Interview With "Hello Magazine" in the UK
André loves Maastricht, tucked away in a strip of The Netherlands between Belgium and Germany. It is elegant and charming, like the man himself. He spends half his time here with his wife Marjorie and family, the rest on tour. “It’s very relaxing to be here,” he says, “If people recognize me at home they don’t bother me. I love to be at home.”
Tickets to his concerts regularly outsell those to Justin Bieber’s and Beyoncé’s. Together with his 60-piece Johann Strauss Orchestra, he fills arenas with extravagant shows featuring plumed horses, crystal chandeliers, balloons and even snow. The women in his orchestra wear full crinolines. The visuals are dramatic and excessive. Yet, when it comes down to it, the shows are really about the man himself. When André plays his violin, it’s a moving experience – tears stream down people’s faces.
In person, he can provoke the same reaction by the way he looks at you, or rather through you. “My mother always said, ‘Don’t look people in the eye like that’”, André recalls. “I was the black sheep of the family. But I always felt looking into someone’s eyes is the best way to know them. I can pick them out in the audience. I don’t know whom I choose to look at, it just happens. That exchange gives me energy and I have the feeling I’m playing just for them. Otherwise it would be so dull – we would be just doing our job, playing the same programme we have been playing already for a few months. I want to be really connecting.”
He fixes me again. We are eating a local cake called Limburgse vlaai made with strawberries, cream, marzipan and pastry. “I was very fat growing up and loved to eat cake,” says the maestro. “I am only eating this today to welcome you.”
Indeed, the violinist and conductor has been on a healthy diet and exercise regime ever since a viral ear infection in 2010 caused him to cancel concerts for the first time. It came on suddenly, overwhelming him with dizziness and nausea and leaving him utterly exhausted. “I woke up at 3am. The room was spinning. I couldn’t stop it. In the morning I felt I was broken.” It took him several months to recover and, determined to remain healthy, he now works out with a personal trainer every day.
With his rock star long hair and animated expressions, André, who has two sons and four grandchildren, looks younger than his 64 years. “I have learnt that I have to take better care of myself,” he says, “I do a lot of sport now and do press ups together with my son Pierre every day. Yesterday I set a new record on the leg press – 280 kilos. My trainer told me that from the age of 25 you start losing muscle, so I decided to eat less cake and try to get my muscle back. I had lost 50 per cent of my muscle and I would say now, after working out for a year, I have ten per cent back. In another year we could do a naked photograph of me.” For now though, we eat cake.
André’s 25 room castle – the romantically named Huis de Torentjes (House of Turrets) – complete with an orangery housing butterflies, is in two parts, the oldest dating to the 15th century. “We are sitting in the oldest part now,” says André. “You can see it on old paintings. Louis XIV wanted to take Maastricht. They were often there with their armies, but the Maastricht people were very clever. There was this little river called the Jeker and you could close it with special doors and flood the whole region, so they would wait for French armies to come and then flood them. The real d’Artagnan came here because a French duke lived here at the time. He was a musician. On the door of the castle there is a Latin inscription that says ‘Only people who love the arts can come here’ and I am here. I knew this house as a child. It was dark and dank, yet I knew I wanted one day to live here. I cam here for piano lessons and the piano teacher was a b***h – therefore I hated the piano. I loved my violin because the teacher was blonde and beautiful. If my piano teacher had been blonde and beautiful perhaps I’d be playing the piano now.”
Andre’s father was a traditional classical musician. André says of his parents: “They never thought I’d amount to anything because I didn’t want to play like that. I always wanted to play with my emotions.” Like some shaman of the waltz, André is a maestro of magical thinking, making everything waltzable, including the tracks on his latest album, Magic of the Movies.
“My doctor tells me, ‘Mr Rieu, you are a miracle – your heart beats in three-four time,’” laughs André. “I was always close to the violin. When you hold the violin it vibrates with your body. The piano seems to be much more intellectual. You can make harmony, which I cannot do on the violin, but I can make melody, and I’m a melody man. Melody teaches other people to produce harmony.”
André bought the two parts of the castle separately. While one part had been renovated by a French designer and was in good condition, the other was not. “The person who lived here had no money and it was very damp. Eventually I persuaded them to sell me their half. It looks out onto a courtyard where it was always my dream to build an orangery and fill it with beautiful birds and butterflies. I am a keen conservationist. I believe in putting things back. Some people may dream of owning a Ferrari but for me it was an orangery where I could import my favourite big blue butterflies. They live only to die (they live just three weeks). They come from Nicaragua and they are the most beautiful.”
The virtuoso has no intention of ever leaving and has precise plans for the future. “I have always said that I want to live to at least 120 and before I die I’d like to play a concert on the moon. I’m in touch with Sir Richard Branson. We have an agreement that he is building a hotel there and I will go there with my whole orchestra. It must be the ultimate experience of relativity – seeing the earth from there, without borders, without race differences. I often imagine this in my mind. I often dream that I’m flying and I remember thinking as a little boy, ‘Was I here before? Something is not quite right.’”
André’s long-held love of flying led to him buying his own aeroplanes. “I sold my last plane six years ago,” he says, “now I rent them. Never buy a plane! Suddenly there’ll be a new law and you’ll need a new meter in the cockpit and it’ll be a tiny thing and they’ll say, ‘That’ll be 900,000 Euro.’” These days the interest is beginning to wane. “I don’t have the patience. It’s quite a dull thing. The only good moment is the take-off and landing.” That said, in his meeting room, which houses a table the size of a small classroom, executives from Dutch airline KLM are discussing a potential sponsorship deal. “I’ve told them they’ll have to change the uniforms of their stewardesses – they are horrible,” insists André. “Until now I’ve refused all sponsorship because if I give my name to a product, I expect quality. Every week people come to me with offers. This is the first time I’ve even considered one because an old friend is now the CEO. But it’s not something you do in an instant.”
He already has a castle for a home and has fully indulged his passion for planes, so how else does André like to spend his money? “I like to buy butterflies and good instruments for my orchestra. Also I have a lot of pleasure putting the girls (in the orchestra) in beautiful dresses. They are all handmade and a single dress costs up to 5,000 Euro. All the girls have four dresses each. I have four of everything. All the big instruments, costumes, sound, set dressing, all of it – I have four of them. One set is somewhere on the sea going to Australia, one is in South America, one is here and another is on its way to Asia. Otherwise, we would not be able to travel.”
Two years ago when the orchestra was on a tour of Mexico, thieves broke into their hotel room in Guadalajara. “It was very scary, “ recalls André. “A list of our rooms was leaked by one of the hotel staff to the criminals. They took money and small things but they could not find the instruments. My violin was with me in the restaurant. I would never leave it in a hotel room.” Little wonder, as the violin is a treasured Stradivarius worth several million pounds. “There are only 400 left in the world so it’s very precious.”
André once said that he and Marjorie sleep with the violin between them. “I don’t see it as my property. I would like to preserve it for the next generation. The same with the castle.” He and Marjorie have been married for 38 years. They met when he was 11 and she was 13. Although they didn’t have their first date till he was 22 he always knew that “she was the proper one.” A former teacher, Marjorie financed the start of her husband’s orchestra ambitions. “I wanted an equal,” says André. “ When Marjorie gave birth to Pierre it was two o’clock in the morning. By nine she was there with her agenda and her phone.”
His wife still manages part of André’s operation. Pierre, 32, has taken on a directorial role. Eldest son Marc, 34, is an artist and has a son, Ivan, four, and a daughter, Fleur, three. Pierre has twin girls Linde and Lieke, born in 2008. “When they were born I had just arrived in Australia and I cried the whole day,” says André. “I was fighting huge emotions, wanting to go home. The twins started playing the violin when they were three. Marc’s boy is also very gifted but I’m not pushing them.”
André was brought up Catholic. While he is no longer religious, he is spiritual. What about the reports that a woman who came to one of his concerts in a wheelchair, unable to walk, stood up at the end? “That was absolutely real. I certainly think music has a healing property.”
He tells me he hopes one day to build a convent on his property. “I always thought if I ever put down my violin I’d be an architect. I like the idea of having a convent in the garden – a place where nuns can walk and meditate. I love the idea of serenity.” He finds his own peace in his beloved orangery: “ I love to sit and watch the butterflies and the koi. It makes me feel connected to the earth in a beautiful way.”
An Big Thank You to Angela for buying the Magazine and Typing this all out for us!!