The concerts are a feast for the ears and eyes and have a large international following.
“I’m in my kitchen again,” she says cheerfully from the family’s castle home in Maastricht, the Netherlands. “But I’m not baking.” Instead, he will be taking a few days off before resuming his first post-Covid world tour.
“We just arrived from South America. At the end of this week, we are going to Tel Aviv for three concerts. Then I go to Malta. Then I fly home, and then we go to Lisbon.”
For someone who has been touring the world with his world-famous Johann Strauss Orchestra for more than 40 years, being able to perform in front of an audience again “is fantastic because we can finally do what we really want to do,” he said. he tells me.
“What I feel on stage every night is that people are incredibly hungry to come back to my concerts. Here and there, I see a mask, but 99 percent of the people I see are free and they’re dancing and hugging and kissing and it’s really great to see that enthusiasm again.”
Cool and multilingual (he speaks six languages), Rieu has just released a Christmas-themed album, Silver Bells, featuring a heartwarming mix of seasonal favorites and romantic fireside classics.
“I love Christmas and being with the family,” says André, who has two grown sons, Marc and Pierre, and five grandchildren. “I hope everyone is here this year. I love pampering them, especially my grandchildren.”
He stopped performing at Christmas after 1976. “I had been asked to play church at midnight. I was lying under the tree with my wife Marjorie and then I had to go to church with my violin. I said, ‘I’ll never do this again.’ From now on, I’ll be home for Christmas and that’s what I do.”
Of course, the Rieu family’s home is a little different than most: it’s 16the Castle De Torentjes, which André bought in 1999, and which he insists on suffocating with Christmas decorations.
“I’ll do it myself.”
André takes his success lightly
What, the whole castle? “I swear to you because I have this dream in my head of how I want it. So every year I look forward to doing it myself, and I take the time to do it, and the whole family stands around and watches me do it.”
Born in 1949, the young André Léon Marie Nicolas Rieu briefly thought of becoming a priest. Does religion still enter into his Christmas plans?
“Of course, it’s in my blood because I was in the church choir all my youth and I was a practicing Catholic until I was 18 or 19 years old. Then I read about all these religions in the world and I’m not religious anymore.
“But Christmas is a very special time. Like it or not, it has to do with religion. But I don’t go to church.”
The wide selection of music on the new album perfectly sums up the appeal of his music. From beautifully crafted Christmas carols like Silent Night, Holy Night to upbeat pop versions like Santa Claus Is Coming To Town to true orchestral classics like Waltz Of The Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.
“I think I’m filling a void. At first it was very difficult to get a record company deal because record companies have classical music, they have pop music. But there was no place where I would fit. They told me: ‘We don’t know what to do with you.’
“But that is the reason, I think, for my success, because there is a huge audience that loves classical music, but not in the way that it is presented to the elites in small concert halls.
“When I play Bach, when I play Beethoven, I bring it with the enthusiasm that people don’t worry if it’s classical or not. They just go, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful music.’”
He formed his first orchestral ensemble in 1978. Nine years later, the Johann Strauss Orchestra arrived, with only 14 musicians. These days, the orchestra is 60 strong, including the choir, and is made up of mostly female musicians and singers, whose ball gowns she has personally designed in the past. Including one “copied from a dress worn by Elisabeth, wife of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. I oversee this because I want every performance to look its best.”
Over 40 million records sold later, Johan Strauss is now the world’s largest private orchestra. Such mainstream success has, perhaps inevitably, drawn disapproval from the ‘serious’ classical world.
He laughs. “I must tell you that I don’t suffer when they want to be jealous, or they want to be snobs. My own family was snobby, so I’m allergic to that.”
He claims that his father Andries, who conducted the Maastricht Symphony Orchestra, “never showed me love”; and that his mother, Alice, “was even worse.”
In contrast, André wears his success lightly. In the past, he has expressed a desire to play his current Stradivarius, his third, purchased in 2018 for £7 million, at the North Pole to raise awareness of global warming. And because “I like polar bears!”
He once made a cameo appearance on the Australian soap opera Neighbors. And he was a guest on the Dutch version of The Great British Bake Off. He also said that he would like Richard Branson to build a concert hall on the moon, so that his fans can one day waltz in space.
“It’s okay when people want to be snobbish. I enjoy what I do. I don’t suffer it.”
André no longer practices every day
Britain had the self-proclaimed ‘punk’ fiddler Nigel Kennedy popularizing classical music in the 1980s and 1990s, but it’s hard to think of a successful classical star comparable to the prodigious Rieu.
“Of course there is room for more,” he says. “To be honest, I wonder why more people aren’t doing this. But no one does. Luckily, I’m the only one.”
Since 2005, he has held an open-air summer concert in a Maastricht city square.
“And every year, in the encores, I always invite a special guest. We had Jermaine Jackson, we had David Hasselhoff. Trini López… All kinds of artists that fit into my program and that I respect”.
The Netherlands is a famously liberal society. Marijuana is legal; brothels are run by the government. With her shoulder-length hair and extravagant style of clothing, did she ever, when she was younger, perhaps, yearn for a more rocker lifestyle?
“My parents were so severe that I lived in a kind of convent until I was 18 or 19 years old. I was very, how do you say that? A very prudent boy.
Now 73 years old, he no longer practices every day. “Every time I conduct more and play less and that is something normal in the life of a violinist”.
He certainly doesn’t see himself retiring anytime soon. God save us!
Rieu returns to Great Britain with his orchestra next May
“I only have a dream, and it is so. I do my sports every morning with a personal trainer to stay healthy. I don’t smoke. My food is healthy. So that’s really my dream.”
He adds with a laugh: “When I’m 140, that’s the time I’ll think, ‘Okay, now is enough.'”
Rieu returns to Great Britain with his orchestra next May.
“Honestly, I can’t wait. We’re going to 15 countries on this tour, but Britain always feels special, so many friends.”
And will there be cake?
She laughs and tells the story of how she baked a croquembouche for her birthday in October. “It’s a very difficult cake because it’s so big and you never know how it comes out of the oven, but I did it.”
He was, he says, “very popular.”
Of course it was.
- André’s Christmas album Silver Bells is out now; André Rieu In Dublin is in cinemas across the UK on 7the & 8theJanuary – visit andreincinemas.com
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