André Rieu: the King of Waltz
Two of his YouTube videos have been viewed more than ten million times, he has 1.6 million Facebook “likes” and 43,000 fans attended one of his concerts. But this is no pop or rock idol; this is André Rieu, the world’s most successful violinist and best-selling classical musician of all time.
The flamboyant, long-haired Dutch showman has become known as the King of the Waltz, a title originally given to Johann Strauss II.
Rieu owns the biggest private orchestra in the world, named the Johann Strauss Orchestra after his idol, and he has sold more than 40 million albums and CDs, earning 400 platinum awards.
His many followers will get an early Christmas present when Rieu returns to the Capital FM Arena in Nottingham. But they should not expect to see a repeat performance of last year’s concert.
“We are going to play a completely new programme,” says Rieu. “Every year I play my new programme for the first time for my audience in the UK.
“I am not going to tell you the pieces because it is a surprise every time. There will be some fantastic waltzes, music from film, opera, musicals – I think that’s what makes our concerts special: if you go to a symphonic concert, you know it’s going to be Beethoven’s 7th Symphony or Mahler’s 4th or a piano concerto by Mozart – you know every detail of the programme.
“Not in my concerts. The people who come to see us know that they are guaranteed a great time. We’re like one big family. For us and the audience the most important part is to have fun together.”
“We don’t work. We have fun.”
Rieu will be bringing with him about 60 members of his orchestra and chorus. The orchestra began in 1987 with 12 musicians and its size expanded as Rieu’s popularity grew. He says his success is a mix of many things.
“It’s the choice of repertoire, the communication with the audience and of course the fun we have on stage performing for our audiences.
“Every night we play with all our heart. We are 100% authentic. You can see the joy and love for what we are doing in the faces of all the musicians on stage. We don’t work. We have fun.”
Rieu stresses that fun is important for the people who attend his concerts as well as for the orchestra.
“I’ve had letters from people telling me they needed two weeks to come down after one of our concerts. That’s fantastic. That’s what making music is all about: feelings and giving joy to the world.”
André Léon Marie Nicolas Rieu was born in Maastricht on 1st October 1949. He took up the violin when he was five. One of his early recollections explains why he is so excited by the waltz.
“I heard my father conduct The Beautiful Blue Danube by Johann Strauss as an encore after a concert. He was a symphonic conductor and music director of the Limburg Sinfonie Orkest.
“Suddenly everyone in the audience started to smile, the atmosphere changed completely. It was full of smiles and joy. I immediately felt that this kind of music was magical, that it could make people happy and the whole world dance.”
Later, at university, he performed the Gold And Silver Waltz by Franz Lehár. Encouraged by the reaction, he decided to pursue the waltz form. He established the Maastricht Salon Orchestra and also became violinist with the Limburg Symphony Orchestra.
Seven years after starting the Johann Strauss Orchestra he got his big breakthrough, the 1994 album Strauss & Co. It reached number one in the chart in the Netherlands and stayed in the top ten for more than a year.
Since then Rieu has broken records all around the world. He was the first artist to have nine DVDs in the top ten in Australia; he won the album of the year award at the Classic BRITs three years in a row; and he beat Nigel Kennedy’s 20-year-old UK record by being the first artist to reach number two in the pop charts with a classical album. He also played for the Queen at the Royal Variety Performance.
Now Rieu employs 94 people, including a number of staff at his studio in Maastricht where his CDs and DVDs are recorded.
Classical music purists have not embraced Rieu’s populist style, so does he take pride in the fact that he is bringing the genre to new audiences?
“No, because that’s not what I am aiming for. I am not a missionary for classical music – I just believe that classical music should not just be for an elite.
“My music is for everyone, for people from all nations, for young and old, the professor or the cleaning lady.
“Every night I see thousands of happy faces in the audience, people smiling and dancing and that, believe me, you will never find at symphonic concerts. I love to bring out emotions in people and give them a night they will never forget.”
On stage the Flying Dutchman who plays a 1732 Stradivarius sees himself as an entertainer as well as a conductor and violinist. He aims to communicate with his audience, making jokes and inviting them to dance. He loves big crowds and does not miss the intimacy that comes with playing in front of a smaller audience.
“I look people in the eye and I really do see everything that’s going on in the audience.”
“I did not start playing to huge numbers of people, you know. I began playing in old-age homes, small theatres and tiny concert halls when I was a student.
“Now 80,000 people come to Maastricht every year for our open-air concerts. The biggest one we’ve played was to a crowd of 43,000 at Melbourne Stadium. It’s unbelievable how much energy you get from that kind of a cheering crowd.”
No wonder, then, that Rieu and his entourage which includes cooks, a doctor and a fitness trainer perform 100 concerts a year. He will have been to Chile, Peru, Mexico, Turkey and France before his UK tour which culminates in two nights at Wembley Arena.
The day before he arrives in Nottingham he will be in Birmingham; the day after in Manchester. It does not give him time to explore the attractions of Nottingham, although he fondly remembers last year’s concert.
“The audience was great – we had a fantastic time. My mother always said ‘don’t look people in the eye’. But that’s what I do, I look people in the eye and I really do see everything that’s going on in the audience. Be aware (laughs).”
Despite being hugely successful, Rieu has none of the traits people might expect of a superstar. He cites The Sound Of Music as his favourite film, he rewards himself with chocolate and likes “from time to time a good glass of Bordeaux”.
“I’m always with my orchestra – I never travel separate from them. It’s my second family and a fun group to be with. I enjoy touring. I’m really having a great time when I’m on tour. It’s so fantastic to see all those people enjoying what we do and after three hours going home with a smile on their faces. I’m a happy man because I have the most beautiful job I can imagine. But I also enjoy being home and spending time with my wife and family.”
Family is the most important factor in Rieu’s success. He has been married for 40 years to Marjorie, a former teacher. They have two sons, Marc, a painter, and Pierre who is vice-president of André Rieu Productions. André and Marjorie also have four grandchildren, three of whom have already started playing the violin.
“I always wanted to marry someone whom I not only loved but with whom I could work. Without Marjorie my dream of travelling the world with my own orchestra would not have come true. And for this I will always be grateful.”
“I like the Roman philosopher Seneca’s approach: luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”
Has luck played any part in his success?
“Absolutely. But I like the Roman philosopher Seneca’s approach to that: ‘luck is when preparation meets opportunity’.”
After three weeks off at Christmas, the André Rieu juggernaut will roll on for six months to countries including Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. Is there anywhere else he’d like to perform?
“I’d love to play on the moon one day. It must be very romantic!”
* This article appeared in the November 2015 edition of Country Images magazine