Concerts are a feast for the ears and eyes and have a huge international following
“I’m in my kitchen again,” he says cheerfully down the line from the family’s castle home in Maastricht, Holland. “But I’m not baking.” Instead, he is taking a few days off before resuming his first post-Covid world tour.
“We just came from South America. At the end of this week, we go to Tel Aviv for three concerts. Then I go to Malta. Then I fly home – and then we go to Lisbon.”
For someone who has been globe-trotting with his world-famous Johann Strauss Orchestra for over 40 years, just being able to perform in front of an audience again “is fantastic because finally, we can do what we really want to do,” he tells me.
“What I feel onstage each night is that people are so incredibly hungry to come back to my concerts. Here and there, I’ll see a mask, but 99 percent of the people that I see are free and they dance, and they hug, and they kiss and it’s really fantastic to see that enthusiasm again.”
Genial, multi-lingual Rieu – he speaks six languages – has just released Christmas-themed album, Silver Bells, featuring a heart-warming blend of seasonal favourites and romantic fireside classics.
“I love Christmas and being with the family,” says André who has two grown-up sons, Marc and Pierre, and five grandchildren. “I’m hoping they will all be here this year. I love to spoil them, especially my grandchildren.”
He stopped performing at Christmas after 1976. “They had asked me to play in the church at midnight. I was lying under the tree with my wife Marjorie and then I had to go to the church with my violin. I said, ‘I’ll never do this again. From now on, I’ll be at home at Christmas’ and that’s what I do.”
Of course, home for the Rieu family is a little different from most: it’s the 16th century Castle De Torentjes, which André bought in 1999 – and which he insists on smothering in Christmas decorations.
“I do it myself.”
André wears his success lightly
What, the whole castle? “I swear to you because I have this dream in my head of how I want it. So I look forward every year to doing it myself, and I take the time to do it, and the whole family stands around and looks at how I do it.”
Born in 1949, the young André Léon Marie Nicolas Rieu briefly thought about becoming a priest. Does religion still come into his Christmas plans?
“Of course, it’s in my blood because I was in the church choir my whole youth and I was a practicing Catholic until my 18th or 19th birthday. Then I read about all these religions in the world and I’m not religious anymore.
“But Christmas is a very special time. Whether you want it or not, it has to do with religion. But I don’t go to church.”
The broad selection of music on the new album encapsulates his music’s appeal perfectly. From beautifully wrought carols like Silent Night, Holy Night to jaunty pop covers like Santa Claus Is Coming To Town via authentic orchestral classics like Waltz Of The Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.
“I think I’m filling a gap. It was very difficult early on to get a contract with a record company because, the record companies, they have classical music, they have pop music. But there was no place where I fitted in. They said, ‘We don’t know what to do with you’.
“But that’s the reason, I think, for my success, because there’ an enormous audience out there loving classical music, but not in the way it’s brought to the elites in the little concert halls.
“When I play Bach, when I play Beethoven, I bring it with the enthusiasm that people don’t worry whether it’s classical or not. They just say, ‘Ah, that’s beautiful music’.”
He formed his first orchestral ensemble in 1978. Nine years later, came the Johann Strauss Orchestra, featuring just 14 musicians. These days, the orchestra is 60-strong, including the chorus, and famously comprises a majority of female musicians and singers, whose ballgowns he has designed personally in the past. Including one “copied from a gown worn by Elisabeth, wife of the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph. I oversee this as I want every performance to look as good as it can.”
More than 40million record sales later, Johan Strauss is now the biggest private orchestra in the world. Such mainstream success has, perhaps inevitably, incurred the disapproval of the ‘serious’ classical world.
He laughs it off. “I must tell you I don’t suffer when they want to be jealous, or they want to be snobbish. My own family was snobbish, so I’m allergic to that.”
He claims his father Andries, who conducted the Maastricht Symphony Orchestra, “never showed me love”; and that his mother, Alice, “was even worse.”
In contrast, André wears his success lightly. In the past, he has expressed a wish to play his current Stradivarius – his third, bought in 2018 for £7million – at the North Pole to raise awareness of global warming. And because “I like polar bears!”
He once made a cameo appearance in the Australian TV soap, Neighbours. And was a guest on the Dutch version of The Great British Bake Off. He’s also said he’d like Richard Branson to build a concert hall on the moon, so that his fans may one day waltz in space.
“It’s okay when people want to be snobbish. I enjoy what I do. I don’t suffer from it.”
André doesn’t practise every day anymore
Britain had self-styled ‘punk’ violinist Nigel Kennedy popularising classical music in the eighties and the nineties, but it’s hard to think of any comparably successful classical star to the prodigious Rieu.
“Of course there is room for more,” he says. “To be honest, I’m wondering why there are not more people doing this. But nobody does. Luckily, I am the only one.”
Since 2005, he has held an open-air summer concert in a Maastricht town square.
“And every year, in the encores, I always invite a special guest. We had Jermaine Jackson, we had David Hasselhoff. Trini Lopez… All sorts of artists that fit in my program and that I respect.”
Holland is a famously liberal society. Marijuana is legal; brothels are government-run. With his long shoulder-length hair and outré dress sense, did he ever, as a younger man, perhaps, yearn for a more rock’n’roll lifestyle?
“My parents were so severe, I lived in a sort of convent until my 18th, 19th. I was a very, how do you say that? A very prudent boy.”
Now 73, he doesn’t practise every day anymore. “I’m more and more conducting and less playing and that’s a normal thing in life of a violinist.”
He certainly doesn’t see himself retiring any time soon. Perish the thought!
Rieu returns to Britain with his orchestra next May
“There’s only one dream I have, and that is going on like this. I do, every morning, my sports with a personal trainer to keep healthy. I don’t smoke. My food, it’s healthy. So that is really my dream.”
He adds with a chuckle: “When I’m 140, that’s the moment I’ll think, ‘Okay, now it’s enough’.”
Rieu returns to Britain with his orchestra next May.
“Honestly, I cannot wait. We are going to 15 countries on this tour but Britain always feels special, so many friends.”
And will there be cake?
He laughs and tells the story of baking a croquembouche for his birthday, in October. “It’s a very difficult cake because it’s so big and you never know how it comes out of the oven, but I succeeded in doing it.”
It was, he says, “very popular.”
Of course it was.
- André’s Christmas album Silver Bells is out now; André Rieu In Dublin is in cinemas across the UK on 7th & 8thJanuary – visit andreincinemas.com