"Black Ties, Red Carpets, Green Rooms"
Chapter From Richard Wilkins' Book on André Rieu

Richard Wilkins (Channel Nine's entertainment editor and the original face of MTV Australia) interviewed the greatest stars of the world. This book is a collection of his favorite, most interesting and strangest star encounters. Here is the chapter about André Rieu.

André Rieu: Matilda in Maastricht

"Rack off, you bloody drongo!" "What? What is this you say?" The Dutch Maestro was looking at me with an odd expression of his face.
"Rack off. You. Bloody. Drongo" I said in a more pronounced fashion, as if that would explain everything. "What does this Rack off mean?"
"It means.... Um, I dunno, go away" "And what is a bloody drango?" "Drongo" I said, correcting him, and struggling through my mental encyclopedia of Australian slang. "Ah well, I guess a bloody drongo is a fucking idiot".

OK, I know it is not an expression we use every day, but when a foreigner says to me: "Teach me some Australian slag. What's an Australian expression?" I always use that one. That conversation took place on the Riverbank in Brisbane, when I first met André Rieu. To be honest, he'd really come onto my radar a couple of months beforehand when I'd noticed the phenomenal increase in sales of his DVDs. It was September 2007 and he was making his first trip to Australia to launch the concert tour that was due to hit our shores the following year. In order to beat the crowd – and most importantly, our opposition – I'd decided to fly to Brisbane and meet this guy everyone was talking about. We'd finished the interview and were chatting away when André asked me to teach him something uniquely Australian, something he could use on stage when he came back to tour. Without a second thought, I offered up that quaint piece of "travel advice". He still refers to me as his "Drongo".

Right from the start I liked him enormously. He has a gleam in his eye, a spring in his step and an infectious enthusiasm. The mega-production he was bringing to Australia sounded and looked completely over the top. His full orchestra. A choir, dancers, pipe bands, featured vocalists, all on a humungous stage with two ice-skating rinks. It seemed he was bringing everything, including the kitchen sink. His absolute attention to detail and intimate knowledge of every aspect of, well, everything blew me away. I was impressed by his ambition, his professionalism and his passion for every scintilla of his life and career.

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He'd also done his homework on me, he knew that as a schoolboy, I'd played the violin and did all the exams with either Trinity College or the Royal School of Music in London. I got up to grade eight (qualified enough to teach the thing) while at boarding school. I was quite good at it for a while, first violin in the school orchestra at age twelve, in fact.

Then the Beatles came along and buggered it up. All I really wanted to do from that point on was play guitar or the drums. It's a bit like riding a bike though, you still remember where the fingers go, although they're not quite as fluid these days, that's for sure. Now that I think about it, I did fall off my school bike quite often!

'Yes, André, I did play the violin once upon a time,' I told him. 'We play together some time,' he replied, but I didn't really think much about it. We broadcast the piece, which had turned out really well, a couple of days later. André came across as charming, smart and funny (which he is). He was also still in the country and, having seen it on the Today Show, rang to thank me.

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"Why don't you come and see the show I'm bringing to Australia", he said. 'I'd like you to see it for yourself and know what you're talking about.' 'I've seen the video-it looks pretty extraordinary,' I told him. 'Well, come over to Europe. I'll get the record company to send you the itinerary, see what dates work for you and we'll set it up.' 'Very nice. Sounds good. Thanks for that, André.'

In due course I was emailed the dates for his European tour and I looked through them. Leipzig? Nah. Hannover? Nah. Paris? Hmmm, Paris. The date worked and it sounded like an excellent idea. I checked with André and resolved to go to France. I'd be there for my late mother's birthday: 1 September.

'When you get here, see the show in Paris, then come to Maastricht and we'll play violin together.' 'Really?' 'Yes, we will do a duet.' 'What song?' "Waltzing Matilda",' he said, without skipping a beat.

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The ticket arrived and off I went to Paris. I'd arranged for Rebecca to meet me in London and we caught the Eurostar across the Channel, bound for the Hotel George V, which is regularly voted the best in the world. My friend Christopher Norton, who used to run the Four Seasons at Jimbaran Bay in Bali, is now the boss at the George V. Chris was in Bali when the bombs went off. In the months that followed, the tourism industry was decimated and his hotel was hit badly by the huge drop in visitor numbers, as was everyone else's. To his great credit, Chris found a way to keep all the local staff employed right through the downturn. He was at the Georges V when we arrived. Once again, he was running a pretty good ship. The hotel is simply awesome. It's everything the French do best: the service is faultless, the decor breathtaking and the location, between the Champs- Elysees and the river Seine, spectacular. On a very reputable list of the top ten things to do in Paris, the Eiffel Tower comes in at number one, followed by the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, and so on. Number nine is viewing the flowers at the George V. Chris spends millions of euros a year on bringing flowers in from Belgium twice a week and has a rock-star florist, Jeff Leatham, who creates the extraordinary arrangements.

Catching the train to Paris is a huge advantage. There's no schlep in major traffic from the airport and you arrive smack in the middle of the city. We went from the Gare du Nord to the hotel, dumped our bags and headed straight to the Stade de France, where André was performing that night. It was huge and packed to the rafters (actually it's an outdoor stadium with no roof, but you know what I mean).

The show was one of the most spectacular and lavish I've ever seen- water fountains with synchronized displays, André's magnificent Johann Strauss orchestra, a huge choir, dancers, skaters on an ice rink, three spectacular tenors, bagpipes, fireworks, a carriage carrying one of the featured singers.

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Bloody heck, it was impressive, and all of this was built into a massive replica of the Palace Schönbrunn in Vienna, where André had once performed. He liked the palace so much he got his son Pierre, who's his production manager, to build a couple of replicas that were currently leapfrogging around the world.

At the interval, we went backstage to meet him. 'Welcome to Paris, Drongo,' he said, embracing me in a bear hug, then indicating Rebecca: 'And this is your beautiful Mrs. Drongo?' Little did he know I was actually planning to propose to her while we were there.

One of André's rituals is that after every performance he has a big banquet backstage for cast and crew-and with a production that big there are hundreds of them, all hungry and thirsty. Food, drinks, whatever you want, it's all there. André has caterers travelling with him. He is a man who knows what he wants, and I was quickly learning that he is the master of his own universe. He has a great team of people who work with him, but there is never any doubt as to who is the boss. It is a benevolent dictatorship (as Jon Bon Jovi would say).

The wine was the good stuff, the food was exquisite-not the goulash that he makes funny references to during the show-and Rebecca and I stayed there for some time, although I was getting a little wobbly having flown from Sydney to London, then catching the train to Paris before seeing André's three-hour gig. I shot a little bit of vision for the Today Show to show the scale of the production and get a taste of the backstage vibe, then we went off and explored Paris for a couple of days. Oh, and we got engaged!
From the City of Light it was back on the train to Brussels, where we were met by André's driver and taken to the lovely little city of Maastricht in the southern Netherlands. It's a gorgeous spot, which has been fought over and occupied by practically every country in Europe at some point in history.

These days it's no contest: André is the king of the castle. As a young boy he used to stare at the big property at the top end of town and now he owns it. It's where he lives, where his offices are and where I went to meet him to conduct the serious part of our interview about the show I'd just seen.

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He was warm and engaging, friendly and hospitable, and showed me around the castle, including its aviary, the industrial kitchen and the grounds. Talk about classical grandeur!

'OK, tomorrow at ten o'clock you come to my studio,' he said authoritatively. 'We make "Waltzing Matilda" together.' 'What key?' I asked. To be honest I was very rusty on the old violin, not having played seriously for decades. When he said I could choose, I told him G. That's the easiest key to play the fiddle in because you can use lots of open strings and 'double stopping' and you don't have to use your little finger very much. (Sorry if that's all double Dutch to you.)
'OK, Drongo, G it is. Don't be late.'

Rebecca and I presented ourselves the next morning and the orchestra was already there, all sitting in the huge studio that André had custom built on the outskirts of town to rehearse and record his music. He's got edit suites there too, where all his DVDs are produced, and a huge storage area for all the equipment (and Pierre's collection of army, navy and air force stuff, which is quite mind-boggling).
He was responsible for seventeen of the thirty top-selling DVDs in the Australian charts. The guy is a machine, a marketing genius (he hadn't even done a proper tour, for goodness sakes), as I came to see and appreciate in the years to come.

Anyway, there I was, walking in, quite nervously. He had his omnipresent camera crew there, of course. I'd asked him when we were working out the logistics, 'Do I need to bring a crew?' 'No,' he said, as if I'd asked him if we needed to bring our own water. 'We have a camera crew here. We have everything. You just turn up.' In his inimitable Dutch style, he's a can-do guy.

André has a remarkable violin case that holds two instruments. He opened it up and handed me one. 'Is this the Stradivarius?' I asked as he passed it over carefully-referring to the priceless and irreplaceable violin he plays on stage. 'No, no, no,' he replied, 'but don't drop it!' I'm sure this one was also worth a fortune.

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The violin was beautifully tuned, the orchestra had their charts in front of them, which he'd obviously arranged and had drawn up overnight. And it was on. We played 'Waltzing Matilda'. Then we played it again. I thought we were having a couple of practice runs, but then André said, 'Alright that's done. Let's go listen to it.' What? What happened to our rehearsal? 'But I ...'

'No, you were good. I like the way you bend the notes. Your style is different to mine. We work well together.' (The notes would have been bending in all the wrong directions if we hadn't been playing in G!) Rebecca, André, his sound engineer and I went back to the control room with the big, impressive, state-of-the-art recording desk.

It's a very neat, tidy set-up-all white and efficient-looking-with no plaques or gold records hanging on the walls or smelly candles encouraging creativity. In fact, it's no bullshit in that very Dutch way. André played the song back, tweaked it a little, then gave me a copy.

'That's it?' I asked. 'Yeah. It was good, and it'll be a nice piece in your story.' And that was it ... 'Nice job, great to see you. Congratulations. Beautiful girl, lovely ring, have a good trip home. Bye, Drongo.' And he was gone.

André was right. The piece we put together with him, me and the orchestra playing 'Waltzing Matilda' was a big hit on Today. I must admit I was pretty chuffed. A couple of weeks later I was in Hollywood and I thought Karl Stefanovic was geeing me up. 'Mate, we had a call from the National Archives,' he said to me live on air. 'They've requested a copy of your "Waltzing Matilda".' 'Yeah, right.' 'No, truly.'

I've since found out that whenever it's recorded by anyone, a dog could bark it, the National Archives puts a copy away in the vaults. It is a bit of thrill to think I'm in there, though, playing one of the country's favorite songs with André Rieu.

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Of course, André toured Australia with the show I saw in Paris and it was a spectacular success. It sold out around the country and he made a lot of people very happy. One of the reasons I like him, and indeed one of the reasons that he's been so embraced by the public, is that he genuinely enjoys his job. Classical musicians can be a little bit stuffy and have an elitist attitude about what they do. But André just loves it. To him, it's entertainment, theatre, showbiz, not just music. I suspect that some people still dismiss him as a show pony, and no doubt some sections of the classical establishment hate him with a passion because he's actually having fun with this beautiful music - shock horror!

The thing about André is that, yes, he's a fabulous businessman and showman but he's also a great musician, a brilliant violinist. If he wasn't, if he was just an OK player with a lot of front, then he wouldn't have had nearly the same success.

When he played in Brisbane, the folks at Suncorp Stadium asked me to come up and host a VIP experience for the shows. There are obviously some well-heeled André Rieu fans around the world-it's an older crowd with plenty of disposable cash, and they are willing to part with quite a chunk of it to do things in style. The VIP experience involved a limo from their home to the gig, dinner, drinks and meeting André after the show, with me facilitating the whole thing.

It worked a treat and gave us the idea to do it on a national basis on his subsequent tour, which started with a live performance at Federation Square for the Today Show. We weren't sure if we could fit the whole sixty- piece orchestra on the stage and suggested a scaled-down production. The response? 'We are Dutch; we will make it work.' Which, of course, they did.

Capping off the morning for me, André invited me on stage to perform our greatest hit-you guessed it-'Waltzing Matilda'. In the right key, too. It was a blast and right up there with the time Neil Finn dragged me up on stage to sing 'Born to be Wild' with him (I wish I'd had the choice of key that time around!).

On André's 2009 tour and again in 2011, my role was to welcome the hundred VIPs each night just before the show. I'd introduce them to André while he was putting the orchestra, vocalists and, of course, the sound and lighting teams through their paces during sound check.

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It's quite an experience to see and hear André fine-tune (literally) every aspect of the upcoming performance. He's hands on, totally in control and it's impressive to witness first-hand. He has an eye for detail and an ear for perfection.

Then the VIPs have dinner-all the good gear: wine, champagne, top shelf tucker-while André has a catnap. True! He has a bed set up in his dressing room and backstage there are 'QUIET' signs everywhere. There's definitely no bagpipe practice while the boss is having a little kip.

The guests have excellent seats for the show, after which they go backstage to the nightly banquet where they mingle with the crew and have their photograph taken individually with André. He takes his own photographer and color printers on tour with him, so the guests actually finish the night with a photo of themselves and the Dutch maestro. André checks each shot himself to make sure they are perfect-no light reflecting off someone's glasses and no red eyes. If there's a dud photo, he'll redo it. His fastidiousness is quite extraordinary.

Since we started doing the VIP evenings together, André and I have become close friends. I actually shed a little tear as I said farewell to him at the end of the 2009 tour. The couple of weeks I had spent on the road with him were a bit like running away with the circus.

In July 2010, he invited me back to Maastricht to see the show there. When he first started to do well, he thought it would be nice to do a show in his hometown's city square. It's a gorgeous spot, surrounded by magnificent architecture and with cafes-and restaurants on both sides. A lot of other people have used the town square for concerts, but they erect a big fence around the grassed area and put up a big black screen to control the crowd, deter onlookers and maximize profits. André, in his brilliant entrepreneurial fashion, decided not to put the fences up, but to just open the area to everybody. He went to all the restaurants, one by one, and said: "I'm going to sell the ten thousand seats out there on the grass and you can do what you want". The restaurants have another ten thousand seats or so, and he told them they could do their own deals and charge people to go in. The only thing he insisted was that meals were not served while he was playing. He televised that first concert and now does it every year.

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Maastricht looks amazing and it is the most wonderful atmosphere. His instincts were bang-on. In 2010, he did six sold-out nights. The whole city feels alive and open. It's now such a massive event that they have a couple of live sites in other squares around the town. The whole city becomes Andreville. It even has its own set of rituals. Every night André walks from one end of the square, past all the restaurants, his orchestra trailing him, as everyone stands and applauds, then climbs on to the stage and starts playing. The proceedings are recorded by his camera crew, and then edited back at his studio and shipped off around the world.

One day, when he was in Australia on tour, we were having lunch and chatting about stuff. 'Tell me why, at the end of the show, you announce when your next tour is going to be,' I said to him. 'You think that's a little cheeky, huh?' he asked. 'Well, no, but most artists say thanks for coming, hope to see you again some time. You say, "Thanks and I'll be back on 25 August next year".'

'Well, I'll tell you why I do it. I could either spend an amazing amount of money on a marketing campaign in six months' time, or I can preach to the converted while they're there. You know what? Most people appreciate it and they go out and buy a ticket the next day, when they go on sale.' A lot of artists would think that was a bit eager or uncool but André doesn't play by the rules. He's created his own and is reaping the rewards.

He had a problem in 2010 when he contracted a viral infection of the vestibular nerve that made him feel dizzy. It meant he had to cancel some shows, which he really hated doing. He'd played the Royal Variety Performance the year before, and was just about to embark on a sell-out tour of England. That's the next market that's going to crack wide open for him. Then he was due to head here, but was forced to reschedule.

It's great to have him back on his feet again, and his friend Drongo is always glad to see him. When he finally made it to our shores, he appeared on the Today Show and at the Logies, and also invited me to again host the 'A Day With André' experiences during his tour.

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When I sat down with him and some of his key personnel backstage in Adelaide at the beginning of the tour, he asked, 'Hey, Drongo, what was that song you got people to sing for me in Auckland on the last tour?' I had got the VIP crowd to serenade him with one of those rare anthems that all Kiwis know, along with 'Cheryl Moana Marie' and 'Ten Guitars'.

It's called 'Now is the Hour', and it's a traditional song of farewell. As a young boy, I remember standing at the Overseas Passenger Terminal on Princes Wharf in Auckland (where the Rainbow Warrior was sunk) with my late mum and dad and sister Pip, seeing off relatives who were on a voyage to England. As the streamers started flying through the air, then stretching, breaking and cascading down the side of the ship and fluttering in the breeze, everyone was singing. 

'Now is the hour when we must say goodbye, Soon you'll be sailing far across the sea, While you're away, oh please remember me, When you return, you'll find me waiting here.' ... It's a beautiful song, and it's been covered by many artists over the years. It was sung as 'Po Atarau' to the Maori troops as they headed overseas during the First and Second World Wars. It's a piece that has a lot of resonance throughout New Zealand, and when I suggested everyone sing it for André and his crew, it went over a treat.

'Sing it for me, Drongo. Sing me that song.' I did, and at the end André asked his arranger Frank if he'd got it.- 'Yeah, I think I got it,' said Frank, meaning he'd memorized the melody. Brilliant! 'OK, Drongo, you sing that on stage Friday night in Auckland,' André told me, leaving no room for discussion.

Throughout the Australian tour The Seekers had been playing four songs with André 'The Carnival is Over', 'I'll Never Find Another You', 'Georgy Girl' and, of course, the song penned by Bruce Woodley that has school kiddies singing loud and proud throughout the nation, 'I am Australian'. Judith Durham's voice is still amazing, despite her not being in the best of health, and those songs sounded fabulous with the full lush orchestra along for the Morningtown ride.

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André had programmed a reprise of the unofficial Australian national anthem during his finale, but correctly assumed that it wouldn't exactly go down a treat in New Zealand. Hence his suggestion of 'Now is the Hour'. I was incredibly nervous about it, but we gave it a shot at sound check. Sure as eggs, at Vector Arena in Auckland André got me up on stage for the finale and we closed the show with me singing 'Now is the Hour', accompanied enthusiastically by all of the ten thousand Kiwis in the room. 
►VIDEO: Richard Singing Now is The Hour With André

It was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life, to be up there on stage in front of a sell-out crowd, backed by a full orchestra brimming with some of the finest musicians in the world. I even pulled a piece of paper out of my pocket and gave the Maori verse a shake. Despite trying really hard, I couldn't memorize the lyrics and I figured it was a lesser sin to read and get them right than attempt to remember them and stuff it up.

André will never know how emotional it was for me, because while it was the perfect song to say goodnight to the crowd and for them to farewell him, the memories of that balmy night in Auckland-me, a small boy on the wharf with Mum, Dad and Pip-came flooding back.

Thank you, André. You gave Drongo quite a blast from the past.

My nickname for him is, of course, Kanga ... Kanga Rieu.

Thanks to Ineke for sending this ...The book was a gift to her from an Australian fan at the June 2012 Fan Dinner