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Violinist Charlie Siem’s Journey Back to Beethoven

On the 250-year anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, Charlieey Siem plays the piece that inspired him at 3.
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“If I’m playing Beethoven, that’s a force that’s bigger than me. To channel that and let it pass through me to an audience is a transcendental experience when it’s done well.”

“Everyone’s trying to be moved in a sincere way,” says Charlie Siem, one of the most talented young violinists in Europe today. “Everyone wants to feel intensely, something that is essentially human. Music is the most effective way of doing that because of its abstract nature.”

“If I’m playing Beethoven, that’s a force that’s bigger than me. To channel that and let it pass through me to an audience is a transcendental experience when it’s done well.”

Virtuoso musicians like Siem, can, at the height of their technical mastery, morph from mere performers into guides for deep internal journeys and experiences that connect audiences with something beyond the mundane.

Siem grew up in the United Kingdom and was trained at Eton, Cambridge, and London. Surprisingly though, it wasn’t his many European appearances and solos that earned him acclaim as “the most exciting young violinist in the contemporary music world,” it was an extraordinary performance at Beijing Concert Hall, and he’s continued to touch the hearts of audiences around the globe season after season.

He’s played with the London Symphony, Moscow Philharmonic, Czech National Symphony, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, amongst scores of fine classical orchestras around the world. He’s also crossed the chasm from classical into popular culture as the face of fashion brands such as Armani, Chanel, Dior, Dunhill, and Hugo Boss. But at his core, Siem is dedicated to the art of violin—an instrument you could say he was destined to master.

An Uncanny Connection

When Siem was 3 years old, he vividly remembers hearing a radio broadcast of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. He turned to his mom and told her, “I want to play this. I want to make this sound myself.”

His mother took the young Siem to a music therapist, “an old lady with a funny living room in an old-fashioned apartment,” he recalls. Different instruments were scattered across the floor. One by one, the 3-year-old tried them all—drums, cymbals, flutes … and a violin.

“The one that I most responded to was definitely the violin,” Siem says.

Beyond Siem’s own inexplicable resonance with the stringed instrument, virtuoso violinists were in his blood. Siem’s father is Norwegian; on that side of his heritage is the 19th-century legendary violin player, Ole Bull.

“Ole Bull was a real maverick. He taught himself the violin and established his own way of playing. He was a big improviser. He was certainly a larger-than-life character,” Siem says.

The “Viking-like” musician travelled the world in a custom-built carriage he made for himself, adorned with jewels gifted to him by various royals. Siem continues to honour his family’s legacy and his Norwegian heritage, playing concerts at Ole Bull’s fairytale-like castle off the coast of Norway.

“I admire people who live for the moment and have a passionate approach to how they live their lives,” Siem says.

Violinist-Charlie-Siem
Violin virtuoso Charlie Siem with his prized 1735 Guarneri del Gesù violin, known as the d’Egville. Photo courtesy of Charlie Siem

Art of Refinement

For over three decades, Siem has channeled his own passion into the singular focus of perfecting the violin. Keep in mind, however, that he started at age 3, so after so many years of study, he is just coming into his own as a young virtuoso and man of his own time.

“I’m just very lucky that I discovered the classical arts early enough to be able to pursue them in a serious way,” he says. “The fact that I’m able to have that dimension in my life—working day to day in quite an intense way and building my ability to be able to go on stages around the world—it adds a complete depth in meaning that I would never have had otherwise.”

Those deeper, more rewarding dimensions of experience were hard-fought for Siem.

“The classical arts recognize a long tradition before you. … There’s a very rigorous discipline to what the classical arts represent. There is no shortcut to achieving a certain level,” he says.

Though Siem has studied under maestros such as Shlomo Mintz, he says, “I’ve never really had a mentor. I’ve drawn inspiration from many people. But essentially, I feel my journey has been an observational one. I was like a sponge, taking what I can from every situation that I was in.”

Part of the observational mechanism Siem developed over a lifetime of study has been looking honestly at himself, personally questioning and challenging himself.

“You have to go deep within yourself,” he says. “You have to struggle, work very hard and suffer quite a lot of misery along the way in achieving your goals.”

Siem likens studying the violin to other classical arts, like a sculptor who chips away at a masterpiece every day, or maybe you’re a Shakespearean actor who “builds an arsenal of tools that you’ll be able to use onstage. Then you apply that to your spontaneous way of performing and responding to a moment when you’re onstage.”

Siem emphasizes the internal element of his craft, which tests his inner fortitude almost like a spiritual discipline.

“Life is about how you experience it and what you grow out of it. Having one thing to do for a long period of time is a great exercise in reflecting internally on who you are, what your limitations are, and how you can break those limitations,” he says.

Violinist-Charlie-Siem
Siem has travelled the world, playing with many of the world’s finest orchestras and chamber ensembles, including the Bergen Philharmonic, Camerata Salzburg, Czech National Symphony, Israel Philharmonic, London Symphony, Moscow Philharmonic, Oslo Philharmonic, Rotterdam Philharmonic, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo by Gilles-Marie

Full Circle

This year marks the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birthday. Around the world—including in Turkey, Norway, and Lebanon—Siem has been performing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, the very music that captivated him as a 3-year-old. However, it’s not that he’s been playing the piece all this time.

Until now, Siem has actually avoided the concerto his entire career.

“It’s so pure and so essential to me, I didn’t feel I could really deal with it. I didn’t want to do it badly and then disappoint the huge expectations that I have for the music,” he says.

But this year, he realized he will never get to a place where he’ll feel ready to tackle it.

“You’re never ready for anything. You just have to plunge in, and you will get there through the experience of doing it,” he says. “When I finally started playing it, it was almost overwhelming to finally connect with it myself. I had never let myself feel that music fully.”

The Violin Concerto is typical Beethoven in many ways, straightforward, arpeggio scales up and down, he says. “But it’s so powerful, moving and heroic, joyous and tragic. It’s the whole spectrum of life, my experience in life … everything that I imagine life has to offer is in that piece.”

Beethoven was meticulous in his markings, noting how he wanted the violinist to place the bow on the string, the exact dynamic he wanted, and how he wanted the sound to grow and then diminish.

“The great challenge is finding my own personal connection with the music, not trying to replicate what I’ve heard, but what really resonates within me as an individual,” he says.

“That’s a lifelong challenge because I’m constantly trying to do it in a more effective way. That’s a personal internal journey, as much as it is an external sharing with the public.”

The Violin Concerto begins with a symphony playing four notes, defining the motif of the first movement. “Immediately, an electricity bristles within me. I’m able to get into a different frame of mind, a different kind of dimension.”

Through the music, Siem sees his life as a capsule, not as chronological events. While performing it, Siem sees one holistic story, “me evolving to this moment through the years that I’ve been alive. Suddenly it seems to be my reality, because this piece is so important in defining me and the choices that I made. I see my whole existence and identity before me when I’m on the stage playing it.”

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