On a list of the world's highest-grossing tours of last year, you'll find a lot of familiar names: U2, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga. And then, at No. 9, is an outlier: Andre Rieu, Dutch violinist and conductor of the Johann Strauss Orchestra.
In the course of the last 25 years, Rieu's efforts to popularize classical music — particularly the waltzes that Strauss made famous in the 19th century — have made him one of the the most commercially successful classical artists in history. His latest release is an album and DVD of Christmas music called Home for the Holidays. Here, he discusses it, along with his beginnings as a musician and his home life in a Dutch castle, with NPR's Guy Raz.
On waltz music
"My father was a conductor, and [his concerts included] all sorts of classical music. And then, during the encores, he loved to play Strauss waltzes. I was in the audience when I was a little boy, and what I saw during these concerts [was] that the audience was very concentrated and stiff, you know? Nobody dared to move when he played his classical music. But then, during his encores, the whole audience around me started to move, and to hum, and to dance, and to smile, and it was a completely different audience. And that struck me: I thought, 'My God, this is what I want to do.' "
On building his orchestra
"I choose musicians who want to make music not for money, and not because they want to have more [vacation] or whatever. No, because they love to be on stage together with other musicians and to make music. And that's, of course, in that way also we play the waltzes. I was so angry when I was in a symphony orchestra myself. ... All my colleagues were speaking only about the union, and 'We want more money,' and 'It's too cold here,' and 'When is the holiday?' Nobody spoke about, 'Oh my god, the concert yesterday was so beautiful' — never."
On living in his hometown in the Netherlands
"I met [my wife] here in Maastricht, and I was born here, I was married here, I have my children here. It's nice to live here in the castle. We have an airport 10 minutes from home. ... People always ask me, 'Why don't you move to New York or London?' And they'll be in traffic every day for two to three hours. You know, when I go to my studio at the other side of the city, it's 10 minutes when my driver drives and three minutes when [I drive]. So it's a luxury."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
If you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And over the past 24 hours, we've struggled on this program to figure out whether today we should leave music out. This is the place in the program we normally have an interview with an artist or a band. But we decided that our guest is worth hearing, if only because even for just these next few minutes, he will bring some joy into your day.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: And joy is what Andre Rieu does best.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Over the past decade, Andre Rieu has become the king of the waltz. And he's not some fancy or stuffy classical composer and conductor. He's a person who's worked to demystify classical music. He encourages people to stand up and dance during his performances. He moves as well. And as you can imagine, he's left the classical establishment somewhat annoyed.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Andre Rieu is the Dutch violinist and conductor of the Johann Strauss Orchestra. And over the course of the last 25 years, he's built an empire out of the waltz. And today, he's quite possibly the most commercially successful classical artist in history. Andre Rieu's latest release is an album and a DVD of Christmas music. It's called "Home for the Holidays."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SILENT NIGHT")
RAZ: When I spoke with Andre Rieu, he was at home in Maastricht, Holland, in his castle - yes, the man lives in a castle - and I asked him why the simple waltz has earned him such great success.
ANDRE RIEU: I think it has to do with, of course, the rhythm, the 1, 2, 3 rhythm. And it has to do with the fact that you have to recompose the waltz every night. When you don't do that, it's terrible to play a waltz because then it's (humming). And that's dead. No. You should play (humming). And then you see the whole audience starting to move and to smile and to dance and to laugh, and that's what I want to achieve.
RAZ: You can't imagine that happening in, like, I don't know, the Met or something - people dancing in the aisles.
RIEU: Why not?
RAZ: Well, yeah, but it just doesn't, right?
RIEU: No, because they don't play the waltzes like I do.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ON THE BEAUTIFUL BLUE DANUBE")
RAZ: You, of course, are so tied to Johann Strauss. You play so much of his music. How did he become the person - I mean, of course, he's not alive - but he's one of the most important people in your life.
RIEU: Yeah. A lot of people believe in reincarnation. I don't believe that, but when you look at my life, you almost would believe that there are things true in that story. But I think it's part of my character. It's in my genes from the beginning. And perhaps my father has to do also with it. My father was a conductor, all sorts of classical music. And then, during the encores, he loved to play Strauss waltzes. And I was in the audience, like, when I was a little boy, and what I saw, the audience was very concentrated and stiff, you know? Nobody dared to move when he played his classical music.
But then during his encores, the whole audience around me started to move and to smile, and it was a completely different audience. And that struck me. And I thought, my God, this is what I want to do.
RAZ: The classical music had been something for the elite, for people who were educated or people who were somehow smarter. And you felt that that was the way it was and you had to end that.
RIEU: Exactly, yeah. I think classical music is so beautiful. It's a way to become a better human being. At the same time, there's a huge fear with a lot of people - no, no, no, I'm not educated in classical music. And I want to take them, this fear away. I take away all the stiffness and elitair thing. And I tell the people be yourself when you come to my concert and do whatever you want.
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RAZ: Andre, explain how you playing Strauss and you playing waltzes would be different for somebody going to a major metropolitan symphony somewhere around the world and hearing it.
RIEU: So when I play with my orchestra, it's a very carefully built orchestra. I choose musicians who want to make music not for money. I was so angry when I was in a symphony orchestra myself many years ago.
RAZ: You were a violinist in the symphony in Holland.
RAZ: Just one of the nameless or faceless folks in that crowd.
RIEU: Exactly. And I was sitting there, and all my colleagues were speaking only about the union and we want more money and it's too cold here and when is the holiday? And nobody spoke about, oh, my God, the concert yesterday was so beautiful - never.
And then when there was a program with waltzes or there was a waltz to play, the conductor said, oh, my God, we have four minutes left after rehearsal. Take the waltz quickly and then we'll play it - or even without rehearsal. And that made me very angry because that's not the way waltzes should be played.
RAZ: It's interesting to hear you talk about anger because everything I've read about you says this is a person who is unflappable, who is totally and completely positive, to the point where you're not really sure if it's possible. Let me ask you something about criticism of Andre Rieu. Critics who follow classical music have said this is a man who has - sort of makes Disney music for grownups, who has debased this incredible art form. You've read that. You've seen it. What do you make of it?
RIEU: A lot of people who say that were never in a concert of me. So I don't know.
RAZ: Does it hurt your feelings?
RIEU: It depends who says it, of course. But mostly, it doesn't hurt my feelings because I do it now for 35 years. And a lot of critics, I even spoke to them and I said: Did you ever come to a concert? No, no, no, I don't. And then some of them came to concerts, and they said after the concert: I changed my mind.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: I'm looking at a list of the highest-grossing artists around the world - U2 is number one, Bon Jovi number two - you are number nine. You are ahead of Katy Perry and Justin Bieber, just behind Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga should be a little nervous, though. You are right on her tail there. You are almost the number eight biggest grossing artist in the world. Did it surprise you?
RIEU: No. It never surprised me because I - it took me a very long time to have a record label who wanted to sign me. They said: What do you play? Waltzes? Oh, my God. Where do you live? In Maastricht, in the south? Please go back to the south and play that for your grandmother. And I said: Please come to a concert and you will see that the people are mad, the people are crazy. Seven years long, nobody from the record company came to my concert. And then one day, one guy came, and he said: I understand what you mean.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: I want to end our conversation, Andre, with one last piece. It's called "December Lights" on your new record. And this is actually a composition of yours, a new composition of yours.
RAZ: Tell me about it.
RIEU: I knew that I wanted to make a Christmas special. And it's a whole story about how I celebrate Christmas. And I reminded myself of the day that I met Marjorie and I was a poor student in Brussels.
RAZ: You were 11 years old, and she was 13. Is that right?
RIEU: Yes. That was the first time. But then I met her, and that was the moment that we fell in love. And that was at Christmastime in Brussels, and I was a poor student studying at the conservatory there. And, really, the only thing I had was my violin and my clothes. And there she came, and it was very cold, and we warmed each other. And that was it.
RAZ: And you've been married now how long?
RIEU: Thirty-seven years.
RAZ: Congratulations. That's incredible.
RIEU: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DECEMBER LIGHTS")
RAZ: Andre Rieu is one of the best-selling performers in the world. His new Christmas release is called "Home for the Holidays." He, of course, is also known as the king of the waltz. Maestro Rieu, thank you so much. And Merry Christmas. Happy holidays to you.
RIEU: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure to talk to you.
RAZ: And you can see an excerpt from his new DVD at our website, nprmusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.