Critic Lambasts Violinist Charles Siem in Excessive Times Review

Who is Zachary Wolfe to flame a violinist so?

Even if true, the language seems dyspeptic

Is Wolfe too young/hot to be reasonable?

This shattering review of the unfortunate British violinist was a shock to all sensitive Times readers today. Let’s hope that Siem dosn’t take it to heart, or his career in New York City will be over. (Actually, Siem is well equipped to slide past it, see below).

It raises the question, can such a lambasting ever be truly merited, given the subjective nature of anyone’s response to music, even a seasoned critic’s? And isn’t it a fact that every musical experience is variable according to the time it occurs, since all critics are human and their constitution – energy, mood, concentration, and so on – imposes change on their perceptions of any work from one day to another, however objective they try to be?

Also, surely by definition nothing by a professional with a reputation can be as bad as Wolfe implies, can it?

We think that Wolfe is lucky that the Times didn’t run a comment thread on his masterwork. We also wonder, how old is he?

But the review is very well written, so it deserves a place here for all to ponder.

June 26, 2012
Impeccably Dressed, With His Violin at the Ready
The British violinist Charlie Siem, 25, has courted attention far beyond the standard classical music circles.

He has played for Lady Gaga. He has appeared in burnished black-and-white advertisements for Dunhill, the luxury goods company. In January he was seated next to the pop star Joe Jonas at the Calvin Klein men’s show in Milan.

His face — a handsome mixture of boyish softness and strong jaw — makes Mr. Siem a natural fit for the fashion world. And his stylishly snug suits are small miracles of tailoring.

There’s nothing wrong with marketing, or with building bridges between classical music and broader culture. But a musician needs to back up his promotional prowess with skill, and at Mr. Siem’s recital on Monday at Le Poisson Rouge with the pianist Kyoung Im Kim, there was a dumbfounding gap between his retro suavity and the ineptitude of his playing.

His intonation, passagework and tone were simply ugly in two works that are stale enough when played well. The first movement of Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 2 features flowing arpeggios that Mr. Siem labored over; in the elegiac second movement he lacked any discernible emotion at all. In the third movement, a folksy Sarabande, Mr. Siem teetered on the edge of charm but saved himself with the frigid calculation of his phrasing.

Dramatically spotlighted throughout the concert, Mr. Siem favored an equally dramatic effect: sudden drops in volume. But when he reduced his sound to a whisper in Vieuxtemps’s Concerto No. 5, it came out more like a rasp. His cadenzas had fitfulness rather than flair, and when he tried to sweeten his tone, it felt ersatz, closer to Splenda than pure cane.

Mr. Siem offered, as encores, more or less messy interpretations of three of the oldest tricks in the book: Kreisler’s “Caprice Viennois,” Heifetz’s transcription of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and Monti’s “Czardas,” the piece he played for Lady Gaga. As in the Vieuxtemps and Ysaÿe, there is not a lot of musical interest here, but there are opportunities for the kind of charismatic virtuosity that Mr. Siem lacks.

Many conservatory students in New York could have put on a more interesting and polished concert, even without a fancy suit.

Charles is Eton, Oxford and probably immune

Here’s a bit of background on Siem, who seems armor plated against such rudeness from some American hack. It’s from Wickham Boyle’s blog at

IF MUSIC IS THE FOOD OF LOVE, may Charlie Siem play on. A one-man argument that there is an instrument sexier than the saxophone, Siem has managed to bridge the classical world with the cutting edge. He has played with the London Symphony Orchestra—with whom he recently released his third recording—and he’s performed with Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and Boy George. He’s privately serenaded the likes of Lady Gaga, Patti LaBelle and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, and he’s the face (and body) of the British fashion house Dunhill.

Not bad for a 25-year-old whose instrument of seduction is a circa 1735 Guarneri del Gesu d’Eguille violin.

Siem, who was educated at Eton and Oxford, remembers being 3 years old and hearing his first Beethoven violin concerto on the radio. The London native begged his parents to learn to play, and he has never looked back. He rakishly describes the relationship with his violin as one with a lover: “She is an intense mistress. My life is consumed by playing the violin. It requires unending attention from me, and I so happily give it. Day in and day out, for now it is the most rewarding relationship in my life.”

Which isn’t to say Siem doesn’t dabble here and there. After meeting the fashion photographer Mario Testino, he was asked to play at a book party for supermodel Kate Moss. “I went and played Paganini’s Caprice, and as luck would have it the casting agent from Dunhill was at the party. He asked me to do the campaign and that’s it. Really, it’s random.”

Perhaps random if you look like that. Yet Siem seems unfazed by the notoriety in his native England, thanks to what he calls a “watertight mind.” Siem explains, “It’s basically the idea that you don’t let anything creep in to corrupt. The slightest little drop of water will creep in and ruin the entire temple. All it takes is the glimmer of a doubt to creep in and ruin the entire project. You seal up your mind so that you don’t let insecurities or personal issues ruin the overall well-being.”

Siem has faced criticism for his theatrical playing style, which he calls “the virtuosic side of the violin,” but it is wrought from endless practice. “I am at the beginning of my career where you develop your technique and add tools,” he says humbly. But his modesty masks a determination that would make the most ambitious pop star proud: Inside his violin case is a photograph of the eyes of a tiger, which remind him to stay the course.

“They are a metaphor for me as a performer dealing with pressure. Just see the eyes of the tiger,” he says. “Go to the edge of risk. When you feel at your most challenged is when you will do your very best. It is the challenge to overcome your biggest fears, which are also your biggest desires.”

The well educated Siem and his “watertight mind” seems unlikely to be disturbed by Wolfe’s broadside, and one begins to see what might be the problem here. If Siem is a rock star as well as a classicist and his style is “theatrical” one can imagine a purist classical critic finding his approach distasteful, and ignoring the fact that the Romantic era is not so long ago.

It may even be time for its comeback, given the increasing sterility of relationships via digital media.

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