André Rieu: This man’s music could kill you

The Times

March 27, 2013


Fake snow — raggedly torn plastic — is falling in the stadium outside Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The crowd, mainly aged 60 and older, is loving it. Three tenors, not the Three Tenors obviously but still there’s a big one, a little one and a doughy one, have done a glitzy, bombastic Nessun Dorma. There is much humming and swaying and murmurs of “Oooo” at every familiar tune. There are tuxedoed men in the Dutch violinist and conductor André Rieu’s orchestra, but they are rendered merely commas in the sea of tangerine, green, hot pink and yellow balldresses worn, busts emphasised, by female musicians who resemble the orchestral equivalent of the Stepford Wives.

Tonight in Fort Lauderdale he is the leering, jokey ringmaster, conducting and playing the violin. He leads chants of “Ooppdeeaay” to Schneewalzer, the Snow Waltz, by Thomas Koschat. As the “snow” flutters down, someone cries “He’s having a stroke!” and a man is taken away by paramedics. At the end of the tune a thundercloud of “snow” descends, to ecstatic cheers.

Schneewalzer is only part of three hours of Viennese waltzery and standards. Among the musical treats are The Blue Danube, the Habanera from Carmen, Ravel’s Boléro and the old Richard Clayderman hit Ballade pour Adeline (Rieu: “Look into your wives’ eyes and pretend you are 30 years younger”).

Against an electronically reproduced backdrop of a European village, Rieu makes a heartfelt proclamation in halting English about the “healing” power of music — even though someone has just been stretchered out. By the end there are couples dancing in the aisles, seven encores, balloons and The Stars and Stripes Forever. This is kitsch with four Jeff Koons cherries on top. As audience member Avram Machtiger says: “Take that, Lady Gaga. He’s bringing opera to the American mass audience, putting otherwise inaccessible music from the 1700s on stage and making it infectious, silly.”

Rieu’s records feature in both classical and pop Top Tens. His orchestra’s 2012 tour ranked tenth in the world according to Billboard, the music trade magazine, grossing £34 million and beating Elton John and Justin Bieber. With his marmalade-coloured mullet, the 63-year-old musician has sold 35 million albums and more than 700,000 fans attend his shows every year. Now Sky Arts 2 is to become Sky Arts Rieu, showing his concerts continuously for a fortnight. Rieu admits to feeling “a bit ashamed. It was their idea. I hope people will not vomit me out. Maybe it is too much, but there is a button on your TV and it’s good nobody shares the same tastes. There is choice.”

In Fort Lauderdale it is total Rieulove. Mike Haftel, from the nearby town of Aventura, says: “He plays and directs with heart and emotion. I prefer easy listening to classical music and he bridges them.” Robin Meehan, here with her 3-year-old granddaughter Anna, who’s dressed as a princess, liked “how he includes us. Just to hear this makes me want to go to Europe.”

The next morning Rieu and his son Pierre, his manager, are packing for his next concert, in Arizona. “I’m looking for interaction,” Rieu says. “My mother said: ‘Don’t look into people’s eyes, it’s not polite.’ She found it too intimate. I’m the opposite of that. I want contact. I want warmth, not to be alone on stage.”

Touring is “a holiday”; work is when he has to go home and strategise. His £2.5 million 1732 Stradivarius is “in London, being restored like a painting, with ultra-violet light”, so he is playing an £8,500 violin here. “People make romantic stories about violinists and their violins, but to me it is just a violin.”

There is too much distance between the typical classical performer and the audience, he says. Rieu’s father was a conductor and the young Rieu was used to seeing the “lonely soloist. I didn’t want that. People come to my concerts to share the evening with me. It’s a sort of love.” Doctors send letters saying his music goes “much deeper than their treatment”.

Someone collapsed last night, I say. He laughs, not cruelly. “Things like that happen very often during my concerts. It’s true: I kill people with my music. I started with a small orchestra. We would go into ‘elder’ homes and every time someone died. I find it very sad. I can do nothing.”

Pierre interjects: “For them it is the best way to die. Many of these people go out once a year and look forward so much to it. Suddenly they are dancing to The Blue Danube and it is just too much.” Rieu’s father was a conductor as a dad, too. “He was very strict, not pleasant. We did not have a warm relationship. He wasn’t very loving.” He has “tried to be different” with his sons, Pierre and Marc. Pierre shouts that he is “very warm, I think he wants to be everything but his parents”.

After learning to play piano Rieu switched to the classical violin. “The Rolling Stones and Beatles were not in the household of Rieu. And a mini-skirt, my God . . . It was forbidden, they were very severe Catholics.”

Rieu attended conservatoires: “I was very disciplined, you have to be for this life. I was not going out drinking, I was working and studying.” The orchestras he knew through his father “had troubles, I knew there was another way to make music”. He formed the Johann Strauss Orchestra in 1987 with 12 members; it now has around 80. “I am not a dictator, they put their trust in me. I am hard and nice. Some of them have been with me for 25 years. I avoid problems with humour.”

After concerts he insists the orchestra eats together and winds down. “We approach every concert fresh. We never take anything for granted. I’m always nervous, concentrated.”

His father didn’t approve of Rieu playing old people’s homes – “I didn’t educate you to do that” — but lived to see his son’s first success and told him to “go on with it”. Rieu’s “luck” was to meet his wife Marjorie when he was 11 and she, a friend of his sister, 13. They fell in love at 25: “I knew she was what I was looking for.” They “experienced puberty” together in their 20s (her parents were also severe Catholics), when he recalls wearing earrings and “Beatles clothing” for the first time. The couple now live in the castle in Maastricht he learnt to play piano in as a boy — not as big, he laughs, as the castle in the Tintin stories that made him fall in love with castles.

Onstage Rieu flirts and casts lascivious glances at the female orchestra members and three female soloists, one of whom, the soprano Kimmy Skota, he calls “the black diamond” (she is from South Africa). “It’s a performance. I’m there with a violin playing waltzes. What should I do, kick them away?” Is it non-sexual? “Of course.” He misses his wife and grandchildren when he is away. What about dressing the women like sex-bomb Heidi milk-maids? “I’m a man, so I like to look at beautiful women with beautiful décolleté. I design the dresses myself.” That sounds like sexual objectification. “Yeah it is, but I am honest. She must be happy with the colour and form. I don’t say ‘You have to do that deeper’ [in the chest] if she doesn’t want it. When I need new musicians I ask the women: ‘Do you want to wear a dress and do your hairand make-up like this?’ If they refuse they cannot play in my orchestra.”

Rieu says critics who accuse him of debasing classical music are won over by his orchestra, and that Pavarotti and Nigel Kennedy faced similar barbs. “I am using my music education. I think I am doing a good thing. Millions of people are listening to Verdi and Mozart who would never have done that. I don’t understand record companies wanting ‘younger, younger, younger’. What is bad about old people, especially when studies show so many people growing older in good health? I feel young.”

Fans follow him “all over the world”; women give him flowers, letters and presents such as little gold violins. He gets scared when they turn up at his castle, though: “I don’t speak to them.”

A Romantic Night With André Rieu, Rieu’s next album, will feature his versions of songs including Abba’s I Have A Dream, the Beatles’ Yesterday, Edith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose and On My Own from Les Misérables. He likes pop music ; Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson and Madonna are favourites. Would he like to work with Adele? “Why not? She has a strong, beautiful voice.” Rieu is “living my dream” of creating an orchestra and travelling the world. “It proves my way of approaching classical music is right. People like it.” And then he is off, for plastic snow in Arizona.