Wednesday, 27 August, 2014

Published April 11, 2014
King of schmaltz plays the waltz
Charismatic Andre Rieu conducts a 60-strong orchestra that excels in 'light music', writes GEOFFREY EU
BT 20140411 GEANDRE11A 1038511

'We play 'music without problems' - I've had enough drama in my life, I don't need it on stage.'
- Rieu (above) on his delicate style of performance

BT 20140411 GEANDRE11A 1038511

HE performs in sold-out stadiums across the globe, has dozens of CDs, DVDs and TV specials to his name and over a million followers on Facebook. With his shoulder-length curls and rock-star demeanour, 64-year-old Andre Rieu looks every inch the music celebrity - except he wears designer tuxedos on stage, his instrument of choice is an 18th-century stradivarius and his signature tune is the Blue Danube Waltz, composed in 1866.

Chances are you may not have heard of Rieu's band but the 60-strong Johann Strauss Orchestra is an essential part of every large-scale performance, together with dozens of singers and dancers in period costume - and oh yes, the horse-drawn carriages that make for an entrance to remember.

It's unclear if the horses will be in Singapore when he performs here for the first time next week, but the audience can expect Rieu to put on a show of epic proportions all the same.

His concert tours - featuring classical music, hits from musical theatre, the pop music lexicon and the "light music" waltzes for which he is famed - are extremely successful and regularly ranked among the top revenue-making acts by Billboard magazine, alongside conventional pop and rock groups.

Rieu has been accused of lowering the tone of classical music by making it accessible to the polo-shirt-wearing masses (dancing in the aisles at his concerts is not unheard of) and detractors have referred to him as the King of Schmaltz - not coincidentally a word that rhymes with waltz. Given the adoring fans and the level of success he's enjoyed since his first concert in 1988 however, Rieu will most likely be the one who has the last laugh (and the last waltz too).

The Dutch-born Rieu, who first took up the violin at five and had a conventional classical music education, shares the stage with a collection of international soloists and describes his extravagant, close to three-hour show as a musical journey around the world inspired by Johann Strauss, the 19th-century Viennese composer and the original King of Waltz.

"I play the lead violin and I conduct my orchestra and chorus and the soloists," says Rieu in a recent email interview. "What makes it so special is the positive energy, the fun and the special connection we have with our audiences. I interact with them, I talk about the music and I tell little stories about my life." His music has a healing effect, he adds. "We play 'music without problems' - I've had enough drama in my life, I don't need it on stage."

What drama there is on stage is carefully choreographed, of course. "I love to be creative, not just in the musical sense," says Rieu, who designs the costumes himself. "Aren't you sometimes bored when you see 'normal' classical concerts? Some of them are so dull - why not add visual elements to emphasise the music?" He adds, "My father was a conductor and used to dress his musicians in Mozartian costumes during carnival season and the audiences loved it - maybe I inherited this from him."

Years of routinely performing in front of huge audiences in castles (his own), famous concert halls and massive open-air stages haven't prevented Rieu from thinking even bigger - he has said he'd like to perform someday at the North Pole and even on the moon. Closer to reality, he does have a violin that most professional musicians can only dream of owning, made in 1732 by Stradivarius himself. "I love this instrument, it reminds me of the opera singer Maria Callas - very passionate, he says. "I used to play one from 1667, which was one of his first, but it was too small for me so I gave it to a young girl from Korea."

The first concert he ever saw - when he was three or four years old - also had a lifelong impact on Rieu.

"My mother took me to a concert where my father was conducting the symphony orchestra and for the first time in my life I heard that wonderful sound and saw all the bows going up and down at the same time. That made a huge impression on me and I wanted to be part of it."

Rieu cites his wife of 39 years Marjorie as the most important influence in his life - she introduced him to the joys of ABBA, after all - along with his first violin teacher, an 18-year-old blonde beauty. "I was five years old and immediately fell in love with her - so I practised a lot, just to impress her."

A few years after that, the eight-year-old Rieu experienced his true eureka moment. He was at one of his father's concerts and the audience was suitably respectful of the evening's programme of Beethoven and Mahler.

"But when his orchestra played the encore, something changed," says Rieu. "People suddenly started to smile, it was magical - it was Strauss's most famous waltz By the Beautiful Blue Danube. Since then I have adored the waltz, because it can reach people in a way other music forms cannot."

Andre Rieu and His Johann Strauss Orchestra Concert perform 'live' at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Wednesday April 16 at 8pm. Tickets priced from $98 to $268 are available at