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Oct 12, 2013

A Command Performance From Maestro André Rieu

A fairy-tale castle, a balmy evening, a superstar violinist playing to a captivated audience … Liz Jones Receives a command performance from maestro André Rieu at his Dutch home.

October 12, 2013 By Liz Jones: It’s embarrassing, being serenaded. Especially when it’s on the steps of a fairy-tale castle, by a man who has just told you that when he performs a piece of music it reverberates through his body like a caress, or a shudder, and that playing and conducting is ‘better than sex’. And where to look, while he is playing ‘La Vie en Rose’ to me on his nearly 300-year-old (and reputed to be worth millions) Stradivarius violin? Into his blue eyes, perhaps? André Rieu is the Patrick Swayze of classical music (it’s the hair, I think, that reminds me of the Dirty Dancing star; the macho cheesiness, the stupendous schmaltziness of his repertoire of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘The Blue Danube’).

I can only hold his gaze for seconds before giggling and looking at the ground, or staring at the mane of unruly, slightly mulleted curls that snakes over his blue velvet smoking jacket, above a pair of quite tight, inky jeans.

I know that millions of women – middle-aged and older – would kill to be in my shoes, given the 64-year-old Dutch violinist and conductor’s sellout world tours and 35 million-plus album sales. I know because I met some of  his fans at the O2 arena in London last December, and they are a formidable bunch.

One of them, Mary, 65, told me, while sitting right next to her husband in the front row, why André Rieu is so very special. ‘André makes me have so many lovely feelings. He should run the government, you know. I’m so fed up with all the violence.’ That’s the key, you see: André’s world on-stage is so other; so safe and warm and lovely and effortless. But is his real life, off-stage, the same as this? Well, almost – and absolutely not.

The 15th-century castle we are in is, of course, André’s real-life home, slap bang in the middle of Maastricht in Holland. It has cone-shaped turrets,  chequered stone floors and fountains. It’s surrounded by high walls and iron gates, but his fans, who carve their names, usually encased in a heart, on his wall, can glimpse the castle from the river in the valley below: they float by on pleasure cruisers, a tour guide with a megaphone bellowing out André’s vital statistics.

I ask him, as we sit on the cobbled terrace, surrounded by giant pots of bougainvillea, whether it all gets a bit wearing? After all, it’s one thing to have knickers thrown on-stage (‘They are rather large, like a flag!’ he told me last December), quite another to have women turning up at his home. ‘As long as they respect me and my privacy, then it’s OK, but when they stand in front of my door, waiting for me to come out, then it’s not nice any more.’

The castle looms large, not just on the horizon, but in André’s life – he was born and raised near this spot. His father was a conductor and instilled in André his love of music. As a child, having briefly wanted to be a priest, he started having piano lessons in this very building, which, legend has it, was where the real D’Artagnan ate his last breakfast. André disliked his piano teacher, who lived here, and soon gave up the piano for the violin. Did he fall in love with the castle as a child? ‘No, not at all. The castle was gloomy and dark and moist and I hated the piano. I was afraid of this place.’


André studied music, played in orchestras, then, in 1987, decided to strike out on his own with 12 musicians. Eventually, the castle came up for sale. ‘The people living here could not afford to maintain it, so it was in a terrible state. I’m glad I can try to rebuild it for the next generation, as somewhere my grandson might want to live. We have been here 15 years now.’

‘We’ is André, his wife Marjorie and several hundred Costa Rican butterflies in an orangery across the courtyard that are all, disappointingly, still cocooned. André and Marjorie’s 32-year-old son Pierre lives next door with his wife and their twin daughters, who are nearly four (André has his blonde granddaughters as his phone screensaver, and is proud that they have already started to play mini violins). Pierre, endlessly amiable and polite, helps to manage the 110-strong Johann Strauss Orchestra – formed 26 years ago and one of the few private orchestras of its kind – and accompanies his father on tour.

The repertoire is stupendously populist – ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘Bolero’ – which means classical purists, and critics, love to dismiss him. ‘I don’t care about the critics,’ he says. ‘People shush you if you cough, or clap in the wrong place [at classical concerts]. That is not the case when I play. They say, “You are making it lower-level,” but that’s not true; I think I open it up for the audience, for everybody.’

Is it hard to adjust, I ask, to return home after being away performing?

‘I had the first mobile phone, and nowadays you can Skype and everything is possible. I also try to only be away for two weeks at a time.’

André met Marjorie when he was 11 and she was 13. ‘She was in a class with my sister, and that was it. I noticed this mass of curls,’ he says now. ‘Every now and then, I saw her, and then at the age of 20 it started again and we were married within nine months.’

Before I boarded my plane to see the real-life fairy-tale existence of a man whose stage show – what with the elaborate taffeta ballgowns, Christmas trees, fake snow, and the almost pantomime camaraderie between the orchestra members and the man himself – creates a fantasy that we are in the 18th century, I had been told in no uncertain terms I would not be allowed access to one of the world’s most envied and elusive women: Mrs. André Rieu.

But of course, now that I’m here, Marjorie is omnipresent, and it turns out she is the driving force behind the André Rieu machine that churns out albums and DVDs of concerts performed everywhere from South America to Australia.

I first meet Marjorie – she still has that head of red curls – earlier in the day at André’s recording studio: a low white building a few minutes’ drive from the house. In the canteen, where the orchestra members, whose ages range from 25 to 73, are lining up for breakfast (the musicians seem to eat constantly; they are nothing if not well looked after, with a crèche opposite the studio), we sit down to chat.

Small and neat, in a yellow vest top and blue summer trousers, she doesn’t want to be photographed, but is happy to talk. Would she not like to go on tour with him? ‘There is too much to do here,’ she says – she is instrumental in selecting the repertoire, among her many responsibilities. ‘But if the concert is not too far away, in Germany, say, or Vienna, I will sit in the audience, so that I can feed back to André what they are thinking, what works and what works less well.’ (André adds later: ‘Oh yes, she’s writing, she’s sitting there with a book, with all my mistakes.’)

André joins us before going into the studio to rehearse an album of Abba cover tracks. There is talk of this being released in the UK at some point; the more traditionally ‘Rieu’ Music of the Night album will be released next month. Marjorie shows me the sleeve for the all-Abba album; there are four Andrés, each in a different shirt, but wearing very 70's white jeans. A shame they are not tighter, I tell her, and she laughs, used as she is to her husband’s sex-symbol status. ‘My wife is my harshest critic,’ says André. ‘She will tell me, because she is not a musician, if a piece sounds like it is trying too hard. It should sound effortless.’ Marjorie adds, with a wry smile, ‘There are men, there are women – and there are musicians.’

At lunchtime, they give me a lift in their Mercedes to the castle for the grand tour. It is lovely, huge, and full of light and life: as in most famous people’s houses, there are silent, nameless assistants floating around, fixing things or preparing food. The kitchen is huge, with a solid Carrara marble table, huge steel fridge and bowls of fruit and flowers everywhere. The violin, too, is ubiquitous: not just the violin, which on tour has its own bodyguard, but violins carved into lampstands and walls. A glass cabinet holds numerous awards, including two Classic Brits, while in the formal sitting room two big oil paintings, of André and of Marjorie, hang on one wall. There are also works by André’s other son, Marc, a talented artist.

But it’s not a museum; it feels lived in. I sit with André in the garden, and he tells me he never stops working. ‘In the evening, yes, I might cook, but it is quick, quick, quick – I’m like Jamie Oliver! When we walk the dogs, Marjorie and me, we work, we speak about concert programmes, about the company. There is nothing else. We will discuss the new DVD [the André Rieu Studios record, film, edit and mix all the output: there are no third-party companies involved], the next tour, we will choose a new track to record.’ Do they go on holiday? ‘We might go to Rome. There is something about it I love; it’s very humbling.’ How have they kept their relationship so strong? ‘It’s still as it was on the day we came together. From the beginning, it clicked; her opinion is very important to me. I say, “When I’m arrogant, come and grab me.” She is anything but arrogant, and I want to be like that, too.’

And while the castle seems so opulent, all is not quite as it seems. ‘There was a time, a few years ago, when I re-created the façade of the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna on-stage, and took it on tour, which was a catastrophe financially, and I was bankrupt,’ he says. ‘Remember, I have all these people’s wages to pay. It is a struggle.’ What, even now? ‘Yes, it’s one big struggle, constantly. We might do a weekend concert, then the promoter fails to pay up. These things happen the whole time.’ Two years ago, André almost had a complete breakdown due to a viral infection. ‘I had to cancel a tour, there was just too much work. I used to play sport, but for five years I stopped, and I gained weight. So now I eat properly and I exercise: for three days I lift weights and on the other days I do cardio, such as running.’

And so, at the end of our talk, it’s the moment André decides to serenade me. The violin is moving in a way the piano is not, he explains: ‘The piano, you just bang, bang, bang on the keys, like this!’ By contrast, the violin is an extension of his body; it has a womanly, curvy shape, too, which makes me blush as I watch him stroke it gently with his bow: ‘I love it, it’s under your skin and you really feel it.’ At the O2, I was amazed that so many couples in the audience got up to waltz. I’m surprised, now, at how moving music can be, even the schmaltzy tunes he loves so much.

In the studio earlier, the musicians were chatting and joking, but when he picked up his baton, all eyes were on him, transfixed. ‘I can conduct just by raising an eyebrow,’ he says. Are they scared of him? ‘No, no, no. Did you see any fear this morning? No, I’m a human being and I make mistakes; everyone makes mistakes. We try to have fun. I am severe, I am difficult to the level of demanding, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a nice person.’

Blimey. I start imagining a dungeon in this fairy-tale castle, and handcuffs, but come to my senses when André says he must leave to record a female guitar soloist for Abba’s ‘Fernando’. I wonder whether the castle is his prison as well as his refuge, given the punishing workload. Why not retire? ‘No, I would die immediately. I hope to be doing this in my 80s. My grandmother lived to 102. My mother is 93, and last week she travelled from the South of France in a car, on her own, to the North; it was 1,200km in one day. So it must be in the genes,’ he says – and with a twinkle, he is gone. As Hazel, a 77-year-old fan from Portsmouth, told me at that concert last year, ‘I love him because he’s charming and fascinating, but I bet he’s a bit naughty underneath!’



Two quotes from André on the side of the article"
'I am difficult and demanding, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a nice person'
'I don’t care about the critics. I open music up for everybody


André Rieu’s Music of the Night will be released on 4 November by Decca. André and his Johann Strauss Orchestra will tour the UK and Ireland from 6 to 23 December; visit andrerieu.com for details.

3 comments:

Sally Hodges said...

A lovely interview, thanks for posting Sue.

Devoted Scottish Fan said...

What a lovely interview - many thanks for posting. Soooooo jealous though!! How on earth would you be able to breathe if The Maestro was sitting next to you playing his beloved Lady Strad and you HAD to look into his blue eyes!!!
Moira xx

Julianne Robertson said...

Beautiful interview thanks for posting ... lucky lucky lady she was mmmm :-)

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Pierre and André September 30, 2016 Maastricht

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Photo Taken at Mexico City Concert ~ September 2013

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"Hello to all my fans on The Harmony Parlor!"

Soundcheck in Maastricht 2013 (RTL Photo)

Maastricht 2012 ~ "André on The Theater Steps" by Bee

Maastricht 2012 ~ "André and Pierre on The Theater Steps" by Bee

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