From The Sunday Times, UK
December 20, 2009 by Tim cooper

André Rieu ~ the biggest violinist you've never heard of. He’s bigger than Springsteen and has a bodyguard for his Stradivarius, so why is the Dutch musicial so little known?

As showbiz entrances go, it could hardly be more spectacular. A procession of musicians in lavish period costumes parade through a football stadium packed with 25,000 fans, to the tune of 76 Trombones. At their head, “conducting’” them with a violin bow as they wend their way towards a colossal replica of a Hapsburg palace that takes up an entire side of the stadium, is a tall man in formal attire, sporting a tail coat, a mullety mane of grey hair and an enormous grin.

And well might he grin. Because this is André Rieu, the so-called King of Waltz and the biggest-grossing male music performer in the world. In Billboard magazine’s summer list of the top 25 tours of the year, he lay in fourth place, behind Madonna, Britney and Tina Turner, and ahead of Céline Dion, AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John. He had grossed more than £35m — double the takings of Coldplay — and been seen by more than 550,000 people. Six months later, his 30th Anniversary Tour of Europe tops the magazine’s Hot Tour rankings.

Yet, unless you caught his spot on the Royal Variety Performance earlier this month, when he arrived in Blackpool by private jet with an entourage of more than 100 including the bodyguard whose sole duty it is to baby-sit his £2m Stradivarius you will probably never have heard of him.

So, who is André Rieu? He’s a 60-year-old Dutchman who lives in a castle and loves the waltz. And he has a dream: “To make classical music accessible to everyone.” He’s doing a pretty good job so far: with album and DVD sales of 30m, his Johann Strauss Orchestra is the most successful in the world.
Rieu grew up in a musical family in the Catholic part of Holland, began learning the violin at five and once thought of becoming a priest “but then girls became too interesting”, before joining his conductor father’s orchestra. Yet even as a child, he found the atmosphere of the concert hall stif­lingly sombre. “Everybody looked so serious,” he says. “The music radiated joy, but you were not supposed to cough or laugh.”

Noticing that the one time the audience loosened up was at the end of concerts, when the orch­estra would play crowd-pleasing waltzes, he decided to dedicate his life to the music of 19th-century Vienna — and to pleasing crowds. He started modestly, with a string quintet, before setting up his own Johann Strauss Orchestra, gradually building a reputation for his increasingly lavish stage shows.

What is remarkable about Rieu is that, while obviously an accomplished violinist, he does not show off his virtuosity with solos, pre­ferring to play second fiddle to his orchestra and singers. Not that he takes a back seat; far from it. Rieu is the master of ceremonies, whether conducting with his bow — in the style of Strauss himself —spinning yarns or cracking jokes, each punch line signalled with a trademark smirk and a well-rehearsed eyebrow-wiggling trick. And, while he would never meddle with his beloved waltzes, he is happy to pander to popular taste by peppering his repertoire with familiar arias, show tunes and popular songs.

His huge audience is made up mostly of middle-aged couples who would rather sit in front of the television watching Strictly Come Dancing than hold their breath during a diminuendo at a Wigmore Hall recital; indeed, many of them spontaneously get up and take a twirl down the aisles during his show. Which is why, a decade after a failed attempt to break through in the UK, Universal Music is re­launching him with a collection of waltzes called Forever Vienna.

“This is music that appeals to a post-Strictly audience of people in their fifties and sixties who enjoy Andrea Bocelli and the Priests, and watch period dramas on Sunday evening,” says Mark Wilkinson, general manager of Decca Records. In that intervening decade, there has been a huge growth in the popularity of “classical crossover” music, making stars of singers such as Russell Watson and Katherine Jenkins. “Crossover has created a new audience of people who did not think they liked classical music,” says John Evans, editor of Classic FM magazine. “They like schmaltz, they like a visual element to their music and they like popular tunes that send you into the night humming and feeling good. It’s not an alternative to what you would hear at Wigmore Hall, but anything that breaks down the barriers between ordinary folk and stuffy old classical music is a good thing, in my view.”

James Inverne, editor of the more seriously inclined Gramophone magazine, agrees that Rieu’s appeal is as much about the spectacle of his shows as the familiarity of the music or the virtuosity of the playing. “It’s a kind of classical circus, with an element of knock­about comedy,” he says, “but he is obviously very good at what he does, and people clearly love it.”

While some purists might sneer at the “showbiz” nature of Rieu’s performances, with their curious blend of schmaltz and slapstick, Rieu argues that his presentation of orchestral waltz music is entirely in keeping with Strauss himself, who preferred performing in public parks to exclusive salons attended by royalty and aristocrats. Not that Strauss ever produced a pantomime bull like the one that appears at Rieu’s concerts to chase a buxom woman in a red dress down the aisle. “I think classical music has lost its common touch,” Rieu says in his perfect English, the morning after showing off his perfect French during a recent show in Paris. “It is very easy to say to the audience that they don’t know anything about classical music, and that is what a lot of classical musicians do. The way that they perform the music is often exclusive and excluding. They use the music to say, ‘I am better than you.’ I say, ‘Bring your heart and not your brains or your knowledge."

Yet he baulks at the suggestion that he is populist. “I don’t think what I do is populism. I give myself what I want, not what people want,” he insists. “I play that music in a way I want to play. I don’t change the music: I play it as it should be played. And I take my job seriously.”

Rieu is a hugely charismatic man, with the aplomb to stride into a meeting at the mayor’s office in Paris wearing blue suede shoes, hands thrust deep into the pockets of a full-length blue suede coat, to discuss a planned concert beneath the Eiffel Tower. He has always had a flair for the flamboyant. Growing up in a household that banned pop music, he adopted his own uniform of “romantic Mozart-style clothes”. He recalls: “I remember my Greek teacher asking me, ‘Where is your horse?"

At school, he was exposed to Bob Dylan and the Beatles, but they do not seem to have left much impression. And, although he is an admirer of Queen and Michael Jackson to whom he pays homage in a rather cringey section of his show, with a violin version of Ben, followed by a wailing woman giving Earth Song the full Mariah — you sense it is for their show­manship, rather than their music and lyrics. In fact, he says he never listens to lyrics; indeed, never listens to music when he is not working. And boy, does he work hard. For the past three decades, he has performed 120 shows a year, without missing a single one. “I am never ill,” beams Rieu, who thinks illness is “all in the mind”.

For his monstrous tour A Romantic Night in Vienna, featuring the largest-ever transportable stage set, Rieu remortgaged his castle and 1667 Stradivarius to re-create the atmosphere of a Viennese royal ball. He constructed not one but two lavish life-size models of the Schönbrunn Palace and filled them with musicians, singers, ballroom dancers, skaters, fountains, and a golden coach containing actors representing the Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Sisi, drawn by six — yes! — white horses. He lost millions, because the first set was rejected by health-and-safety officials. He then had two more replicas made and shipped them out to Australia, where his popularity is such that he has had the ultimate accolade: a guest spot in Neighbours.

But the stage set proved too big to fit through the doors of a stadium in Perth. Rieu admits that the takings of his current tour merely go towards paying back the losses from his Vienna extra­vaganza. Then he unveils a plan whose cost would put even that in the shade. “One of my dreams is to go to the moon,” he says, “and give the first moon concert.”

Festive Concert with André Rieu is on Five on December 27; Forever Vienna is out on CD on December 28