Maastricht University in the Netherlands, I wanted to learn all I could about this southern city along the Belgian border. Naturally, I turned to Google.When my daughter, Natalie, age 20, announced that she'd be studying abroad this fall at
"Uh, what?" said Natalie, not a violinist. "Who is this?"
Honestly, I didn't have a quick explanation there, either. In fact, what was I so excited about? I'd certainly heard of the enormously popular Dutch violinist André Rieu, but being such a noodle-head classical music wonk, I'm probably not the direct target market for his show. It seems more like something out of Disney World than out of Disney Hall.
But wait, I like Disney World.
As soon as Natalie arrived in Maastricht, she saw what I meant. She started sending pictures to her Violinist.Mom: Andre Rieu in the student guidebook; a painting of Andre Rieu (as a peacock) in the café; and just last week - a train from Germany to the Netherlands labeled "Andre Rieu."
Not only that, I discovered that Rieu was about to visit Los Angeles, where I live. This Sunday! I decided that the stars were aligned: it was time to talk with André Rieu.
After all, Rieu is a violinist who has achieved an astonishing level of popularity - as well as wealth - performing and recording waltzes and related music. He travels the world with his Johann Strauss Orchestra, a 50-member ensemble which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. At age 68, Rieu still performs some 100 concerts a year, to enormous audiences. For example, his Sunday performance in Los Angeles is completely sold out -- that's for the 7,100-seat Microsoft Theater. His website says he plays to 700,000 people a year, and the math would affirm that. The sets for his shows are elaborate; over the years they have included things such as ice rinks, fountains and ballroom floors. The ladies in the orchestra wear colorful ball gowns; orchestra members sit on golden chairs. There are dancers and other performers. Beyond his shows, he's sold more than 40 million record albums. About 2.4 million people "like" his Facebook page, and his YouTube videos have tens of millions of views.
I got in touch through his publicist in the Netherlands, and we had a lovely email exchange, which you will see below. I'm hoping to go to his concert on Sunday - if I can get in!
Laurie: I understand that you started playing the violin at age five -- what made you want to play?
André: I grew up in a musical family: my father was a conductor for several symphony orchestras, and all my sisters and brothers used to play one or more instruments. My mother chose the violin as the most suitable for me - and she was right! Ever since I heard the romantic sound of that instrument, I fell in love with it and the love never stopped. It even grew and grew, and meanwhile, my violin and I are inseparable.
Laurie: You have famously stated that Gold und Silber by Franz LeHar is the waltz that inspired your love for the waltz. Do you remember the first time you heard it or played it? What about it was so special to you?
André: After my father performed the music announced on the program, he used to give an encore. Now and then, it was a waltz. My mother took all her children into her husbands' concerts and it was during one of them - while my father and the orchestra played the Beautiful Blue Danube or Gold und Silber - I noticed something extraordinary. The people in the audience, sitting absolutely still and quiet in their chairs the whole evening, suddenly began to move their bodies a little bit. I was amazed! Could that be caused by the music my father played? Apparently!
A waltz is a special type of composition: when written well, it encaptures every emotion like love, understanding, harmony, melancholy... everything! Besides that, I think musical education is important and waltzing is very healthy. May be I sound like a doctor but I'm convinced that a waltz a day, will keep the doctor away!
Laurie: I noticed that dance is an important part of your performances, and you dance as well. Was dance a part of your upbringing? What made you become interested in dance, and then in incorporating it in your shows?
André: People of my age all took dance lessons. As a matter of fact, it was part of the education. I never had any dance lessons by the way, I was raised quite strictly. In the beginning of my career, when I had this Maastricht Salon Orchestra (consisting of only five members including myself), I was too shy to say anything. Therefore, the girl at the cello grabbed the microphone and told the audience: "Come on, let's dance a little bit." That's how it started. And let's be honest; it is rather difficult NOT to move when you hear all this beautiful dance music, don't you agree?
Laurie: Can you tell me about your Stradivarius? I found two different dates for it (1667 and 1732) so I wondered, when was it made? Strads are so rare and hard to find, how did it come into your hands, and when? What made you decide that you must have it? Do you know its story, the people who played it before you?
André: I used to play on the 1667 Stradivarius, an instrument the man made during his engagement with his future wife. The same love he felt for her, he somehow put in that instrument. You can hear that! Nowadays, it's the 1732 violin I play on. Although I don't know the previous owners, I am convinced that they all treated her (I mean the violin) with love and respect - that's also how one should treat a woman. The building process of the Stradivarius violins took years and years. When I do a little bit of math, I noticed that the trees for the wood of the Stradivarius instruments had to be put in the soil during Columbus' discovery of the New World. That makes it even more special for me to have the privilege to play on one of those violins.
Laurie:: I'm a classically trained violinist, but in college I played in the Walt Disney World Orchestra in Florida. We wore costumes (not as pretty as yours though!), smiled on stage, encouraged audience participation, played show tunes as well as classical, and generally more show-business. It really got me thinking about the nature of show business. I'm guessing you played and saw a lot of traditional orchestra concerts before you started your own. When did you start thinking about things like costumes? Why did this become important to you?
André: This is an evolutional process. My Johann Strauss Orchestra celebrates its 30th anniversary this year: in the beginning, back in the 80s, we all (the men but also the women!) used to wear black clothes. That was very dull and gloomy. Slowly, I began to take care of the decoration of the stage. I had in my mind that "golden" chairs would have such a nicer appearance than the regular ones. Then the dresses of the ladies followed, as well as the complete decorum. My concerts should be a feast for every sense, not only the ears but also the eyes, for example.
Laurie: What makes for a good show? What are the most important ingredients that make it work for the audience? What do you think are the ingredients that people most often leave out, when a show doesn't work?
André: I don't know why some shows don't work; in my case, the magical word is authenticity. My orchestra members and I, we all believe in the magical power of music. We feel every note we play, and then we try to translate that feeling to the audience. We all love these wonderful compositions, and it may be be that that love and authenticity are things that sometimes are hard to find in other classical concerts.
Laurie:I actually have a new connection to your hometown of Maastricht -- just last week I sent my daughter Natalie to the Netherlands -- she is 20 and will be an exchange student at Maastricht University for this entire academic year. It made me curious, what makes Maastricht such a magical place? Is there something about Maastricht that gave you these big dreams and Romantic ideas? That fed your ambition and your artistic sense?
André: Maastricht is the oldest city in the Netherlands: I was born there and I will spend my whole life in this city. Remains of all ages can be found throughout the town. Some murals from a Roman temple, beautiful churches from the Middle Ages (complete with treasure rooms), ruins from the period Napoleon ruled Europe. Even the castle I live in dates back from 1534. Rumor says that the famous musketeer D'Artagnan had his last breakfast there! It's a historical fact that he died in front of the city walls, so it might be true! I hope your daughter will have a great time in Maastricht!
Laurie: You are living proof that classical music can have wide appeal. Many people would love to replicate that popularity for other aspects of classical music -- do you think it is possible? How can we go about doing that?
André: As long as you believe in what you are doing, then everything is possible. Don't see classical music as an art form meant for the elite only, it is composed for all of us to enjoy. Mozart was a pop star during his life; I am sure that, when he would live in the 21st century, posters of him would be the decoration of many girls' bedrooms. He would be on selfies daily and the 'likes' and tags on Facebook would be uncountable!
BELOW: André Rieu's favorite waltz, Gold und Silber, played at one of his shows.
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