Published by
WQXR Features

Café Concert: Charlie Siem

Email a Friend

VIDEO: Charlie Siem Plays Shostakovich

While chatting with Charlie Siem, one gets the feeling the English violinist is yearning to quote that old shampoo commercial: Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.

But the part-time model is probably too polite to say so – and besides, he’s not really concerned about what people in the classical music field think about his sideline career, which includes being the face of the British luxury goods maker Alfred Dunhill and appearing in magazines like Italian GQ and Vogue.

“They’d be as superficial as they think I’m being if they did judge me for it,” he said of the potential skeptics. “The whole fashion element was not something I was seeking out. It happened quite organically. These opportunities were presented in front of me and I wasn’t going to say no.

“As far as I was concerned it was a Charlie Siem violin campaign, because it was using me as a violinist and promoting me as a violinist,” he added of the modeling work. "It made complete sense to me to raise my profile to do it."

Last year, Siem signed a recording contract with Warner Classics and in September, he released his second album, featuring challenging concertos by Bruch and Wieniawski as well as Ole Bull’s rarely-performed Cantabile doloros e Rondo giocoso (Bull is also a distant relative). Joined by the London Symphony, the album has earned favorable reviews from the traditional classical music press.

Siem began playing violin at age four after hearing Yehudi Menuhin on the radio. He studied with Ithzak Rashkovsky and Shlomo Mintz at the The Guildhall School of Music and The Royal College of Music in London (he also has a degree from Cambridge). His debut recording, featuring violin sonatas by Grieg and Elgar, put him on the map at BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM. Concerto appearances with the Royal Philharmonic and Moscow Philharmonic followed.

Yet it’s also clear that Siem, 25, will have to make some choices in the years ahead: the fashion world continues to come calling, and he’s recently performed at events for Lady Gaga and the designer Vivienne Westwood. Siem has worked beside pop artists like Bryan Adams, and is considering a jazz project.

“I’ve had the idea of exploring the concept of improvisation,” he explained. "I like the gypsy nature of the violin and expressing yourself in the most pure sense."

He continues: “I think classical music, of all kinds of music, has had the most flamboyant history of all. It’s had characters far beyond any pop characters. When you think of Franz Liszt, when you think of Paganini, and all these weird characters. Or Mozart for Christ sakes! It’s really the ultimate in theatricality and drama. So if nothing else I’m just incorporating in our modern times an element of that sort of thing.”

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Interview: Jeff Spurgeon; Text: Brian Wise