The British violinist has appeared on the catwalk and as an ambassador for Dior, but his heart comes alive in the concert hall.

In 2014, Vanity Fair named Charlie Siem as one of the world’s best dressed musicians. And it was no idle boast.

Charlie SiemCharlie Siem. Photo: supplied

Music and fashion have frequently rubbed shoulders during the career of the 31-year British classical violinist. His ventures into fashion and as a style ambassador began by chance around five years ago when he was asked to be part of a campaign for British men’s brand Dunhill. He has since featured in advertisements for Giorgio Armani and Dior. He appeared on the catwalk in January last year for Giambattista Valli in Paris, and showed up in the front row at Paris Fashion Week two months later with Wendi Deng, guaranteeing headlines.

Talking to Limelight in Sydney, however, it’s clear that classical music is front and centre of Siem’s career, though he doesn’t shy away from his reputation as a style meister. “I think everything that’s happened to me has been me being a ‘yes’ person and also being adaptable to what comes my way, and that was one of the things that presented itself to me somehow,” he says.

“I was not a fashion-conscious person, but then I thought about it more, and as a child I always loved clothes, I always had a sense or taste for style. I observed other people, I’d pick up on little details, but more in an artistic way. I wouldn’t say it was fashion. I admired elegant people from the past and I picked up on little details.”

As for that delicate balance between a maintaining a serious classical career and exploring other avenues – he has also appeared alongside pop and jazz artists such as Bryan Adams, The Who and Jamie Cullum – he says: “it’s more of a perception in terms of actual time spent. People have asked, ‘doing all this fashion stuff, how can you focus on the music?’ And the reality is, over the last five or six years, I’ve done maybe five or six photo shoots, so it’s like one day a year.”

“But when you see all the pictures from it, it always seems to be larger than the exposure you get as a violinist, so it always kind of outweighs the other stuff. But I’ve never been that concerned about how to present myself in a certain way. It’s always doing what I want to be doing, and I’ve been playing, working with great musicians, playing the repertoire I want to play, and even if some people think [the other ventures are a distraction], I know that I’m not distracted and I think in the long term, that’ll speak for itself.”

Charlie SiemCharlie Siem. Photo: supplied

Siem is making his Australian debut with a short tour, which began last night at the Castlemaine Festival. He plays in Albury tonight and then goes to Canberra, Orange, Cessnock, Newcastle and Chatswood before winding up at the Utzon Room in the Sydney Opera House on April 10. “For me, it’s going to be a real adventure around Australia and I’ll learn so much about the place and I’m really excited on that front,” he says.

Originally there were plans for him to play with the Omega Ensemble but things changed and it’s now a recital tour with two pianists, Ying Ho and Jeremy Eskenazi. The concert programme includes Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No 5 (the Spring Sonata), Grieg’s C Minor Sonata No 3 and Bloch’s Nigun. “Kind of wide-ranging but entertaining,” as Siem puts it.

Siem (pronounced C-M) was born in London and is now based in Florence. His Norwegian father is reportedly a billionaire shipping magnate and his mother was born in South Africa. “He’s been a businessman his whole life… he’s basically worked mostly in the shipping sector,” offers Siem when asked about his father.

He has three sisters, the oldest of which – Sasha Siem – played the cello and has become a singer-songwriter. Siem’s own interest in music was piqued at age three. “My mum’s not a musician, neither of my parents are, but she was like a lot of parents, she thought it was healthy for the brains of small children to listen to classical music, Mozart particularly. So, I think she played it at home but also in the car,” he says.

“She had this funny old Volkswagen Golf, and I remember sitting in there, and that’s my memory of hearing the violin for the first time. She had a cassette tape of Yehudi Menuhin playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Definitely the theme of the first movement captured my imagination because it was that that I wanted to learn. And it was the reason I had to play the violin. I think that’s the point, that it was the music more than the instrument that drew me in.”

His mother found a music therapist nearby who led them to a teacher at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where he took classes on a Saturday. He went to school at the prestigious Eton College at the same time as Prince William and Prince Harry, during which time he took some classes with a teacher at the Royal College of Music.

“I took a year out after I left school to study with Shlomo Mintz who I’d met when I was 11 and had started doing masterclasses with. He was really one of my favourite violinists to listen to, so I asked him if I could study with him. He didn’t have any students at all, he was just travelling round playing, so he said ‘yes, if you just follow me around’. So I did, and he’d give me an assignment,” says Siem.

“The biggest thing that year was he wanted me to learn the Paganini Caprices, and they’re the ultimate in virtuosity. They were always something that I avoided before because I thought they were dry and difficult. But it actually it’s the best training I’ve ever had, making myself do that. I did four Caprices for each lesson. He wasn’t really a teacher, which was the thing about Shlomo, he was more of a very unusual personality…. I learned just by being with him. I’d play the Four Caprices and he’d play them, and then we’d have lunch and talk about something else.”

He subsequently studied music at Cambridge University as his parents wanted him to get a broad education, rather than going to a Conservatorium. Since graduating, Siem has played with many major orchestras including the Royal Philharmonic, the Camerata Salzburg and the Rotterdam, Bergen and Oslo Philharmonic Orchestras among others.

In 2011, he recorded an album with the London Symphony Orchestra for Warner Classics featuring music by Bruch, Wieniawski and Ole Bull, a 19th-century Norwegian composer/violinist to whom he is distantly related. Now signed to Sony Classics, he is planning to record the Mozart Violin Concertos next year.

Siem plays a 1735 Guarneri del Gesù violin known as the d’Egville. Previously owned by Yehudi Menuhin, it was loaned to him around 10 years ago. “It’s a great privilege to play such a wonderful violin. It’s  a real double-edged sword in a way, people obviously feel it’s so important that these great instruments are played, and that it’s a tragedy when they’re in a museum. But it’s definitely true that they deteriorate far quicker if they’re being played. I think instruments have a limited life span anyway,” he says.

“With my violin, for instance, you can see how much of the red varnish on the back of instrument has worn away, a significant amount, and my violin’s largely been in collections for the last two hundred years really. But they’re designed to be played and perhaps they aren’t supposed to have such long lives. They should be played, make beautiful music, and be worn down to the nothing sooner rather than later.”

He also has a copy of the violin, made for him by an English violin maker in 2010. “He even copied the varnish wear and the grain of the wood, so it really looks exactly the same, which is quite fun,” says Siem. “It doesn’t sound bad, actually. Obviously, it’s not quite the real thing, but I actually performed on it a number of times.”

Siem says he doesn’t have any set ritual before going on stage to perform, only to be “completely open minded to the fact that it’s completely different” each and every time. “No performance is the same, even if it’s the same hall and the same programme and a very similar audience. It’s a different night, the energy and how you’re feeling are different as much as you try and control what you do, so it’s always a different cocktail,” he says.

“The key is to be flexible and adaptable to respond as best as you can. The ritual is more just to let go of any expectations. And I think that’s what makes really wonderful performers and great artists: that they’re more channelled to the moment, rather than saying, ‘okay, I’ve created a perfect work of art and I’ll bring it to the concert.’”

“What’s so wonderful about live performance is the fact that it’s alive in that moment, and there is an unpredictability to it, a sort of danger almost. It’s like you’re playing with fire, and you don’t always know what’s going to happen. Every time you perform a piece, you’re constructing that cathedral of sound from scratch again and it’s always just is going to look different. That’s why it’s wonderful to play the same piece again and again.”

Charlie Siem tours Australia until April 10 


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