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Dec 1, 2017

Portrait of Folk Violinist André Rieu

Portrait of Folk Violinist André Rieu

By Astrid Theunissen, from "The Financial Paper."
For thirty years André Rieu has been touring the world with his Johann Strauss Orchestra. And with success: he is one of the three best-earning artists in the Netherlands. Portrait of a perfectionist.

André Rieu in the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam, January 2017. Photo: Hollandse Hoogte / Harold Versteeg

In addition to the sixty orchestra members , three pieces of all their instruments and three of their stage clothing (men's costumes, gala dresses for the ladies), their own washing machines also come along during a tour of André Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra. After all, experience has shown that the quality of laundry elsewhere does not meet Rieu's requirements everywhere. Even Rieu's sofa bed accompanies him all over the world - only on that couch he wants to prepare and recharge himself for the concert. Furthermore, the decor, the front of a Greek temple, is shipped, a castle or anything else from 100 to 120 meters long, the sound system, which is identical to that of The Rolling Stones, and Rieu's Stradivarius. Someone who watches this precious violin also goes along. Then come his manager, which is his youngest son Pierre, Rieu's personal trainer, Rieu's doctor, the washing ladies, the technical staff, two chefs, and a mobile kitchen. "Those who work hard must eat well," says the violinist born and bred in the Burgundian Maastricht. Everyone always thought: "The" King of the Waltz "is coming," let's prepare a wiener schnitzel for him," he once said. "I was fed up with that."

Touring itself has not yet bored the 68-year-old musician. Every performance is a migration, a logistical challenge and an attack on the physical body, but touring is performing, and performing, says Rieu is "better than sex.". He cherishes his murderous agenda, with ten concerts in December and the same number again in January. And so it has been going on for about thirty years. In between he produces CD's and DVD's and he nourishes his plans, to become even more famous. Because his retirement age does not stand in the way of his ambition. "I'd like to be among them," he said during his recent tour of America, while strolling the Walk of Fame in Los Angeles.

Folk festivals

According to Quote 500, André Rieu is - after DJs Tiësto and Armin van Buuren - with 25 million Euros the most wealthy musician in the Netherlands. "His trademark: the creation of folk festivals of unprecedented proportions, in which highlights from operas, musicals, classical music and film tracks follow each other in rapid succession," according to professor Maaike Meijer, who, together with and amongst other cultural historians, Rieu's school friend Jac van den Boogard, studied "The phenomenon of Rieu," and defined him in the book "Rieu, maestro without borders." 'Rieu is like a wholesaler in musical climaxes", says Meijer, "and if you experience that live, it's quite crazy, fun and festive."

This approach to classical music may be called "disrespectful" by critics, but the formula is striking in both Australia, South America and Japan. "Rieu taps into a trans-cultural source and that is intriguing," says Meijer. "He always knows to play melodies which the audience knows from somewhere. That recognition touches and creates solidarity."'

Born: 1 October 1949 in Maastricht
1961-67: City Secondary school of Maastricht
1968-73: Maastricht Conservatory
1974-77: Conservatory Brussels
1978: Plays at Maastricht Salon Orchestra
1987: Founding of the Johann Strauss Orchestra
1994: Breakthrough with 'The Second Waltz'
2002: Knight in the Order of the Dutch Lion
2005: First Vrijthof concert in Maastricht, beginning annual tradition
2011: Performs 'And the Waltz Goes On' in Vienna, a composition by Sir Anthony Hopkins
2013: Coronation concert on the Amsterdam Museum square during the coronation of King Willem-Alexander
2016: Composes the 'Windsor Waltz' for the ninetieth birthday of the British Queen Elizabeth
2017: Celebration of the 30th anniversary of his Johann Strauss Orchestra

His intuition for the needs of his audience Meijer calls that "phenomenal", but he prepares himself very well for that. Before he visits a country, he investigates old local hits, which he then performs. He also invites local musicians to his stage; young pan flute players in Romania, a military mega band in Chile. Nothing is crazy enough for Rieu. In the Netherlands, he had Father Abraham (Pierre Cartner)sing the smurf song, André van Duin doing an act and this summer David Hasselhoff appeared on stage in the car from his former TV series "Knight Rider", to sing his forgotten disco song "Looking for Freedom." It is a long way off from the stiff, elitist world of classical music, where it is not even allowed to cough," says Meijer.

There was a record player on which only heavy classical music was played.

And probably after his father, who stuck up his nose for all music which is not classically classical. André Rieu senior was conductor of the Limburg Symphony Orchestra and who demanded high musical expectations of his six children. At the age of five, André Junior received a violin and at the age of nine sang in the boys' choir of the Sint Servaas Basilica, just like Jérôme Minis, who still vividly remembers the rehearsals of nearly sixty years ago. Their musical development has had an ideal beginning there, he says, but they sometimes went "quite barbaric." We studied complete four-part masses of the masters from the Dutch Golden Age, Palestrina, Josquin des Prez, and Orlando di Lasso, and those who sang a false or bad note, had to continue singing on their knees or the conductor would asked your neighbor to smack you one. "Especially after those Wednesday afternoon sessions, the boys had lots of fun when they climbed many meters up the Servaas church using the down spouts on the Roman façade. "André is an adventurer," says Minis. "That which he now achieves, stems from his adventurous character."

Rieu did not wait until his orchestra was asked to come and play somewhere.

Jac van den Boogard, who was a Rieu classmate at the Maastricht City Gymnasium, also knows him as a boy who liked to go to the extreme. "André regularly skipped the solfège, the notes lesson, which he had to practice from his father." His father also demanded that his children attended all his concerts and to listen to Mahler, Bruckner and Wagner. "Pop music was forbidden", says Van den Boogard, who, just like cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and other prominent musicians, often visited the Rieus. "'There was a record player which always only played classic music."

A concert by André Rieu at the Vrijthof in Maastricht, the 6th of July 2013. Photo: Hollandse Hoogte / Otto Snoek

Longing for nostalgia

At the Maastricht Conservatory, Rieu put a striking conviction in his playing during examinations, according to fellow student Jérôme Minis, with whom he remained friends. Nevertheless, Rieu only starts to feel a passion for what he plays when he enters into a relationship with Marjorie, later on wife, as written in his biography "My Music, my Life." She brings him in touch with light salon music. Especially the waltz touches him, and when he starts to play for the Maastricht Salon Orchestra during his Conservatory study, he notices that this kind of music brings both lawyers and workers to dance on tables. And he sees opportunities to breathe new life into this drudging orchestra. "André has charisma and always has ideas, so that he literally and figuratively and in the shortest possible time played the first violin in that orchestra and made it a success," says Van den Boogard. Rieu did not wait until his orchestra was asked to come and perform somewhere; Under his leadership, the orchestra went and performed unasked in events, such as eating herring pieces on the Wednesday after carnival, and he started organizing Mother's day concerts, New Year's concerts and speculaas (brown ginger spiced cookies) concerts with Sinterklaas (St. Nicolas). "He expanded the repertoire with music which he picked up through a newspaper advertisement," says Van den Boogard. "During that time salon music was collecting dust in attics. André received garbage bags full at his front door."

Interior of the dining room in Huis de Torentjes, the residence of André Rieu. Photo: Hollandse Hoogte / Roger Dohmen Photography ... Rieu and his youngest son Pierre in 2008. Photo: Hollandse Hoogte / Ineke Oostveen

"It appears that Rieu must have felt the spirit of the times very well," says the cultural historian. There was a craving for nostalgia. He dusted off that old music and caused a furor with a twelve-piece orchestra back in 1987 which he called "the Johann Strauss Orchestra." It took another seven years before he found someone willing to release a record with him, and that record was his big breakthrough. Rieu's interpretation and performance of Dmitri Sjostakovich's "The Second Waltz" was high in the charts worldwide for months. The following year he played that piece during intermission of the final of the Champions League, and with a rapidly expanding effect, flew around the world."'

Rieu was at the top of the charts thirty times . He sold an estimated 40 million CD's and DVD's, and in 2016 alone sold 364,000 entry tickets. Fans follow and travel after him, but prefer to experience a performance in his hometown of Maastricht. On the Vrijthof, the medieval square where André Rieu and Jérôme Minis played soccer as children, he has traditionally since 2005 given a series of summer concerts for ten thousand people. Per night. "It is then a madhouse in Maastricht," says Erik de Jong, director of the Museum at the Vrijthof. "Everywhere fans walk around with banners, there are umpteen TV teams from all over the world and access roads are being closed."

His audience is already swaying after five minutes. Many artists cannot copy him in that.

But Maastricht is happy with the chaos, says ex-mayor Onno Hoes. "André Rieu creates huge publicity for Maastricht. In addition, every Rieu evening brings the hotel, restaurant and hotel industry an income of around six million Euros and the concerts are a great relationship event. "The latter is not only true for Maastricht; Rieu's eldest son Marc, an artist and painter, has for eight years used the opportunity to exhibit his works in the Theater on the Vrijthof. With success, because everything that has Rieu on it is cherished by his fans.

Loss of millions

"André's greatest strength is enthusiasm," observes Jérôme Minis, himself a flutist in a baroque ensemble. "After five minutes his audience is already swaying. Many artists cannot copy him in that." Jac van den Boogard shares that opinion. "Then you hear him say: "Everyone from South Africa is here ...! "André always uses superlatives."

"The joy which his audience experiences must be greater than grand," says Maaike Meijer, and costs and effort are not spared. "For the filming of a Christmas DVD in the middle of a sweltering summer, he had a whole garden sprayed full with artificial snow. He almost went bankrupt when in 2008 he copied the famous Viennese Sissi castle. The replica of 125 meters long with two ice rinks of 600 square meters was dragged all over the world. Just the erecting and the dismantling cost a fortune. "Because of this delusion of grandeur, Rieu's company suffered a loss of millions. His instruments were forced to be pledged to the bank, and he gave his name as collateral. But André Rieu is not afraid of a little set back. With extra performances he solved his money problems and a year later, in 2009, Rieu was ranked the sixth best-selling artists in the world, ahead of Britney Spears and Beyoncé.

"We never see Rieu grumpy, but of course just like everyone else, he can be."

His financial department is now paying more attention to the expenses of André Rieu, but according to him, everything must still be the most beautiful and the best. "A while ago he exchanged his 1667 Stradivarius for a 1732 Stradivarius," says Jac van den Boogard. "That seems to be an even better year, which makes the violin even sound better."

Rieu sets the bar very high, even for himself. Every evening has to be unique and be an unforgettable evening for his audience. That perfectionism is at the expense of his health. In the beginning of 2012 he rested for a few months, downed through burn-out. Since then he has been training with a personal coach and has adapted his exuberant bourgundian lifestyle. He now eats rye bread with smoke-dried meat and sniffs first at the French cheese to know whether it is worth it to gain weight. But he lets his own catering always serve an excellent cheese. Of course. That is what they are told. By Rieu himself.

The first concert by André Rieu in the Amsterdam Arena, in 2008, with the theme 'A romantic night in Vienna'.Photo: Hollandse Hoogte / Marco Okhuizen

An unabashed piece of PR

"Nothing happens without Rieu being involved. Everything around him is tightly controlled," says Maaike Meijer. Also the marketing department. The two books which he sells on his website were written by his loving wife Marjorie, and the films on his website and the reality series "Welcome to my World", on British television, are manufactured by his own team. "Rieu also knows better than anyone how to generate attention for a new song", says Meijer. "Just prior to the wedding of George Clooney and Amal, he celebrated a song to them via YouTube. Through that gesture it seemed like they were good friends, while they do not know each other personally. This is how his status as a celebrity rises, and at the same time he advertises his new CD."

The numbers
$ 32.1 million The Gross income of Rieu in 2016.
364,821 The Number of tickets sold in 2016 for 60 shows in 46 cities.
67. The listing between 100 artists who sold the most tickets for their shows in 2016.
12. The number of members with whom he started his Johann Strauss Orchestra (now 50 members) in 1987.
7. The number of times that Rieu won the Buma Export Award.
16. The number of weeks that the album 'Strauss & co' in 1994 stood at the number 1 in the album top 100

"It is Rieu himself who thinks of such 'unabashed samples of PR," says Meijer, but he runs everything through Marjorie. She is also actively involved in his activities; she writes the texts he speaks during his performance and participated in the exhibition about her husband at the Museum on the Vrijthof in 2015, "Rieu's love for detail." However, Marjorie remains consistently in the background. She avoids the press, according to museum director De Jong. She does not want to be the woman. Understandable. But it could also be strategy. Perhaps the female fans find it nice to have André seemingly a little bit for themselves."

André Rieu anxiously guards his own image. Everything that becomes public has to be perfect. During a concert there are eighteen cameras to take images for YouTube movies, DVDs and his soap opera. "André is always present at the cutting and editing," says Van den Boogard, who sometimes sits with him in the studio. "André checks all the images, chooses the best pictures, even of himself. "He always appears to be laughing," Meijer adds. "We never see Rieu grumpy, but of course he sometimes is just like everyone else. Rieu becomes grumpy about criticism, even about alleged criticism. He is very sensitive to that."

That could explain why (former) orchestra members, (former) employees and also family members such as his sons and youngest brother Jean-Philippe, who composed for Rieu for six years, do not want to talk about Rieu. Only Kerstin Cornelis, his former personal assistant, once made the cautious statement in one of the many internet films: "We are one big family, very disciplined. He's the boss." Meijer, who regularly visited Rieu in the midst of his orchestra members: "If you go along with him, he is generous, warm and cheerful and is very interested in your personal circumstances. He becomes annoyed and impatient when you go against him. He decides. And when he says that the bus leaves at 3 o'clock, it does not depart a minute later."

No star allures

On the other hand, criticizing his music does not bother him anymore. "André has the mission to make as many people as happy as possible with the music for which he feels passion," says Jérôme Minis. "And you know pianist Liberace's comment, right? When this showman and pianist was asked if he regretted no longer playing classical music but instead entertained, he said: "Oh yes! I'm crying ... all the way to the bank!!"

Rieu has won all the major music prizes, has about 480 platinum records, and has received important awards in several countries. Yet he has not changed since his success, claim Jérôme Minis and Jac van den Boogard. He may drive a nice car, own a nice little castle and sometimes takes a private jet, but no, André Rieu has absolutely no star allures. Van den Boogard: "He does his own shopping at the supermarket, butcher and baker." Minis: "He always makes a cappuccino for me." André likes to pamper others, they say, and does not boast about himself but is very interested in others.

"In his work everything has to be great, but at home André enjoys Marjorie, his two boys and five grandchildren," says Minis. "And the renovating his little castle."The so-called "Huis de Torentjes," (House of the little Towers) at the foot of the Sint-Pietersberg, is being restored by the violinist himself, with some help from Minis' brother. "If André had not become a musician, he would have been an architect," says Minis. "He himself has laid out his garden and designed a great orangery (Greenhouse). There we are drinking wine, between the exotic flowers and butterflies, the size of two hands, which André had flown in from Nicaragua as cocoons . Fantastic."

Rieu does not yet allow himself much time for relaxation. He is again going to expand his Vrijthof concerts to twelve shows, which he recently announced. He has established a media company which streams his shows to cinemas around the world. And he has brought a new tradition to live this year. Every first Saturday of January he will give a New Year's concert in Amsterdam, inspired by the New Year's Concert of the Viennese Philharmonic Orchestra. But then, of course, a size bigger. He does not play, like in Austria, in a concert hall with three thousand seats, but in the Ziggo Dome, which can accommodate seventeen thousand people. At the kick-off, last January, the concert was staged with no less than 150 dance couples and an innumerable amount of snowflakes. His fans will be wondering what Rieu has in store for them this year.

Thanks Ineke for this article and John for his translation

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