Interview by Ivan Hewett. Source: The Telegraph
Andre Rieu talks about storming the pop chart with an album of waltzes
‘You know, I think the waltz is music for eternity,” says André Rieu. “Sometimes my colleagues say, ‘How can you stand to play that stuff every night?’ But for me it’s easy: there’s always something new to find in them. They are a combination of melancholy and joy – just like life.”
Since he founded his first salon orchestra 35 years ago, Rieu has become the new Waltz King, his records selling in their millions. His compilation album Forever Vienna is currently number four in the UK pop charts. His stage sets are as complex and lavish as a rock group’s, with mocked-up Viennese palaces, ice-rinks and ballrooms. His 50-piece orchestra is resplendent in tails for the men and showy satin gowns with puffed sleeves and lots of bare shoulder for the women. Out in front stands Rieu in shimmering dark blue silk tails, leading the dances with his violin. “Waltzes were not meant to be conducted,” he says firmly. “I lead with my bow, my head, my whole body, just as Johann Strauss did.”
To call the waltz “eternal” may be stretching it a bit, but it’s certainly fantastically long-lived. Most dances measure their lives in decades, but the waltz has now been going strong for 250 years. It’s easy to see why. As Mark Twain put it, “what makes it so irresistible is the whirling motion. You have only to spin around with frightful velocity and steer clear of the furniture.”
The waltz is quite simply the best intoxicant ever invented. As long ago as 1799, a disapproving observer noted how the dancing couples assumed “the most indecent positions; the supporting hand lay firmly on the breasts, at each movement making little lustful pressures; the girls went wild and looked as if they would drop.”
As the waltz moved from the dance floor to the concert hall it became decorous and nostalgic, the audience silvery-haired and sedentary. By the 1980s, it had shrunk to a niche market, focused on Christmas specials and the famous New Year’s Day concert from Vienna, where the tradition was preserved in aspic.
It seemed the life had gone out of the form, but one teenage violinist in Holland in the 1960s felt differently. “My father was a conductor, and I grew up listening to his concerts,” he says, “and I noticed that, when he played waltzes as encores, the audience seemed different. They smiled, they started to move in their seats. This music still had a magic power to move people. That made a big impression on me.”
Pop music of the 1960s made a big impression on most young people, but not Rieu. “I was very abnormal,” he laughs. “I just didn’t notice the Beatles and Rolling Stones. My wife was the same, so we had a lot of catching up to do. We did puberty in about three weeks.”
Having completed his training as a violinist, Rieu created his first salon orchestra of just five players in his home town of Maastricht, expanding it slowly as audiences grew. Being a foreigner to the waltz tradition, Rieu felt free to play with it. He sometimes re-arranges the hallowed works of Strauss and Lehar, but insists he’s faithful to the spirit of Strauss, if not the letter.
“Strauss himself used different forces on tour, depending on the size of the hall. I always remember Herbert von Karajan’s remark that we have a responsibility to composers to do more than obey the dots on the page. We have to make these works live.”
Rieu is really an old-fashioned “light music” entertainer, equally at ease with Strauss, Lloyd Webber or Michael Jackson; he thinks of musical pieces as “turns” that have to be tailored to their place in the show. “I wanted to make a short version of Ravel’s Bolero to use as an encore, but I never imagined Ravel’s family would agree. But I thought, ‘Well, let’s try’, and they agreed!”
Chutzpah and charm are clearly part of Rieu’s success, but dogged determination also played its part. “For years I offered a waltz recording to Philips, and every year they turned me down. Finally, in 1995, they agreed, and that was the turning point. Our first recording beat Michael Jackson’s album in Europe.”
Rieu has attained true pop-star status, but it’s the first Waltz King who’s still his role model. “Strauss was the first pop-music superstar. He had a contract with several halls in Vienna to appear for half-an-hour each night, so he would conduct in one, jump into his calèche and drive really fast to the next. So when people say, ‘How can you combine being a violinist with running an orchestra and a business?’ I say, ‘Well, if Strauss could do it, so can I.’ “
‘Forever Vienna with André Rieu and the Johann Strauss Orchestra’ is out on Universal.
Interview by Ivan Hewett. Source: The Telegraph