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Andre Rieu: My love for the waltz and why I spend millions taking it global

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If things had gone the other way, violinist Andre Rieu would be behind the counter at his local pizzeria rather than on an Abu Dhabi stage on Saturday.

A lack of finances to fund his career in the early 1980s left him contemplating abandoning a professional career in music and opening an Italian restaurant instead.

However, even at the peak of desperation, the Dutch performer couldn’t imagine giving up the violin.

“The idea was when anyone ordered the most expensive pizza, which we called the Paganini [after the 17th-century Italian composer] I would pop up with my violin and play at the table,” Rieu tells The National ahead of his Abu Dhabi Classics concert at Etihad Arena.

“Fortunately, the situation did not need to come to that.”

Indeed, Rieu, 74, is not only one of classical music’s biggest-selling acts with more than 40 million albums sold, he is also renowned for almost single-handedly reviving the waltz, a popular European 16th-century folk dance originating in Austria.

He did it by leaning fully into some of the characteristics that made the waltz such a hit at the time, from painstakingly recreating the majestic ballroom settings on stage to performing with his own 80-piece Johann Strauss Orchestra named after the Austrian violinist.

It’s an expensive venture. Rieu reportedly spent more than $43 million financing his 2008 stadium tour, including a replica of the Schonbrunn Palace in Austria.

Such attention to detail is vital, he says, even if it makes his accountants nervous.

“To play the waltz you need to do it really big,” he says. “You need a big orchestra to capture the essence of the music and for the stage, it is really about creating a great atmosphere and bringing people together.

“Normally when we create a concert film, we have 15 cameras on the orchestra and 20 looking at the audience to really show the emotion that comes with this beautiful music.”

This is illustrated in his concert films – almost 50 of them – where sold-out crowds cry to waltz renditions of Adios Nonino by Argentinian tango composer Astor Piazzolla and the Christmas hymn Nearer, My God, to Thee.

“That’s why I love the waltz because it allows me to reach people and make them love each other,” Rieu says.

“The music is a mirror of life in that it has happiness and melancholy at the same time.”

Rieu first experienced the music’s appeal as a child at a concert hall.

Under the baton of his father Andries Antonie Rieu, the Maastricht Symphony Orchestra often ended their programmes with a waltz as a form of light relief.

“My father used to play Johann Strauss and Beethoven and people would listen very seriously,” he says.

“But then a waltz would come in the encore and suddenly the place would come alive and people would be relaxed. That really made an impression on me.”

The fact his father wasn’t enamoured by his initial choice to dedicate himself to the waltz wasn’t surprising.

Rieu says the music has been and remains looked down upon by the classical music establishment.

“The waltz is rarely involved in classical music education and I think to play it in a good way is difficult because you need a 70 or 80-person orchestra,” he says.

“When I was younger, I used to be angry when in a practice session with an orchestra and the last five minutes would be dedicated to the waltz.”

Rieu pays no attention to the critics who deride his work as mawkish.

“When the audience feels the sparkle of the music and they go ‘aaaah’, that’s really all I want,” he says.

“I know the only people who’re not moving in the shows are often the critics.”

Yet, despite being renowned as “the king of waltz”, Rieu pushes back at the notion that he is a populist.

“Yes, I want to grab people’s attention and make them love the music. But you have to be professional to that or it doesn’t work,” he says.

“We approach the music in a classical way and we are all good musicians. This is why we can play everything from Strauss to Tutti Frutti by Little Richard and Can’t Help Falling in Love by Elvis Presley in our way and the reaction is incredible.

“This is what I want to achieve with what I do, and that’s to reach people’s hearts through music.”

Andre Rieu and the Johann Strauss Orchestra perform at Etihad Arena, Abu Dhabi, on Saturday. Tickets start at Dh215; etihadarena.ae

Updated: March 07, 2024, 6:40 AM

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