King of Waltz or King of Schmaltz? How conductor André Rieu fills stadiums.

The Dutch conductor draws huge crowds and has sold more than 40 million albums and DVDs. His fans love the lack of pretentiousness, while classical music purists wince at slapstick antics.

Tobias Hase/picture-alliance/dpa/AP
André Rieu performs on Nov. 29, 2017, in Munich at the recording of the TV show 'Christmas Eve with Carmen Nebel.'

The original Waltz King, Johann Strauss II, had five orchestras. On numerous Saturday nights during his musical reign, the maestro would book his various ensembles into five different venues in and around Imperial Vienna. As the evening’s balls and cotillions began, Strauss would play his violin and conduct – at the first of these dance pavilions.

Once the dancers were lost in the whirl of waltzing, the maestro would pack away his violin, steal into his carriage, and race to the second venue, where he would arrive to cheers from another ballroom of dancers. He would conduct a few more waltzes, and maybe squeeze in a polka.

Strauss raced about like this all night, until he had led each of his five orchestras.

Two things resulted: Thousands across Vienna were able to tell their friends they had, indeed, danced to the Waltz King. And the Waltz King grew rich.

Yet the wealth amassed by Strauss is a pittance compared to the modern-day King of Waltz, André Rieu. The Dutch violinist, who conducts his orchestra – like Strauss – while standing and playing his violin, has become a multimillionaire by taking the music of Strauss to hockey arenas and soccer stadiums worldwide.

That Maestro Rieu, who lives in a 15th-century castle, has inspired millions to embrace the classical music of “dead white men” in an age of rock and hip hop seems a minor miracle. But his numbers don’t lie, and there’s nothing minor about what he’s accomplished.

Including his breakthrough album “Strauss & Co.” in 1994, Rieu has sold more than 40 million albums and DVDs. His recordings, not including his latest “Shall We Dance,” have garnered more than 500 Platinum and more than 270 Gold awards. In 2009, Billboard Magazine anointed him the biggest solo male touring artist, and he is the only classical performer ever to crack Pollstar’s TOP 10, which ranks performers by crowd size during tours.

On his recent US Arena Tour, during a stop in Portland, Ore., about 12,000 fans crowd into the Moda Center, home to the NBA’s Trailblazers. These André Aficionados bear little resemblance to a typical symphony crowd. And none seem to care that classical-music purists have called Rieu’s music “affected,” “histrionic,” or “conceited.”

“It’s pleasant to listen to,” says Janet Holliwell. “There’s a lot of excitement to it. But it’s relaxing, too.”

She and her companion, Peter Klimuk, have driven 485 miles from Kelowna, British Columbia, to see the concert. Mr. Klimuk explains that the pair have been fans of Rieu for three years, since they watched a concert shown at a Kelowna theater.

“He’s a master showman,” Ms. Holliwell adds.

Brian Urban drove his family 277 miles from Lynden, Wash. “I first heard of André Rieu when I was 13,” Mr. Urban says. “I introduced him to my kids – we got all the DVDs we could watch. Every Christmas we watch his concerts: ‘Masricht.’ ‘Live in Vienna.’ And now my youngest daughter has decided she wants to play the violin.”

Urban has seen Rieu four times in concert: “twice in Vancouver, once in California, and now in Portland.”

From 'The Blue Danube' to Michael Jackson

Tickets to Rieu’s arena concerts instruct concertgoers to “Please Be Seated By 6:45,” 15 minutes before showtime. This ensures the crowd will see the maestro lead his 50 musicians and 16 vocalists in a grand entrance, processing to the stage a la Rocky Balboa, buoyed by cheers and applause.

His men wear black tailcoats, the women wear pastel Disney-Princess gowns, each of which cost roughly $4,000 and was designed by the maestro. The stage is bedecked with swaths of silk flowers, the music stands are gleaming-gold ornate curlicues, and behind all of this hangs a stage-width curved video screen.

“I love to give people something for the eye,” Rieu tells the Monitor. “I would not call it a strategy. I just follow my heart. If I love it, hopefully my audience will love it, too.”

And love it they do. Song after song, the arena echoes with applause, cheers, even howls. Part of Rieu’s secret to getting “regular” folk clapping and cheering for classical music: His repertoire includes much outside of the classical canon.

Yes, Rieu thinks waltz “is the most beautiful music in the world. But I play much more than waltzes in my concerts. I mix songs like ‘Besame Mucho,’ ‘Ballade pour Adeline,’ ‘Grenada,” with waltzes or arias or songs such as ‘Think of Me’ from ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ ‘Ben’  by Michael Jackson, or a medley from ‘My Fair Lady.’”

Indeed, Rieu’s program this night is a musical buffet: Puccini’s aria “Un bel di” from “Madam Butterfly,” a zither-led “Third Man Theme,” Ravel’s “Bolero” fronted by four snare drummers, a whirling “Blue Danube,” during which about 50 audience members waltz  around the main floor, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” set against a video rendering of a Gothic stained-glass window drenched in digital sunbeams, and, what may have been the most rousing tune of the night, Little Richard Penniman’s hit, “Tutti Frutti.”

Under Rieu’s direction, the Moda Center feels more like a pop concert than a classical recital. Until the mood shifts and it feels more like a camp meeting. Or, until Rieu addresses the assembly, which he does between every song, and it feels like stand-up comedy. At one point the maestro divides his audience into four sections, and gives each a different pitch to hum: sopranos over here, altos in the middle, basses on this side – “and the rest of you, the double basses.”

Rieu turns to the Johann Strauss Orchestra as a huge American flag unfurls across the massive video screen. As the audience recognizes “America the Beautiful,” thousands rise reflexively to their feet, place hands over hearts, and sing their four-part discordant harmonies as the pixilated flag flutters. No camp meeting now; for one song the Moda Center feels eerily like Nuremberg. Rieu plays his fans as expertly as he plays his 1732 Stradivarius.

Violins, cellos ... and giant foam hammers

“I like him because he’s not like those hoity-toity symphony orchestras,” says one middle-aged women, seated center-stage row nine, to her companion. 

This is an understatement. At times the concert feels less like classical music and more like a two-hour running gag punctuated by this waltz or that aria. After one orchestral number, when a musician in the front row has been featured, another musician, behind her, rises up and produces a gigantic foam-rubber hammer and beans the featured soloist atop the noggin. Whenever the stagehands in their black T-shirts schlep props onstage, they take formal bows, as if they are the featured soloists. More yuks from the audience. And so it goes: slapstick topped with dollops of orchestral cream.

At least one woman came away disappointed. “I feel like he either doesn't trust the strength of his material – or he doesn't trust his audience,” says Lucia Neare, a theater artist who traveled from Seattle to see the concert. “The show tonight included some of the greatest music ever composed, but he doesn't seem to think the music, by itself, is enough to make his audience fall in love with it.”

She hadn’t expected Rieu’s concert to be the Vienna Philharmonic. But neither did she expect to see “Laurel and Hardy Go to the Symphony.” She wonders if Rieu’s European concerts depend on the same degree of slapstick antics and schmaltzy video his American audiences apparently need.

“The classical music world often is so snobbish. I don’t listen to them,” Rieu says of his critics. “Purists criticize everyone who plays classical music for people in an arena or stadium, for the masses. I do what I feel is right. The only person I listen to is my wife. She believed in me from the beginning. I can’t tell you how many managers and label people told me, in the beginning, to ‘go home and play for your grandmother.’

“They regret that today,” he says, laughing.

'Saturday Night Fiedler'

Rieu is hardly the first classical conductor to employ audacity in the service of popularizing great works. For one, there was Johann Strauss II, who marshaled his orchestras across Europe with fervor not unlike Rieu’s relentless touring. More recently, Arthur Fiedler and Leonard Bernstein, like Rieu, employed showmanship as well as musicianship to inspire a love for classical music among the general populace.

Though critics chastised Fiedler for “over-popularizing” music, his half-century with the Boston Pops made that orchestra into one of the best known in the United States. He offended purists by arranging condensed versions of the classics, and, like Rieu, he delighted in arranging pop music, notably The Beatles, for his orchestra.

Under Fiedler’s direction, the Boston Pops Orchestra is said to have made more recordings than any orchestra in the world, with total sales exceeding $50 million. Fiedler’s 1947 recording of Jacques Offenbach’s “Gaite Parisienne” became RCA Victor’s first long-playing classical album, in 1950. He recorded light classics, Broadway show tunes, even film scores. Fiedler devoted his final album to disco. Its title: “Saturday Night Fiedler.”

Bernstein assumed leadership of the New York Philharmonic in 1954, a time when anti-communist hysteria and its evil twin, anti-intellectualism, were disparaging all things highbrow, from academic “eggheads” to the musical elites.

Unlike Rieu, Bernstein seems to have trusted his material, so much so that he took classical music to American television audiences. He was telegenic before there was such a term, becoming a celebrity, first on the award-winning Omnibus, created by the Ford Foundation to raise the level of Americans’ taste, later in 53 Young Peoples Concerts for CBS, and later still, in 1982, by conducting all nine Beethoven symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic for PBS.

Bernstein labored to help everyone comprehend symphonic music and conducting. He took the orchestra on tours of Europe, Japan, Latin America, Canada and Alaska. For millions, he managed to remove the “hoity toity” stigma from classical music—without changing the music.  Many still consider his Young Peoples Concerts the most influential series of music appreciation programs ever aired on television, and Bernstein became as famous for his educational work as for his conducting.

Fiedler and Bernstein did whatever it took to make classical music more appealing, more accessible, to the widest audiences possible. Now Rieu crisscrosses the planet on a similar mission.

“In my audience, you will find everyone from the cleaning lady to the professor, families, young and old people,” he says. “I am very happy and very proud, of course. Because it shows that classical music is not only for an elite. In music there are no boundaries. Wagner, Strauss, Mozart have written some wonderful music, so have Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, and ABBA.”

“I’d love to perform with Bruce Springsteen one day,” he adds. “I think he’s fantastic.”

In the Moda Center, when the ninth or eleventh encore concludes, when the last of several thousand balloons have floated to the arena floor, Bruno Jurewicz remains on his feet, still gazing toward the stage, statuesque in his swallowtail tuxedo decorated with an “André Rieu”-emblazoned scarf about his neck. He has seen three concerts in rapid succession – in San Diego, in Tacoma, and here in Portland.

An accomplished dancer and a resident of Burien, Wash., Mr. Jurewicz was one of those who waltzed about the Moda Center during “The Blue Danube.” Now he’s waiting to be interviewed by one of Rieu’s video crews – there are seven at work during each concert.

When Jurewicz learns that some criticize Rieu’s slapstick proclivities and soppy video, he says, “You can’t please everyone. I enjoy the music. I enjoy the scenes on the screen.

“I went to all three shows to see if he did do the same shows each night. And he did. I loved it.”

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