When André Rieu was a child, his grandmother, who lived with his family, would listen to the radio and ask her grandson who was playing. “I would tell her, ‘It doesn’t matter who is playing, do you like it?’” Rieu recalls. “And she’d say, ‘Well, I have to know who is playing before I can answer.’ So that’s what I hated. It wasn’t about the music. It was only the name that made her love it. And that, in a nutshell, is what I’m trying to change with my music.”
Rieu has been wildly successful in his mission to broaden the appeal of classical music beyond the elites and share it with the masses. The Dutch-born violinist and orchestra leader, known as “The King of the Waltz,” is one of the best-selling classical musicians of all time, and one of the most popular musicians in Europe, period. He has sold over 40 million CDs and DVDs and notched 30 No. 1 chart positions worldwide. As leader of his own Johann Strauss Orchestra, the largest private orchestra in the world with 60 members, Rieu has played for more than 15 million people. In the first half of 2009, he was the world’s most successful male touring artist, and the sixth top-grossing live act just below U2, Madonna, and Bruce Springsteen, and above Britney Spears and Coldplay. That same year, Rieu played to his biggest audience ever, over 43,000 people in Melbourne.
Rieu and his orchestra play over 100 concerts a year and the performances are the kind of spectacle that only a born showman like the fun-loving Rieu could pull off. Over the years, his concerts have featured Mary Poppins flying over the audience, the sweet accompaniment of the Soweto Gospel Choir, and special guests like Jermaine Jackson and Sir Anthony Hopkins. At the end of the performance, thousands of balloons descend from above as the audience demands encore after encore. For his 2008 World Stadium Tour, Rieu traveled with a replica of Austria’s Imperial Palace, Schönbrunn. The set was 10 stories high and longer than a football field, and featured fountains, a skating rink, and a ballroom dance floor. A state carriage was covered in real gold. Even the champagne the costumed dancers sipped onstage was real, even though Rieu’s wife pointed out that sugar water would have been a lot cheaper to use. But Rieu hates fakery. To him, when something is fake, the concert becomes just a show. “What I do is not an act,” he says. “If we look like we are having fun on stage, it is because we are having fun.”
Like his idol Strauss, Rieu thumbs his nose at the conventions of classical music. During his concerts, he makes jokes, tells stories, and even indulges in a bit of slapstick comedy in between performing some of the most beautiful waltzes in the world, along with hits from musicals and films, and beloved popular and romantic songs from all decades. His audiences are wildly enthusiastic about the repertoire, with audience members jumping up to dance in the aisles, waltzing or forming conga lines, while others can be seen with tears rolling down their faces during the more moving moments. Last July, Rieu captured the magic of his concert experience by filming his annual summer performance in his hometown of Maastricht and broadcasting it live to cinemas throughout Europe. It became the first concert film to earn more than £1 million at the box office in a single day, beating a previous record set by One Direction.
Rieu fell in love with classical music at a young age. His father was a local orchestra conductor and young André would go watch him perform. “I must have been three years old when I first went to one of his concerts,” Rieu recalls. “There was somebody playing the violin, and that moment, I knew that was what I wanted to do, to make music.” He began lessons at five years old, attended conservatories in Holland and Belgium, and eventually performed with his father’s orchestra. But he was put off by the chilly, all-business attitude of his fellow musicians. “I was sitting there, very enthusiastic and ready to play, and all I felt around me was the union atmosphere,” he says. “Nobody spoke about the music. They were just sitting there complaining about it being too hot or too cold, or asking when the next holiday was.”
Knowing he wanted to do things differently, Rieu formed his first orchestra in 1978 and performed his first gigs in nursing homes, as well as at weddings and restaurants. “We were always ignored,” he says. “No record company wanted me. They said, ‘You’re playing waltzes? Please. Go home and play for your grandmother.’” It took Rieu ten years to get a record deal. He first broke through in Holland in 1994 when his version of Shostakovich’s “Waltz 2 from Jazz Suite No. 2” topped the pop chart. The media dubbed him The King of the Waltz and the moniker stuck. “My father, as an encore, often played Strauss waltzes,” Rieu says. “Sitting there as a small boy, watching the audience around me, they melted when they heard this music. The whole evening they’d been serious, listening to Rachmaninoff and Brahms and Beethoven. Then suddenly there was this sweet quarter rhythm, and they began to smile and sway and hum the melody. And I realized, ‘That is what life is about. We want to be in contact with each other.’ That’s what I’m trying to do even when I’m playing for 10,000 people.”
Clearly, Rieu has conquered Europe. He even lives in his own 15th century 27-room castle (where he took piano lessons as a child), which has its own recording studio, a travel agency, a kindergarten for the orchestra members’ children, and a complete atelier in which the costumes for his concerts are made. (The female orchestra members wear pastel silk ball gowns that Rieu designs himself.) His $3 million Stradivarius, built in 1732, has its own bodyguard. Now he is ready to set his sights on America. This fall, Rieu’s latest PBS special, featuring this summer’s annual concert from Maastricht, will air nationwide. He will also release a new album, Waltzing For Ever, featuring such classics as Strauss’ Blue Danube and Emperor waltzes, plus Roses From the South, Shostakovich’s Second Waltz, and the Moon River and Tennessee waltzes. In 2017, he will launch a major U.S. tour bringing his spectacular concert experience to American audiences.
“I love to play in America because the American people are very hungry,” Rieu says. “In Europe, we have a classical music tradition. But the beautiful thing about America is that there is no tradition. So people either love it or they don’t. And when they love it, they will travel thousands of miles in a car, like from Pensacola to Boston, to come to a concert. And I feel that when I’m on stage. They simply know that they can expect a beautiful evening that they will never forget.”