Violinist Charlie Siem on mixing modelling and music ahead of his Hong Kong debut
Musician first did a fashion shoot to get exposure for his music career, and that’s still his focus, having been inspired as a boy of 3 to take up the violin
Charlie Siem spoke to Vanessa Yung ahead of his Hong Kong debut this week.
What’s special about your debut concert with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong this Saturday?
I’ve been to Hong Kong before a few times, but this is my first time to perform here. [I’m also working for the first time with guest] conductor Ken-David [Masur], whom I’ve met before in New York a few years ago. I’m playing two very contrasting pieces written very much in the same period but by very different composers. The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams is a classic, lyrical and romantic piece. It’s very English-style. And then I’m playing Ravel’s Tzigane. Ravel was French and much more academic in his approach to writing. Tzigane is a Gypsy-inspired piece which is wild, fiery like fireworks on the violin. On Sunday, I’m having a master class [at the Cultural Centre].
Did you always want to become a violinist?
I’ve always played the violin and that’s just been the biggest part of my life. I picked up the violin when I was three and I never looked back. It was my mum who introduced me to the instrument. She used to play tapes of music and I really fell in love with it. The repertoire for the violin is particularly special. It’s a huge repertoire and there’s so much variety. Some of the great pieces which I used to listen to as a child are absolutely inspirational and they really stimulated my imagination. And it was wanting to play this music myself that really led me into it.
What are some of your fondest musical memories?
Gosh, I’ve got so many special ones. When I was 11 I played in Israel, in Tel Aviv, the Vivaldi concerto for four violins with Ida Haendel, one of the great violinists of all time, whom I studied with, and Shlomo Mintz, who is also my teacher. That was a great memory for me. What else? I’ve had so many playing everywhere. When I first played – I’m half Norwegian – with the Oslo Philharmonic, a great orchestra in Norway, a few years ago now. Then I remember playing with the Royal Philharmonic in Kenwood House, which is this big open-air venue in London, when I was 17. When I wrote my own piece, one or two years ago, and recorded this with the English Chamber Orchestra, that was a special moment for me because I’ve never written a piece before. I remember I did a tour in Taiwan a few years ago. It was really exciting. Really enthusiastic audience and really excited fans. So I enjoyed that.
How does being so well-travelled affect your music?
Playing the violin is a very technical thing and travelling is distracting in a way because the best way to be good at the violin is to stay in one place and practise very hard. But travelling is a great privilege and I enjoy it as much as I can. I don’t know if that affects the way you play, but I think it affects the way you enjoy music and what you get out of music. Your breadth of understanding is expanded when you travel because you see various different cultures, meet very different people and this opens you up. It makes you more aware of the differences in the world. And this allows you somehow to maybe be more generous in the way you express yourself in the music.
Why did you start modelling?
That was by chance. I was playing a concert and I was asked the next day to be in the Dunhill campaign. I thought this was a great way to get exposure as a violinist and so I said yes. That’s how it started. I’ve done a few things in the fashion world and I continue to do things with those guys because I can meet a lot of interesting people and it doesn’t take much time. And I get paid very well [laughs].
Did you find modelling very challenging?
No, it’s very easy. We don’t have to do anything. You just go in there, stand there, they take pictures and it’s done. They do everything. It’s the photographer that makes the great picture, not the model. The photographer is the artist. They make anyone look good because they’ve got the right angle and afterwards they’ll do special touch-up or stuff like that. I don’t do anything.
You make it sound very easy.
It is. I don’t think you can be a talented model. If you’re lucky to work with great photographers and great people like that, they make everything happen. It’s not like music. That’s why for me my life is all about music because there you really have to work at something. You have to have a gift and you have to work very hard. And it’s a challenge every time when you go on the stage to do the best you can and to be at your highest level. And so to me it’s very rewarding when I’m playing the violin. But taking the photos – it’s not rewarding. You just stand there and have it done.
Why do you think the fashion world has taken such a liking to you?
Maybe it’s coz I’ve got my personal style and I feel strong about who I am. I don’t think of myself as a fashionable person. I don’t follow the fashion of today. I like clothes and I like style but I find my own style, which is not necessarily the fashion of today. I do something unusual for the fashion world to use – they don’t have many violinists that they use. It’s an unusual but kind of glamorous connection.
Surely you’ve had your share of wardrobe disasters?
I’ve had some weird clothes over the years, definitely. I remember once I wanted to have a suit that was purple with red stripes. I’m colour blind, you see. Everyone told me that was a really bad idea. I was like ‘No, it looks great. Let me wear it’. I used to go to this shop on Savile Row in London which made these clothes. He was a designer called Ozwald Boateng and he had very weird clothes that I used to love. I saw it differently than everyone else. This is before I got a tailor. For the past 10 years, I’ve had a tailor who makes all my clothes.
What are your top grooming and style tips?
For me, when I feel I’m my most elegant is when I’m clean, so make sure I shower and am wearing clean clothes that fit. The key to me is wearing clothes that fit you in a very complimentary way and are tailored particularly to your body shape. And also not to be wearing very flamboyant clothes so that everyone looks at the clothes and they don’t look at you. You don’t want people to just notice the clothes and not the person. I don’t like too many colours – I used to, I guess, but now I keep it simple.
Are you worried that people will notice you and not your music?
I don’t think about that because I am what I am. How people respond to me is beyond my control. I can’t do anything about that. So all I can do is be the best I can in what I do.
Charlie Siem and the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, November 21, 8pm, Hong Kong City Hall, 5 Edinburgh Place, Central. HK$200-HK$400 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2861 2156