At 69, the classical music juggernaut that is André Léon Marie Nicolas Rieu shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, 2018 has been the Dutch violinist and conductor’s most successful year to date, with more than 700,000 tickets sold to his concerts worldwide. Who would have thought that the King of the Waltz would outsell Rihanna, Bruno Mars, and AC/DC in the 21st century?
Along with the globetrotting touring schedule, Rieu has sold more than 40 million CDs and DVDs in an era where other fewer and fewer people are buying discs, and has charted more than 30 number one hits. He founded his Johann Strauss Orchestra in 1987, and went on to build an empire out of a worldwide classical music touring act. Some 50 to 60 musicians, along with singers and other guest artists, go on the road with him each year.
We caught up to the busy Maestro to find out what keeps him crisscrossing the world with the waltz.
After a long and successful career, what is it that keeps you going with such a busy recording and touring schedule? Is it the music itself, or perhaps the audience reaction — or both?
Indeed, it is a combination of several factors. First of all, it is the wonderful music that has magical and healing powers. It sounds crazy but I always say to people: “A waltz a day keeps the doctor away!” Magical powers because people all around the world start dancing, wherever we perform. The atmosphere during our concerts is quite unique, I suppose. Probably because I allow the complete range of emotions. And yes, when I see all those happy smiles and dancing people in front of me, that is one of the secret ingredients of our success. These things kept me going for the last thirty years, and I hope they will keep me going for many years to come.
What can audiences expect musically and visually from the new movie, filmed in Sydney?
My concerts are a feast and a treat for all the senses. Audiences can expect a wonderful concert with delicious music: there will be delightful waltzes, well-known arias from musicals and operas, melodies from movies and so much more. This all will be performed by the Johann Strauss Orchestra, dancers, several sopranos and the Platin Tenors, who tour with me for more than 15 years now.
After so many years of big crowds and top 10 album sales, to what do you attribute that level of success? Clearly, you are making a connection with audiences — is it the music, perhaps as an antithesis of modern life? The concert atmosphere?
I think there are a couple of ingredients for this level of success. Indeed, there is a connection with the audience, I am convinced of the fact that classical music is meant for everybody to enjoy, not just for the elite as some might think. I can see men and women from 0 to 100 at my concerts, and my music seems to unite people too. There are friendships that started years and years ago, and those people still meet — also when I’m not having a concert, [laughs].
I’ve read in other interviews where you have linked the violin to the idea of romance — and that your mother chose the instrument for you at age five. Did you respond immediately to the sound as a way of expressing feeling in music? Or was that something you learned along the way?
As you probably know, I was born in a classical family: my father was a symphony orchestra conductor and all my brothers and sisters used to play one or more instruments, chosen by my parents. My mother thought that the violin would suit me best and she was right: there is no other instrument in the whole world, that is capable of translating my inner feelings. Of course, I have studied at the Conservatoire, and it was during those years, that I improvised quite a lot of melodies on the violin. I am the proud owner of a genuine Stradivarius, one of the last instruments the Italian master made: a Strad, as one calls them, has a warm, incomparable sound. Sometimes, it seems like I hear the voice from the soprano, Maria Callas, so unique and warm too.
Your new album is called Romantic Moments II and will soon also be released in Canada. What is it about the Romantic Period that continues to captivate you?
The Romantic Era in the history of art was the period, where people started to have a look ‘inside’ and they tried to express those feelings in many different ways. Instead of making art via strict rules, they attempted to compose feelings, either via musical notes or, for example, paint on a canvas. You might even compare it with a quote from Walt Disney, which I love: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
Is it an emotional response to the music, do you think? The Romantic Period seems to readily connect with audiences.
Music is the art form that goes to your heart immediately, it doesn’t need words in order to be understood. Everybody likes to be in a romantic mood, and I feel so glad that my music can be a little tribute to that feeling.
I notice that you’ve also included some film music on the album. Film music is getting more recognition as compositions in themselves over the last few years. What do you think about this trend?
Film music is really essential; it is the thing that gives the movie an extra invisible layer. My son Marc collects film music, and he knows a lot about it: wherever there is a film melody on an album of mine, it mostly is recommended by him. When you turn off the volume while watching a film, you bet, all the excitement will disappear. THAT is the power of film music. One of my favourite compositions is the “Parade from the Charioteers” from Ben-Hur, which I played myself on the Vrijthof Square in Maastricht a few years ago. My orchestra was joined by more than 400 brass players, so impressive.
Some critics seem to disapprove of the idea of turning classical music of the European tradition into entertainment, although I’d personally argue its history was as popular entertainment, (and religious music in some cases of course). How do you respond to those voices who seem to want to preserve that music exclusively in a very specific and somewhat rarefied atmosphere?
Classical music doesn’t know any boundaries nor a specific audience. It is written for all of us. Mozart and Johann Strauss were the pop stars of their times; if technology would have allowed it, selfies would have been made with them and their posters would decorate young girls’ bedroom walls. We owe it to the composers of such wonderful music to perform it for as many people as possible. Most classical music was written for entertainment, Verdi’s operas, even Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto’s and of course the waltzes by Johann Strauss.
What do you see for the future of classical music? Do you think audiences a century from now will still be listening to waltzes?
I don’t have any doubts, I am certain they will. Waltzes are so special — they are a timeless type of composition, and it will always appeal to people. Take for example “Norwegian Wood” from the Beatles, “Morning has broken” from Cat Stevens, “Take this waltz” (!) from Leonard Cohen… all evergreens in the enchanting 3/4 rhythm. Viva forever for the waltz — and I feel honoured to contribute personally to this everlasting musical tradition.