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Andre Rieu aims to have Tampa Bay area hearing a waltz

By Andrew Meacham
Violinist and conductor André Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra perform at Amalie Arena on Nov. 1, 2017. Times files.

TAMPA

He’s the Thomas Kinkade of classical music, painting nostalgic castles of sound with an orchestra he named after the king of waltzes and his own violin, a sound that warms the soul.

Critics have called André Rieu sentimental, even saccharine, a musician who has watered down great music until it is palatable for the masses. He has cried all the way to the bank.

Now the Dutch conductor brings his spectacle to the Amalie Arena, where he will conduct the Johann Strauss Orchestra in famous film and Broadway scores, operatic arias and waltzes. You might hear White Christmas or the Ave Maria sung by an opera star, see the odd comedy bit, dancers gliding to the Blue Danube Waltz or extravagant lighting that paints sunsets and picks up slivers of confetti shot from a cannon.

The details are important because they stem from his desires, and Rieu, 68, has followed his desires like holy commandments for decades.

More than 600,000 fans a year share his tastes. Rieu’s tours grossed $40.2 million in 2016, coming in 23rd on Billboard’s highest-grossing list, just behind the Dave Matthews Band. His most recent album, Falling in Love, climbed to No. 7 on the charts two weeks after its release a year ago.

None of this might have happened had Rieu listened to the musical authorities, starting with his father, André Rieu Sr., who conducted the Maastricht Symphony Orchestra.

"He was I think a fine musician," Rieu told the Times. "But for him it was only classical music. I think there is no difference between classical and nonclassical. For me there is only good and bad music."

Rieu studied several instruments as a child, taking piano lessons in a medieval castle. He hated the piano and loved the castle. He swore that someday if he ever got the money, he would buy that castle on the Meuse River.

He was smitten by the young woman who taught him violin, an early crush that, he acknowledges, shaped both his choice of instrument and romantic approach the music.

"Romance is very important in life, and certainly in my music," Rieu said.

He met Marjorie Kochmann when he was 13 and she was 15. Love at first sight, the couple has said ever since. They married in the mid 1970s, while he was studying with renowned Hungarian violinist André Gertler at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels. Her encouragement and financial resourcefulness helped him form his first orchestra.

"I was playing in a classical orchestra myself, and she saw that I was unhappy before every rehearsal," he said. "And after rehearsal she saw I was more unhappy. She said, ‘I’m going to find money for you to follow your dream.’?"

That led to the formation of the Johann Strauss Orchestra, which has grown from a dozen members to more than 60 today. He liked the egalitarian crowds he drew, and began catering to them even more. A promising sign came at a 1994 performance at an Amsterdam soccer stadium before 60,000 fans.

"I played the Shostakovich Waltz No. 2," Rieu recalled, "and the whole stadium was loving this piece and singing. That was sort of a breakthrough in my career. Nobody would have thought that a soccer audience would sing Shostakovich."

Years later, he would buy the castle built in 1492 once owned by his piano teacher. He renovated it, adding a greenhouse for the butterflies he imports from Costa Rica.

Setbacks along the way include a 2008 World Stadium Tour, which lugged massive sets across continents; the overhead left him $34 million in debt. He doesn’t regret any of it. The tour rebounded from bankruptcy in 2009, grossing $95.8 million.

Besides, Rieu said, "As an artist, you must have some sparkle in you that you are right and all the others are wrong."

Asked who at André Rieu Productions is tasked with telling the CEO he is wrong, Rieu named Marjorie and their son, Pierre.

"But now as we speak, I just came back from a castle I visited in Germany," he said. "I came back and I said, ‘I’d like to do a big open-air concert there in the middle of winter.’?"

His family and advisers all spiked the idea, Rieu said.

"But I think it’s going to happen."

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.