never found anything else where you can feel so much emotion.”
A star was clearly being born. But storm clouds were gathering overhead, with a UN-imposed economic embargo on the newly-declared Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and hyperinflation making even basic goods unaffordable in Belgrade.
“It was difficult not having electricity or water and not being able to buy food when the country was blockaded,” he recalls. “My mother was a doctor. She was doing humanitarian work on the front line, saving people, so we were very aware of the war. Music was the oxygen not only for me but for everybody in my family. It helped us maintain a normal life, and gave us real happiness. That is when I first appreciated the power of music. It’s something I have never forgotten.”
Nemanja’s first performing ensemble, when he was just eight, was a trio with his two older sisters, Jelisaveta and Danica, who both played the cello. “Music was always very important in our family. My father sang and my mother played accordion at home. We would always have music during meals with friends and everyone listened to music – rock, pop, rap and classical.”
Despite the difficult conditions in his country, Nemanja managed to travel to music competitions across Europe. “The embassies were all closed in Belgrade so we had to travel to Budapest by train or car, and then wait for several days until a visa was issued.”
His first international competition was in Stresa, Italy, when he was nine years old. It was the first time that he played Paganini.
The competitions brought him into contact with other musicians leading very different lives. “It was great for me to meet other young people who didn’t have these problems. I could speak about other things and not just war.”
When Nemanja was 14, he and his family moved to Paris, where he continued his musical education with Patrice Fontanarosa. He has already performed all over the world, at some of the greatest concert halls and with some of the best orchestras. Wherever he has played, his mission has remained the same – to bring classical music to a new young audience.
“I like to play for all kinds of audiences,” he declares. “I’m not trying to give a history lesson, or a tutorial in how to play the violin – I just want the audience to feel true emotions through the music which I play during the concert. And I hope that can help them to forget some of the problems in their everyday lives.
“I just play the way I feel. I try to give happiness when I feel happy, or sadness if I feel sad. Sometimes I speak to them afterwards and they tell me the way they felt during the performance – and it is always the same way I felt when I was playing. That is my aim.”
That emotion has not come without a personal cost. “Over the last few years I have lost nine very close people, including my mother and my sister in one year,” he reveals. “That gives you emotions that you can express with the instruments and the music.”
Radulović, who now lives just outside Paris, practises daily for two hours. “I always like to play some Bach and some Mozart,” he says. “Bach helps me keep my feet on the ground and be connected with the earth, and Mozart gives me happiness and true emotions.”