Putting a happy face on classical music

Waltz king André Rieu keeps his concerts light and fun

André Rieu just may be serving up the perfect musical "mommy food" for our times – comforting, familiar, satisfying.

The leader of the Johann Strauss Orchestra is playful, but traditional. Mature, but youthful. His orchestra plays classical music, but it's all done to entertain. Most of the selections are classical hits or traditional tunes, music recognizable to listeners who've never set foot in a concert hall. Some pieces are sweet and soothing; others set feet tapping – or maybe even waltzing.

Europe's reigning waltz king, Mr. Rieu (pronounced REE-you), is rarely seen in the United States except on public TV. Now he's touring North America, testing the waters to see if his brand of upbeat light classical music will sell as well here as back home, where his recordings such as "The Vienna I Love," "Romantic Moments," and "100 Years of Strauss" have placed high on the music charts.

Rieu's mission is a simple one: Make audiences enjoy listening to his music as much as he does playing it. That includes encouraging people to dance in the aisles.

"That's what I like," he explained in a phone interview prior to the tour. "And when they want to stand up and sing with me, [I say], 'Please, do it.' Because then I see that they are alive, and they are with me. Nobody at my concert is going to sleep. Nobody!"

Leonard Bernstein, who talked with his audiences about the music they were hearing, is one of Rieu's heroes. But he may owe as much to the spangled Liberace, who knew how to dress up the classics with glitz and showmanship.

"We play Strauss, ... Mozart, Bach, Beethoven," Rieu says. "But we do little pieces, and I speak to the people. I'm standing with my violin with my face to the public, as Strauss [conducted] in his time. In fact, he was the first pop star, I think. So I try to make a little combination of these two worlds."

The women in the 40-piece orchestra (which has both men and women players) wear long, bright gowns, and look as though they might leap up and twirl to "The Blue Danube" at any moment. "The girls have very beautiful dresses," Rieu says. "I designed them myself. I like it when the girls are beautiful.... Why should classical music always be so black and so serious?"

He also likes to keep the atmosphere light. "I'm not telling jokes," he explains. "I'm only doing my job and making music on stage. But I'm showing the people in the public that I like them and that I'm a normal human being." At most classical concerts, he says, musicians "ask the public to shut up and not to react ... because they disturb the people on stage.... I want this reaction and interaction."

For his latest album, "La vie est belle (Life is Beautiful)," Rieu wrote the title tune, a new waltz, along with his brother, Jean–Philippe. "We compose a lot together," André Rieu says. "He is eight years younger than me. When I was a little boy, I didn't want to play with him because he always ruined my things. But now, it's fantastic to work with him."

Rieu grew up in a musical family in Maastricht, Netherlands. His father was the conductor of a local orchestra, and André played violin in it. But he chafed at the formal atmosphere. "So I decided to do it my way, because I was always feeling lonely on stage. The public was sitting there and not involved in what I did. And a lot of people felt it with me. We are together now, and we bring the classical music to the people in our way."

To find players, most orchestras conduct "blind" auditions behind a screen. Rieu likes to see – and talk with – the potential members of his orchestra.

"You should know who is playing violin or piano or whatever," he says. "It's not only important how somebody plays, but why he plays.... Ten people come and play, and then I pick out the one who plays the best. And then we sit down and we have a talk. The talk is the most important thing for me." If the first thing the player asks "is 'how much will I earn?' and 'how many holidays do we have?' then the talk is not going to be so long!"

Back home in Maastricht, Rieu has a wife and two teenage sons. The boys like both popular and classical music. So does their dad. "I am interested in everything [in music]," Rieu says. "For me, it's only good or bad music... not classical and pop music.... There are a lot of musicians [such as Michael Jackson and Queen] who are not in classical music who, I think, are geniuses."

But clearly classical European music is his first love. "I could not live without this beautiful music," he says, "and I want to show the people how it is. And that they don't have to be afraid of it.

"A lot of people are writing me letters and telling me that they had a terrible year [last year]. And due to my CDs or videos or concerts, they are enjoying life again and loving life again. I'm happy when I hear things like this. I'm sure [this music] is going to heal people."

• André Rieu's tour ends May 12. For locations, dates, and more information, visit www.andrerieu.com.

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