New Classical Tracks - Charlie Siem: Keeping It Fresh

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
November 1, 2011
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St. Paul, Minn. — This past year Charlie Siem has performed with rock artist Bryan Adams, he became the global face of the Alfred Dunhill fashion label, he modeled for Vogue magazine, and he serenaded Lady Gaga at her Fashion Icon Award party in New York. Charlie Siem enjoys his rock-and-roll lifestyle; however, his real passion is classical music. Siem is a 25-year-old British violinist who was first inspired to travel the classical route at age three, after hearing Yehudi Menuhin play Beethoven's violin concerto. Now he plays a Guarneri violin that belonged to Yehudi Menuhin and he's just released his second recording, featuring one of the most beloved works in the Romantic violin repertoire, Max Bruch's Violin concerto No. 1, and two lesser-known works by Henryk Wieniawski and Ole Bull.

Charlie Siem has basically grown up with Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1. It was the first concerto he ever played with an orchestra, at age 15. Siem never tires of this work. "Whenever I play the Bruch," he explains, "I try to view it with fresh eyes." He always tries to bring out a different tone or color. This concerto, Charlie Siem believes, has earned its halo in the violin repertoire, with its thrilling blend of bravura technique and its passionate melody. That exciting combination is heard right away in the first movement as Siem luxuriates his way through the solo passages. The luscious adagio is the heart of this concerto. Charlie Siem's tender phrasing is enhanced by a slight vibrato as he soars into the gorgeous orchestral climax. The flashy finale is dramatic, yet not overdone. Charlie Siem's passionate approach to this technically challenging movement makes it even more rewarding to listen to.

Henryk Wieniawski was a 19th century violin virtuoso and a teacher. He wrote some of the most difficult works in the violin repertoire including two incredibly daunting concertos. The great Polish violinist Ida Haendel commented that Paganini's concertos were "child's play in comparison" to those by his contemporary Wieniawski. Charlie Siem was first asked to play the Violin Concerto No. 1 for a concert in King's College Chapel at Cambridge. He was excited by the challenge, but soon discovered it was a "monster" to perform. The composer wrote it for his own performance when he was just 18 years old, a testament to his talents as a young virtuoso. The first movement is a lengthy tour de force. According to Charlie Siem, one of the biggest challenges is to bring out the true value of the other two movements. The finale has the feel of a playful Polish dance, and there's a delightful interplay between soloist and orchestra.

One reason I first popped this recording into the CD player was because it features an obscure work by the 19th century Norwegian violinist Ole Bull. Bull was a very charismatic soloist who had an exciting international career. His reputation at the time rivaled that of the great Italian virtuoso Nicolo Paganini. While he was researching Ole Bull, Charlie Siem also discovered that his own Norwegian roots trace back to his long-standing hero. Now that he has this personal connection, Siem is even more thrilled to be bringing this forgotten work to the forefront. Bull was primarily a self-taught violinist who grew up in a poor region of Norway. The charming innocence of this "Cantabile doloroso e Rondo giocoso" for violin and orchestra seems to reflect those simple origins.

Charlie Siem is a young, charismatic violinist who's shaking up the world of classical music. Performing with rock stars and appearing in fashion shoots, he's exploring unconventional avenues that reach new audiences. On his latest recording he shares a beloved concerto upon which he built his foundation as a young violinist. He also introduces us to a couple of lesser-known works from the 19th century violin repertoire, which may now gain some well-deserved attention.

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