André Rieu on his way to becoming classical music’s best-selling star violinist

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The cake, like everything at André Rieu, is larger than life. Resplendent with fatty, sticky currants and collapsing under a mountain of whipped cream, it is offered with a smile and the confidence that this is his “everyone’s favorite cake”. The 68-year-old Dutch violinist orders it from a specialist baker in Maastricht, his hometown, and eats a portion, religiously, every day at 3 p.m. “Without the cake,” he said with serious mockery, “I’m nothing.

If a daily dose of gooseberry cake is the secret to its success, it surely works. Rieu is a phenomenon, no other word. The kitchen table where we eat is located in a castle dating from 1452. Legend has it that the musketeer Charles d’Artagnan, inspiration of the literary hero To be famous? It’s nothing. Whether I’m on stage, here in my backyard, or buying sugar at the corner store – it’s me of the same name, who had his last meal in this same room before getting caught around the neck in the neck. siege of Maastricht. Rieu has lived here with Marjorie, his wife for 42 years, since 2000. (They have two sons and five grandchildren.) He had visited the castle, perched at the top of a narrow road overlooking the Meuse, as a child and thought later that would be nice to own it. Now he does, making adjustments as he goes. On the winter day I visit, one wall is covered with scaffolding, while monastery-style cloisters have recently been elegantly completed. There is a butterfly house and a pond filled with huge koi carp.

If the idea of ​​a modern classical musician living in a private castle among giant fish exudes some fantastic grandeur, Rieu himself could hardly be more grounded or more charming. No, he laughs, he doesn’t wake up every morning, looks at himself in the mirror and says to himself “oh there it is, the global phenomenon! At last count he has sold around 45 million records and is not only the best-selling classical artist of all time, but the greatest solo artist on tour in the world. Nonetheless, he insists, “I am exactly the same. Whether I’m on stage, here in my backyard, or buying sugar at the corner store, that’s me. Everything in life is relative. To be known? It’s nothing: it’s something that we have created in our head. So I’m on TV; so people on the street sometimes recognize me – why would that mean i’m any different? This is not the case. It would be stupid to think that just because I’ve sold a lot of CDs I’m better than anyone else. ‘

In addition to the cake, there’s the charisma, which is palpable from the moment Rieu walks into a room. It’s also impossible to miss the sparkling blue eyes and hyper expressive eyebrows – which, he admits, play a key role in his live shows. (When you’re performing in front of tens of thousands of people, there are a lot of big screens showing huge images of your face around the arena.) “For me, performance is about connecting with my audience. And you can connect with anyone, even 15,000 of them. I play with my face a lot and with each raised eyebrow I can feel how they react.

I suspect that Rieu’s shiny, lively hair might boost his communication powers as well. When it comes to the pantheon of magnificent musical barnets – think Rattle, Isserlis, Dudamel – he could give his money’s worth to any of his blessed colleagues. But this is perhaps the only time Rieu is compared to such luminaries. Classical music as an industry remains wary of mainstream commercial success: for many purists, Rieu’s breathtaking popularity – in ticket sales he is more important than Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay and AC / DC – automatically invalidates any claim to its credibility.

However, one cannot deny the authenticity and the passion with which he approaches his musical creation. The son of a conductor, he had first been introduced to the piano, which he did not like, and was five years old when his mother noticed that he had hands that could be better suited to the violin. . It was love at first sight. “The violin spoke to me straight away,” he says. “The sound of my teacher’s vibrato up close: I was flabbergasted. I wanted to have that sound. Within three weeks, he had apparently mastered his own style: to this day, a loose, full vibrato remains one of his hallmarks. “It has always been very instinctive,” he notes.

Because the whole Rieu house was filled with music, it was resolutely Catholic and by no means idyllic. “I had a very unhappy childhood,” he tells me frankly. “My parents were very strict – they criticized me for being cheerful all the time; they told me i would get nowhere in life. My mother used to say: you should never look people in the eye, it’s very rude. He looks at me, that walking human ad for eye contact, and shakes his shoulders cheekily as if to say “well.” Was the violin an ally against his miserable upbringing? “The violin was part of my body, of my life,” he recalls. “Exactly as it is now. But they weren’t proud of me, my parents. My father never encouraged me or my siblings. I think they were afraid of my happiness, of my openness.

It was, however, under the baton of his father, when he was conducting the second violins of the Maastricht Symphony Orchestra, that he set on his path. “After a single day spent as an orchestral musician, I thought: this is not my life,” he recalls. “And I looked at these great soloists like Menuhin or David Oistrakh, then about five meters behind them was the ‘shadow’, usually the woman, and I knew: I don’t want this solo life either, being alone. , all “look at me”. From that first day, my dream was to have my own orchestra.

The dream turned into a sumptuous reality. Rieu’s Johann Strauss Orchestra, named after its musical idol, is the largest private ensemble in the world. It celebrated its 30th anniversary this year with a series of spectacular concerts in medieval Maastricht Square, attended by over 100,000 people from over 80 countries, including Fiji and Australia. (Maastricht was a pretty arduous journey from St Pancras to London, with multiple journeys by train and car!) Unlike orchestral musicians around the world, who often complain about being overworked, underpaid and undervalued , Rieu’s musicians seem to be treated exceedingly well. They are accompanied on tour by a professional chef and fitness instructor, while their buses are tailor-made for comfort by Mercedes-Benz. Members of the orchestra who are parents can benefit from the services of a private kindergarten. Rieu also has his own recording studio, production and events company, and stage and costume workshop. In 1987, he began by convincing 12 courageous players to accompany him for the ride: “I had no money to promise them, no nothing, but they arrived in this school, which had no heating, to repeat with me ”. He now has over 110 people on fixed payroll and a hundred more work with him as a freelance writer. “It’s a huge responsibility,” he says. ‘I take it seriously. Some of them have been with me for 30 years when they could have gone anywhere else. I am very proud of it.

The orchestra collaborates with him on everything – not just concert extravagances, but record-breaking studio recordings and film relays (in 2015 and 2016, broadcasts of their annual concerts in Maastricht were the highest-grossing film event in the world. the year, bringing in over £ 1m in a single night). Rieu is relaxed when it comes to labels: he doesn’t care if something counts as pop or classical, folk or jazz. “I want to demolish these walls,” he laughs. “For me, there is only good and bad music. And bad music is heartless music. Why do we play music? Touch someone; not showing how good we are. One of the callbacks we do is “Falling in Love” by Elvis. It’s such a special moment when you see the audience singing. I listen all the time. Even a snippet of something I hear in the street: if a melody comes to my heart, I know I have to play it.

Perhaps it is that unwavering love for music that, above all else, devoted Rieu fans respond to – especially when headlines can make our world less and less wonderful. Rieu is convinced of the positive impact that music can have. “As long as there is music, we can continue to hope for happiness, love and the luck of peace,” he said. So what does “amore” mean to him? ‘It means everything. Love is everything. I’m a positive man, and I can’t help but think that we are better now than we have been, that there is progress. There is a tendency to say that the world is falling apart and we only talk about death and negative things. But I don’t think so. We grow, we move forward and music can play a huge role in human progress. ‘ Even though the impact is measured person by person, it is important. “People come to my concerts and they tell me they can’t believe how happy they are afterwards,” he smiles. “It may take them two weeks to come back to earth.


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