Meet the World's Hottest Violin Virtuoso: Charlie Siem on the Perfectionism That Enthralled Both Lady Gaga and Stephen Hawking

Meet the World's Hottest Violin Virtuoso: Charlie Siem on the Perfectionism That Enthralled Both Lady Gaga and Stephen Hawking

A rising star in the world of classical music, British violin virtuoso Charlie Siem gets as much attention for being handsome as he does for his playing skills. At 25, Siem has already graced the stages of major concert halls around the world, from London's Royal Albert Hall to New York's Carnegie Hall, and has played infront of the likes of Lady Gaga and Stephen Hawking. The fashion world adores him: Vogue magazine featured Siem in this past September issue, designer Vivienne Westwood invited him to perform in one of her shows, and AlfredDunhill recruited the violinist to star in an advertising campaign. The Cambridge-educated violinist released his latest album "Charlie Siem Plays Bruch, Wieniawski & Bull" accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra on September 27. ARTINFO asked Siem, who was fresh from a GQ Italia photo-shoot in Milan, about performing for Lady Gaga, his good looks, and of course, playing the violin.



Somepeople struggle their whole lives figuring out what their passions are, while you heard Yehudi Menuhin play Beethoven's violin concerto at three-years-old and fell in love with the violin. What was it like to know from such an earlyage what you wanted to do?

It's a privileged position to be in. A lot of people search for a long time before they find something that they can really focuson. I knew I only wanted to play the violin. I really didn't want to do anything else. So maybe it was almost out of laziness that I carried on doing the violin. It was almost sort of the easy option. I'm very lucky to have found a sense of direction, and to have known that's what I wanted to spend my time doing.

So you neverfelt like doing anything else?

No. Once you've invested so much time in something, it seems like such a waste to try anything else. I love music and I love the violin. That's the main reason why I don't want to do anything else.

Speaking ofBeethoven, he was notorious for being a perfectionist, even discarding aperfectly fine slow movement, "Opus 18 Number Two," because hewas unhappy with it. Are you a perfectionist like Beethoven?

Interms of mastering the art of playing the violin and mastering a pieces writtenby Beethoven, whether it be the Beethoven violin concerto that initially inspiredme to play the violin, or a Beethoven violin sonata, or whatever it may be, Ithink you have to be almost an excessive perfectionist.

At age 11 youwere already traveling to Switzerland perform, going on to perform your first concerto with an orchestra at 15, then to the Royal Philharmonic at 18. Do you feel you missed out on your teen years for the violin?

No. I feel in many ways I held back on the performance side, in the sense that a lot of solo violinists, in terms of their progression as a child through those formative years, they usually drop out of school to focus on playing. I didn't do that many [performances] at all because I was in a normal school, encouraged by my parentswho are both not musicians. At the time I was a bit frustrated because Iwanted to play more violin. I look back and I'm very glad that I had that time to mature and get a little perspective so you can put in context what you're doing as a violinist in the first place. It gives you a lot more meaning when you play, and you can see yourself with a bit more breadth and perspective rather than just bring a narrow-minded violinist just stuck ina practice room their entire childhood.

Your career was pretty much established by the time you hit university age. Why was it important for you to attend Cambridge?

Again at the time, my parents encouraged me to go to university. At Cambridge it was a completely different study of music, than the one that I'd done before in terms of just learning the violin. At Cambridge you got to do all different kinds of different courses whether it be the Ballets Russes or French opera in the 19th century. It was different elements of history and the theory of music that I hadn't been exposed to. Being with kids your own age and studying different things is an experience in itself. A place like Cambridge issuch a beautiful place and you're really surrounded by such talented people. Just being there you learn a lot.  

You've trained under greats like Shlomo Mintz and Itzhak Rashkovsky. How did you get those opportunities and how have they helped shape your abilities?

Itzhak is a great friend of mine still, still I'm in touch with him all the time. He's a specialman in many ways, outside of music as well. Obviously he taught me a lot when Iwas a kid. Shlomo was one of my heroes, in terms of such a phenomenal violinistand performer, so being able to study with him was a dream come true. His whole style and approach to playing violin is so powerful — his presence on stage, his command, his sense of leadership, his muscular and very thick sound. All ofthose elements were very attractive to me. They're things I wanted to incorporate in my own playing, so I had a really amazing experience playing with both of these guys. I also had lessons with Ida Haendel, who is one of thegreat icons of violin playing. She's now in her 90s. She is this old school violinist and has an old school style of playing, which is so unique. The way she shifts, the way she has this intense vibrato, and this incredibly rich sound despite the fact that she is this tiny little lady. She was also a huge influence on me.

You're adescendant of Ole Bull and you performed his "Cantabile Dolorosa e Rondo Giocos" on your latest album. What do you think of the coincidence thatyou're both violin virtuosos?

It was sort an incredible revelation when I found out I was distantly related to him. He wasthe ultimate virtuoso. He was the Nordic counterpart to Niccolò Paganini in the 19th century. He had an air, a technique, astyle of performance that when one reads the accounts of his concerts and reviews — and we have no recordings of him or anything like that — they werejust spellbound by him, his charisma, his flawless playing. He really was outof this world. He has been a huge inspiration to me since I first discoveredhim ten years ago and began playing his music. Getting inside the character of  Ole Bull is something I enjoy doing, because I relate to him on many differentlevels, whether it's the Norwegian connection and now discovering that I'mactually distantly related. He didn't come from amusical family, and he decided he wanted to play the violin coming from thistown in Bergen in Norway. It was so unusual and unexpected while in a way issimilar to me in that I don't have a musical family and there is no reason why I wanted to play of violin. It wasn't really a part of my surroundings oranything like that. So in many ways, I feel affiliated with Ole. It was great to record one of his pieces and I hope to do a lot more.

You've done crossovers like a composing a variation of Bryan Adam's 1985 hit song "Heaven"crossover. Are you working on any crossover compositions now?

I don't like the term crossover, because it suggests that you're halfway between one thing and another. I like collaborating with people from a different perspective of music than me. I like to try an assume a different characterwhen I do that. I love doing that and I hope to do a lot more of it. I've got plans to do a whole project in that vein, in terms of using that concept of integration and composing weird style variations to more popular  themes, which is exactly what Paganini did himself.

And your dream collaboration?

Maybe if Igot Miles Davis back from the dead and I could spend a few hours with him, hecould help me, teach me some new techniques and improvisation, and I can dosomething unusual with him.

Tell me about your favorite violin.

My favorite violin is the one I play on, which is one of thegreat violins. It was made in 1735 by Guarneri del Gesu. It was played byMenuhin and it was owned by the Prince of Prussia. It's flawless to look at and it's a challenge to play, but when it responds, it is a dream, I'm very lucky to be able to play on that instrument.

So that's theone you play on?

That's the one I play on. I have an identical copy that was made a couple of years ago by anEnglish violinmaker Peter Beer. I use that to practice on, and if I'm playing in a slightly more precarious venue then I use the copy.

How much is itworth?

It's priceless.

You selected"Csardas" from Vittorio Monti to play for Lady Gaga at the Standard Hotel in New York last June. Whythat piece? What was it like performing for her?

She uses the opening Csardas in her song "Alejandro." V magazine wanted me to do somethingthat was relevant to her, and they were thinking I would do my own arrangement of "Born This Way," but I thought it was really appropriate to bring something from my side of the equation to the situation, something that would mean something on the other hand to her. That's why I chose it. It was very exciting. It was a very unusual set up, and it was lot of energy in the room that night. (laughing) It was a fun night.

Fashion magazines love featuring you in editorials and you're an Alfred Dunhill model. Do you think your looks get more attention than your musical abilities sometimes?

I don't know. Do you?

I think it helps you.

I think it helps me get more of an audience for my music. I'm only ever featured as a violinist in all of these things, including the campaign for Alfred Dunhill. I think it's a combination of the looks and the violin that make it fascinating. The looks seem to be helping theviolin, but if I just had the looks and nothing else, I don't think anybodywould be interested from the fashion world. And obviously if I just had the violin,the fashion world wouldn't work either. It's just who I am. It's just using whatever strengths I can.

Do you likefashion? What are you other favorite fashion labels?

I'm not sort of a massive fashionista anything. I like clothes, not necessarilyfashionable clothes. I like tailors. I like simple, austere, kind of clothes in a way, plain colors and a good cut. I don't like labels at all. I prefer going to a tailor and having clothes made.  

On Saville Row?

I have a military tailor that's off Saville Row, so it's like a cheap version of Saville Row (laughing).

Why do youpaint your pinky nail? How do you decide on the color?

That's s a ritual in preparation for the stage. Going on the stage to play theviolin is always a challenging and somewhat daunting experience because youhave to get into a certain zone where you really have to make the most of your abilities. You don't want to get distracted by unnecessary thoughts and doubts. Painting the nail is kind of a process that gets me in the right place totackle these issues on stage. It's just become a funny little habit. The colors were really quite random. Now I've found a gold nail varnish that is a little more subtle. It's not standing out too much. It's a little bit more restrained. It is was given to me by a friend of mind and it's Chanel Gold Lamé.

What is thebiggest problem with the classical music industry today?

I don't know thatthere is a big problem with it. There's always challenges in sort all kinds ofindustries, ups and downs that are affected by trends of the moment. The thing about classical music is that it's been aroundfor a hell of a long time. It's survived all kinds of fashion and trendsthat have come in and out, that sort distracted from it, but because it's so phenomenal, it's always going to be an audience. Even if that audience sometimes shrinks, and then it grows, there's always going to be one. It's not like everyone is going to neglect classical music atany point because it's such quality. It's the real thing. There are times when people get consumed with materialism, superficiality, and all thatkind of nonsense, and it thins a little bit. Then, there isn't quite as much enthusiasm for it. Maybe it gets stuck in its ways and it presents itself in a stuffy and unapproachable way, which also doesn't help. Essentially music itself is so meaningful and so special. It's always going to be here. It's going to be herefor as long as people are.

"CharlieSiem Plays Bruch, Wieniawski & Bull," accompanied by the London SymphonyOrchestra, is available for purchase on iTunes and Amazon.

Watch Charlie Siem perform pieces from his new album below: