The second I enter Andre Rieu’s Hollywood hotel suite a camera is pointed at me. A reality TV camera crew follows him at all times. There’s something about Rieu that enjoys to be always on, always the showman, and the man who never stops.
It is that specific drive that’s turned him from just a man with a violin to a kind of high priest of the waltz. Last year when he toured with his Johann Strauss Orchestra his shows outsold any other male touring artist in the world including Bruce Springsteen. His last album Forever Vienna reached Number 2 in the pop chart; in all he has sold over 22 million albums.
He started off as a violinist in a classical orchestra in Holland. Now he has an empire of which one of his sons, Pierre, is vice-president and here with him today.
The show is quite a spectacle. He plays his violin and conducts an orchestra that contains ladies in full crinolines. There are always thousands of flowers and hundreds of balloons. Once he performed with an entire castle which was rebuilt for each performance. But more of that later.
He’s Dutch, 61, with long flowing rock star hair. No comb over or transplant involved. He’s got this weird trick of seeing everything, missing nothing. Always remembering you, even if he only met you for five minutes. His eyes are beyond piercing. They can look at you from the stage and find you in an audience. And he can make people waltz. Unexpectedly rows of normal people find themselves swaying and mesmerised pied piper style into waltzing.
I persuade the cameras to go away. Rieu looks a little crestfallen as he tells me how much his popularity has soared even more in his native Holland and Australia since he engaged them. “They see me on the road, they see me on stage, they see in fact he’s a nice guy, somebody they can relate to. And they see me how I relate to my orchestra, a bunch of friends.”
Rieu loves to be seen, to connect. But he also loves to be in charge. “The tape is mine, the camera team is mine and I decide what’s in it.”
Rieu is so warm you imagine him always dipped in sunlight. He lives in a castle in Maastricht where the real D’Artagnon, who Dumas’ fictional character was based on, was said to have had his last breakfast before he died in battle serving Louis XIV. As a child he used to take piano lessons in that castle, but he dreamed of living in it and filling it with chandeliers. And this is the other extraordinary quirk: he’s the god of positive thinking; if he imagines it happening he somehow makes it.
“I think I told you once before I’m an unhealable positive optimist.” So what happens when things go wrong, he must feel not just disappointed but devastated? “That depends on what’s gone wrong. I had this huge financial crisis when I made a castle to tour with and sent it to Australia a few years ago. We copied it room for room from a Viennese castle. It was so beautiful. Playing in it I thought Strauss must have felt like this.” He raises his head and opens his arms like a lion taking the sun.
His son Pierre was the architect for the castle. He looks just like him, younger, without the wild hair. “Without him it wouldn’t have been done,” says Rieu. Pierre interrupts, “Without me there wouldn’t have been a financial crisis trying to build an exact replica of a castle to tour with.” Rieu says, “No, no, no. Without you it wouldn’t have existed. It brought us a financial crisis and it gave us media attention that you couldn’t pay for. Without it we wouldn’t be sitting here doing this interview. After the castle incident we were so famous in Australia we were able to get a record deal in the UK.” Indeed they are signed with industry giants Universal.
So what exactly happened with the castle? “We started to build one but it had to be scrapped because the fire people wouldn’t pass it. We started another one and discovered that the ticket sales were so huge that we had to build another one to play back to back otherwise we wouldn’t have time to take it down and rebuild it. So we had three castles: the scrapped fire hazard one and the two because of the ticket sales.
“So, when things go wrong there is always a positive side. The bank people were very concerned, but also very helpful and I was on the front of Billboard and sold more tickets than any other male artist. So that was no so bad. That was in 2008.
Last summer he had another crisis. He had to postpone his sold out UK arena tour because he had a sudden illness. A viral infection of the vestibular nerve which left him unable to stand up. “Yes, it was a real crisis. I was lying in my bed and suddenly the whole room started to shake. I couldn’t stand up. It was a shock to everybody. And now I’m here again standing on the stage. I see it as a positive thing because immediately the night it happened I started to change my life. My wife and Pierre’s as well (Marjorie, his wife of 37 years, works for him managing the concerts, creating the sets and costumes, as does Pierre).
“From the moment the doctor came immediately and said it’s a virus, there’s no pill, there’s only one thing for Andre to do and that’s rest. Rest is a strange word for me. I was at home for three months and had to cancel a British and Australian tour, or rather postpone.”
He spent three months in his castle – a beautiful place. He has an orangerie where he likes to sit in and relax and watch his collection of rare butterflies flutter. He designed and built the butterfly house himself.
“That was always a dream. Other people might want to buy a Ferrari, but I wanted a butterfly house. I’d built it together with a blacksmith. We designed it together.”
The virus made him lose his balance. “It was work pressure. It suddenly happened because I was very overworked. So I’m going to do much less. For example I made German television shows for five years in a row in the summer. That means everyone goes on holiday while I jump into a studio and sit in a dark hole editing. No vacation. And I was proud I never had a vacation.” He shakes his head.
Despite his constant touring the world he would will himself never to have jet lag. “Relaxing for me was sleeping.” The virus was a wake-up call. Perhaps enough of one, but he still seems fairly unstoppable. “On stage I feel much better. Somebody up there told me I needed a rest. It was a shock. I’ve never been ill in my life. I mean I might have had a cough or something, but when I went on stage I was always OK. Maybe I believed that I could go on and nothing ever happened to me. Perhaps it was a warning that I could have had a stroke or something much worse. So it was something telling me, ‘Andre, come back to your roots and just do what you like to do, and that’s making music’. I stopped all the rest.”
The rest included building projects, public speaking, public appearances at launching new businesses, “For me listening to music could never make me relax. It makes me alive. The waltz is a very important part of my life. It’s a very important way for me to express my positiveness, bringing humour to the world. The waltz can be sad, at the same time uplifting. You have to see life from both sides, and the waltz encapsulates that. If you’re in my audience you give yourself to me and the waltz will grab you.”
If he wasn’t making music what would he do? “I’d be an architect because I feel that building and music are similar. I’m building on stage. Not like a priest that wants to educate, but I’m building up an audience that loves music and I’m building in my way which is through the heart. I’m not against people sitting and listening to beautiful classical music. I sometimes feel something is missing and it’s the interaction that you will see tonight and me wanting to be together with them. That’s my job, I know what I’m doing. I can guide them.
“I think as long as you build you live. I think the Emperor Hadrian said that, and he built a very long wall. In Maastricht we are building the whole time. I have carpenters and construction people on my payroll. We have just finished a little house for Pierre around the corner from the castle. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world for me to visit my grandchildren. He has twins.” Pierre tells me they are 13 months and eight days.
“I think my whole crisis was due to them.” Being away from them? “No. They were born on the day I arrived in Australia and I was completely overwhelmed by emotion. He sent me a picture by text of the first and then the second. I was crying the whole day and I just wanted to go home.”
Pierre shows me pictures, very cute, Linda and Lyeke. He tells me that this morning he’s installed a webcam so that if they are on tour they don’t miss anything and this morning they saw their first steps.
“I am serious. The twins are what changed me. The birth of these two girls was so essential and so pure, I felt that this is life and I should leave the whole other shit behind.”
Did he not feel that when his children were born? “No, I tell you it is different.” He has two sons, Pierre and also Mark, who is a painter. “If Mark would run the company there wouldn’t be a company. He lives in the sky he paints.”
Why does he think having grandchildren is so much more affecting? “I suppose when you have children you are in the middle of your life. You’re young and you’re building up your life. Somehow having them now it has overwhelmed me, and perhaps because they are girls. We had two boys and all the dogs we had were males and suddenly – girls.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with his relationship with his sons. Pierre tells me, “We never argue.” Rieu says, “It’s not like I’m the father, you’re the son.” Indeed Pierre doesn’t even call him dad, he calls him Andre.
He is a strange mixture of a laid back person and one who pays excessive attention to detail. Most of all I love his eccentricity. He told me once before he planned to play a concert at the North Pole. He wanted people from all over the world to come to get attention for global warming. “I would earn no money but I’d very much like for the polar bears to waltz. They do dance, you know.” He is an avid conservationist and peace lover. He wants Israelis and Palestinians to waltz together to his tunes.
His optimism is indeed relentless. He tells me when he was first starting out he got invited to a meeting with a promoter in New York. They flew to New York to meet him “and then we got a call saying could we do a conference call with him which we could have done from home and he was two blocks down the road. A lot of people would say why weren’t you angry. I would say, why would I jeopardise nice concerts and disappoint my audience and I didn’t want to feel I’d wasted the money on the ticket. So I took the call and it was the best thing. It worked out really well. I suppose it takes a belief in yourself, something that no one can take away so you don’t feel diminished by these things.”
Growing up he always felt slightly displaced, different from the rest of his family. His father had been a conductor of classical music and believed in its traditions.
Perhaps the source of his passion comes from rebellion. “My father was a conductor and I would stand in the window and play melodies and my mother would try and make me play scales. There was a conflict. There were six children and I was the black sheep. The others were all white.”
Musically what he’s doing is not classical traditional, it’s changing time signature slightly to make everything waltzable. His background was straightforward classical. “I was convinced that this was not the life and it must be possible to play music with more feelings and more love. They always said ‘poor Andre, he’ll never be anything’.
“My mother would always say to me don’t look people in the eye. And that’s what I do every single night on stage: I communicate. I don’t see my mother very often. She met her great grandchildren for the first time a couple of weeks ago. Pierre contacted her and asked her. I don’t blame her for anything. My father died 14 years ago. He saw me in the beginning of the Strauss orchestra. But from the first moment we had success. He wrote me a letter and said there’s only one person who can do this. He didn’t tell me he wrote it, I heard it from other people that he was proud of me. You ask yourself why. I mean, I’m sitting here. What was the problem?”
Rieu was always different. “When I was a little boy lying in my bed I was convinced I wanted to marry a girl whom I worked with, and that’s true.” His wife, a former teacher, who financed the start of his orchestra, still works alongside him. “I wanted an equal. When Marjorie gave birth to Pierre I can still remember it was two in the morning and at nine she was there with her agenda and her phone.
“I met Marjorie when I was 11 and she was 13. She was in a class with my sister. We met again when we were 22 and 24 and went on our first date. But I think I really knew when I was 11 that she was the one.” Of course he did because that’s in keeping with his magical thinking. He’s very interested in space travel and other universes. When I was a little boy I would always look at plants in the garden and think of what other worlds go on in this plant. I knew then there was not just one universe.” We debate infinity for a brief moment in time.
“It’s cosy here I admit. But yeah, of course you think about death. I’m afraid of death. Everybody is. I want to stay here with my wife and children and grandchildren. I want to be on stage. I want to live as long as possible. In Oxford there’s a professor who says in five years we will be able to stay alive forever. Not us, we are too old, but future children can decide how many thousands of years they want to live for. You can still be young, you won’t be old and ill. I would definitely do it. Imagine the wisdom you’d have with 2,000 years experience. But more importantly, I like it here now. People tell me I’ve changed since the crisis I’ve had. Marjorie says I’m back to the boy I married. I take it as a warning.
“An Indian healer came to my concert and told me I was a very old soul here for thousands of years. People have said perhaps I’m the reincarnation of Strauss. I don’t know about that. But my whole youth I felt that something was not right. That I was here in this family but I was different.” Does he feel a bit of an alien? “Yes, perhaps.”
Perhaps it’s that feeling of being dislocated or distanced from the world that pushes him to be an uber communicator with his eyes always looking like they’re burning from within.
That night at the concert he was fully himself. His long hair flowing. His violin zig-zagging passionately. He strides an incredible line – sentimental but heartfelt. He does look you in the eyes. I watch him watch me arrive late and see exactly where I’m sitting amongst 40,000 people. Giant screens flank him upon which band members are highlighted. It’s all inclusive. He tells us that one blue crinolined lady has fought and won her battle with breast cancer; applause; music saved her life; more applause. Then a few tears. The waltzes keep on coming along with Michael Jackson tunes turned into waltzes. In the background an American flag. By the end of the concert the half of the audience that is not weeping is out of its seats waltzing. Even those who have never waltzed before.