The King of the Waltz André Rieu in an interview
BY LARA VIRIOT
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2018)
A captivating atmosphere, an enthusiastic audience and thunderous applause – a musician really can’t imagine anything more wonderful than this. Each of his concerts is a genuine experience. Without a doubt, the Dutch violinist André Rieu is one of the great and outstanding personalities of the worldwide music scene. The unforgettable summer evening concerts in André’s home town of Maastricht rank among the musical highlights each year. With us, he discusses the beginnings of his career and the importance of his family.
Mr Rieu, you have been playing violin since you were five years of age. How has your passion for music evolved over the years?
The passion for music was always there. My father was a conductor, and all of my brothers and sisters – there were six of us – played several instruments. As a child, I myself learned to play the oboe, piano, flute and violin. But I developed a special love for the violin at a very early age. I think it is the most romantic of the instruments. There was just one time, in my early 20s, when I wanted to quit playing. That’s when I went and caught up on puberty with Marjorie, my later wife. We were both raised in very strict surroundings – at home, there was only classical music. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones: all of that had passed me by.
Marjorie and I dressed up in hippie clothes and wanted to open a pizzeria. We were going to call the most expensive pizza on the menu ‘Pizza Paganini’, and I was going to play whenever it was served. But for Paganini, you have to practice! So, I took up the violin again, and we’ve been waiting for the pizzeria to open ever since.
Classical music is said to have a soothing and pleasant effect on people. What impressions have you gathered in this regard?
I do not distinguish between classical music and pop music in this respect. There are also soothing and pleasant pop songs, wonderful ballads such as ‘The Rose’ by Bette Midler or ‘Smile’ by Charlie Chaplin. And classical music includes works that are far from soothing. What’s important to me is whether a piece, a melody, touches my heart. Not whether it has been written by Mozart or Verdi, Michael Jackson or Andrew Lloyd Webber. I don’t think in terms of pigeon holes at all. At my concerts, I invite people to sing along, laugh, cry or dance, and I think that is one of the reasons for the success we have had for many years. I’m proud when people write to tell me they needed two weeks to ‘come back down’ after one of my concerts. Emotions are the most important thing.
How and when did you come up with the idea of creating an orchestra of your own?
I founded my first ensemble of five musicians in 1978, and in 1987 the Johann Strauss Orchestra with whom I still perform. I wanted to create my own sound and play the waltzes of Johann Strauss. I needed a larger orchestra to do that. I started with 12 musicians; today we take the stage with more than 60 people. It is the largest private orchestra in the world. I have 120 permanent employees – but no manager. I’m the boss, but I’m also a kind of ‘father’. This is a great responsibility, of course. I need around a million each month to cover the fixed costs if we don’t perform. And even more if we do perform. But many of my musicians have been travelling around the world with me for more than 20 years. We are a big family.
Your wife and children are part of your orchestra’s management. What does it mean to you to work so closely with your family?
A great deal! I always wanted a wife with whom I would not only be happy on a personal level but with whom I could work together professionally as well. Even at the breakfast table, we are already discussing programmes and concerts and coming up with new ideas. My son Pierre is Vice President of André Rieu Productions and has founded two companies of his own: André Rieu Travel and Piece of Magic. Piece of Magic is the organiser of cinema broadcasts of my concerts. On 28th and 29th July, my open-air concert in Maastricht can once again be viewed in 2,000 cinemas worldwide, including in Germany. It is wonderful to be able to reach people who cannot come to us. We really are a true family-run business.
You have been described as the modern day King of the Waltz, and you yourself have said you live life in three-four time. Why are you so moved by the waltz, of all things?
I heard my first waltz as a little child. My father was the music director of the Limburger Symphony Orchestra, and as an encore he enjoyed playing ‘The Blue Danube’, by Johann Strauss. The atmosphere in the theatre would then suddenly change. People smiled, and I could sense that this kind of music moves people. It’s due to the three-four time, the delightful melodies. A waltz can be cheerful and melancholy at the same time. And, of course, very romantic. Waltzes sound so easy, but they’re very difficult to play.
Which is your personal favourite, and why?
I think ‘The Blue Danube’. I play this waltz at each of my concerts all around the world, and the people dance to it wherever we go. The diversity of melody is unique, as is the musical structure. The ‘Danube’ is probably the most famous waltz in the world.
You are one of the world’s last Stradivarius violinists. Would you please tell us the story of how you came to own your violin? How did you know it was ‘yours’?
There are around 400 Stradivarius violins worldwide, and as soon as word gets out that a violinist has some money, he or she is offered one for sale. My first stemmed from the year 1687, one of the earliest instruments that Stradivarius built. But it was too small for me, so I sold it again. The one I play now was built in 1732 and is one of the latest instruments. It is perfect. Its sound always reminds me a little of Maria Callas, with a very warm, passionate sound.
The first time you played a Stradivarius, what was it like?
It was fantastic! Every violinist dreams of playing a Stradivarius someday. I had already owned very nice old violins before, but I can remember this special moment to this day. It was as if I was finally holding a long-sought treasure in my hands. You never want to give it back, either.
What is your relationship with your violin?
Despite my love for the Stradivarius, I do not see myself as its owner but rather as a custodian for a generation to come. On the other hand, one mustn’t overrate it. After all, it’s ‘just’ a violin. People – my family and colleagues – are much more important.
In July you will be hosting the popular summer evening concerts in your home town of Maastricht for the 14th year in a row. What significance does this major event have for you?
The Maastricht open-airs in July are the concert highlight of the year for my orchestra and me. I always wanted to perform in my home town, on this medieval square, the Vrijthof. The atmosphere is truly romantic. We will be performing 13 concerts for the first time this year; this is a new record. We are expecting audiences of 150,000, from more than 80 nations – so you can imagine what this means for the hotels and restaurants. They love me! It will be incredibly beautiful. There is a special guest each year, too. In recent years, they have included Jermaine Jackson, David Hasselhoff or Lou Bega with his hit, ‘Mambo No. 5’.
Where do you get your inspiration for your stage
programme? How do you plan performances on such a scale?
I develop the programme together with my wife. We now have a repertoire of more than 1000 pieces, and naturally we are adding new ones all the time. I select the music based on my feeling. If something touches my heart, it will touch yours, too. Many of the works we play are world-renowned, such as the ‘Ballade pour Adeline’ or the ‘Hallelujah’ by Handel. Others are works concert-goers will be hearing for the first time, such as the wonderful Chinese folk song ‘Shanghai Tan’.
Unlike many classical concerts, the atmosphere at your performances is always open and fun. How do you manage to captivate the audience? And why is this so important to you?
I used to play in a symphony orchestra, and I always wondered why these concerts need to be so serious. Why do all the musicians wear black and look so serious? Why does everything have to be so elitist? Classic music is for everyone. There once was a time when people would whistle the songs from Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ on the streets. Then came this separation came into ‘U and E music’ (music for entertainment and serious music) – a distinction that only exists in Germany, incidentally. In 2009, we played before 38,000 people in the stadium in Melbourne, the largest concert of my career. I want to offer my viewers something for all the senses. To do this, we also have beautiful costumes, beautiful lighting, and, of course, the joy of performing music. I don’t work – I have fun. When I see the delighted faces of my audience, I’m happy.
What musical dreams do you have? Are there certain people you would enjoy working with?
Yes! I’m a big fan of Bruce Springsteen. I’d also like to give a concert on the moon. So, if Richard Branson opens his hotel there, I’ll be the first person to perform there.
André Rieu was born in Maastricht, the Netherlands, in 1949 and received his first violin lessons at the age of five. He founded the Johann Strauss Orchestra in 1987. With more than half a million tickets per year and 40 million CDs and DVDs sold, the King of the Waltz is one of the most successful artists of our time. André Rieu has been married to Marjorie Rieu since 1975. The couple have two sons and five grandchildren.
This year’s Maastricht Open Air will be held from 4th until 22nd July at the Vrijthof in Maastricht. The Open Air can also be viewed on 28th and 29th July in 2000 cinemas around the world.
Picture credit © André Rieu Productions/Meine Musik, mein Leben