Charlie Siem discovered his calling early – very early – in life. As he tells it, he was sitting in the back seat of his mother’s car when he first heard her cassette recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, featuring Yehudi Menuhin, and was sufficiently interested to announce that he wanted to play the piece himself. He was three years old. Soon after, Siem (pronounced ”C-M”) started learning the violin and classical music has been his passion – and his life – ever since. He was just 15 and still a student at Eton when he first performed professionally at a concert (the Bruch Violin Concerto) in Rio de Janeiro. Siem, 33, is now a globetrotting soloist who performs with renowned orchestras in famous concert halls but surprisingly, had never played Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in public until February this year, at a concert in southern Turkey. ”It was such a character-defining piece – the soundtrack to my life,” he says.
The London-born Siem was in Singapore last month as a guest performer at the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s 40th Anniversary Benefit Gala (the event raised S$1.16 million). He has homes in Florence and Monaco but spends a significant amount of time on the road – literally. Among other things, Siem is a sports car enthusiast and likes to tool around Europe in his Porsche GT3 RS, which he describes as ”a dangerous piece of weaponry.” There’s just enough room in the car for his violin, made in 1735 by Guarneri del Gesu and once owned by, yes, Yehudi Menuhin. The violin, known as D’Egville, rarely leaves Siem’s sight. During our interview in his dressing room at the Victoria Concert Hall, it sits in an open, battered case on the table next to him, almost as if listening in on the conversation.
Much has been made of Siem’s impeccable pedigree – he comes from a wealthy family and also attended Cambridge University – his movie star looks and brushes with the mainstream celebrity lifestyle, including modelling shoots for major fashion brands and occasional appearances with pop stars like Bryan Adams and Lady Gaga. But he remains a serious classical musician dedicated to his craft. He’s open-minded enough to take everything else in his stride, but it’s his day job that truly moves him. ”I imagine I’ll be playing the violin for decades,” he says.
You’ve described your career arc as chipping away at a block of marble, trying to create something great. How far are you from reaching your peak as a classical musician?
On one level, it’s satisfying to be able to build a career for yourself but every day I feel there’s something that can be improved – it’s an endless journey in that sense. I feel there’s no perfect form underneath that rough-edged marble, it’s the process of being able to chip away at something that makes my life worthwhile – that sense of purpose, of seeing something evolve. I feel driven just to improve, to get into it more deeply, that constant process of refining. Music is a crucial part of my life. Beyond that, my identity as a person is separate. My experience of life is expressed through the violin, but the violin isn’t me. What makes us unique is our humanity. I gravitated towards music because being able to express myself through music is something that profoundly moves me.
Your father is a successful businessman. Did you ever want to follow in his footsteps?
I never ever thought about following my father. I always thought my career was something unbelievable, coming from a non-musical background, but performing on stage at 15, that was the moment I realised it was actually possible. When you look back on the choices you made, it’s hard to think that there has been a clear, constant line to reach this point. I certainly don’t have a desire to do anything else. It was knowing where to channel my focus, becoming more disciplined and looking through that lens and reaching a point here.
Describe how you felt on performing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto for the first time, 30 years after hearing it set you on the path to becoming a violinist.
I started playing the violin because I wanted to play this piece. The simplicity and the purity of the music is spellbinding. For me it was something beyond the piece itself. I got very emotional, coming full circle and seeing my life so far in one capsule. It’s been a serious journey, 30 years of ‘chipping away’ – I kind of felt that sense of arrival, of feeling my life isn’t completely wasted. In many ways, a moment like that made me feel there is some kind of arc to my life. I think it’s important to have objectives. In terms of actual life, it’s whatever comes along next.
Do you read your reviews after a performance?
I’ve gotten negative reviews in the past, but I’m definitely my biggest critic. I have to learn to control the self-criticism but you don’t get better unless you’re critical – although you should not be consumed by it. When I play, I can hear what’s okay and what’s not, so I take reviews with a pinch of salt. Listening to yourself you know exactly how you’re doing, and that can be a painful process. Music is an endless story, you know when you can do better in the saltando, when your vibrato can be more expressive, there’s no end to how you can keep polishing. My violin playing at any one time is defined by my mental and physical state and no performance is the same because I’m always making minute changes to delivery.
You’re the second of four children and you have three sisters who are all talents in their own right. Based on your Instagram postings, you’re not even the best-looking member in your family.
My older sister Sasha is a singer-songwriter of folkstyle songs, a complete change from her classical career as a cellist and composer. She was a British Composer of the Year and achieved the highest double-starred first in music and poetry at Cambridge – she’s a really special person. My youngest sister Loulou (Louisa) is a sculptor and middle sister Sophie is an animator illustrator. Growing up in a super talented family, I wanted to assert myself and I became even more hungry as a result of Sasha being a musician. But our careers are second to our human connection to each other.
You have your share of fans, including a group known as Charlie’s Angels that follows you from concert to concert.
Small groups follow me around quite regularly, it’s more like a little community. Charlie’s Angels was founded by a German lady who had no previous exposure to classical music – now she learns the violin. It’s added a dimension to her life – music is this great world of connection and equality. When you go into this dimension of music we can share, it’s something transcendental, almost.
When are you happiest?
A lot of happiness is related to the violin. When it goes well during a performance, when it feels like it’s falling into place, that is a state of pure joy. At those moments when it all comes together it feels like my life is relevant and has some meaning. That’s why I keep playing.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.
Photo: Charlie Siem