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Miceli, Sergio
(ed. and transl. by Marco Alunno)


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2.0. Concerts of André Rieu’s “Johann Strauss” Orchestra. Not everything, but too much of everything

Regular tournées brought Rieu and his orchestra to play a highly ‘traversal’ repertoire in several countries: Moscow, New York, Sidney, Maastricht, Sāo Paulo, London, etc. Their repertoire ranges from the aria Casta diva and Gaspare Spontini’s Vestale to Michael Jackson, famous film music and some national anthems.

From this perspective Rieu’s orchestra might seem to be among the few that are not tied to a specific genre. But it is not. The reason is something that I will not disclose now completely because I would rather get to it little by little. It is certainly possible that those who do not know André Rieu might elaborate a very different opinion from the one I am exposing here. However, they should not do it before having listened to or watched some of his performances.

Rieu’s forerunners are those who believe in a musical entertainment for the mass, no matter what compromise they must make. A couple of examples are Percy Faith’s orchestra, and Mantovani & Orchestra, who both use soft string textures typical of slow dance pieces (i.e. what young people in Italy once called ‘ballo della mattonella’).23 Another music ensemble is the Orchestra conducted by Ray Conniff that performed from 1955 to 1975. Yet, this might not have had a direct influence on Rieu because it employed a lighthearted mixed choir that alternated or doubled the instrumental parts. Its successful ‘trademark’ was precisely the choir that often favored vocalization over singing a real text.

23 Literally: ‘tile dance’. It is a popular expression referring to a tight and almost motionless dancing couple (hence, within the space of a ‘tile’) [EN].

Other direct forerunners are Johann Strauss Sr. (Vienna 1804-1849) and, mostly, his son (Vienna 1825-1899)24 whose timeless splendors are celebrated every New Year’s eve and broadcasted worldwide (to more than 40 countries) since 1987 in a concert-dance — Das Neujahrskonzert der Wiener Philharmoniker — played by the Wiener Philharmoniker in the Vienna’s Musikverein with a guest conductor (all this is mere kitsch, of course, but it is now a ‘tradition’…). I can easily sense that Rieu believes he is the heir of the Strauss’ legacy. In fact, he named his orchestra after the most illustrious member of the Strauss family, Johann Strauss (junior is not needed because it is obvious to whom we are referring). Did Rieu obtain a similar success? I definitely do not think so.

24 Actually, every member of the Strauss family was a composer. Among them, Josef (Vienna 1827-1870), the second-born, was perhaps the most remarkable.

Exactly one hundred years separate the publication of the waltz An der schönen blauen Donau (Op. 314, 1887) and Rieu’s idea of founding the “Johann Strauss” Orchestra. Those hundred years were not ordinary at all, they were The Short Twentieth Century,25 the period, between 1914 (WWI) and 1991 (the end of USSR) where Hobsbawm placed what he called the golden age (1946-1973). Besides the English historian’s thinking, it will suffice to mention that among the most important events of the XX century there is certainly the exponential development of media, which is something Johann Strauss Jr. could not see since he died in 1899. With or without the audiovisual revolution set by media, Strauss Jr.’s concerts were very repetitive: a waltz (maybe Reisebenteuer Op. 227), another waltz like Wein, Weib und Gesang Op. 333, a polka (maybe Unter Donner und Blitz Op. 324, or another polka such as Pizzicato Polka Op. 214), another waltz like Kaiserwalzer Op. 437, a galop like Der Carneval in Paris Op. 100, and the inevitable Radetzky March Op. 228.

25 See Eric J. Hobsbawm. Il secolo breve 1914-1991: l’era dei grandi cataclismi, It. trans. B. Lotti (Milan: Rizzoli, 2006). Source: Archive S. M., Florence. The original English title is The Age of Extremes: 1914-1991 [EN].

In France, people were proud of having such an operetta composer as Jacques Offenbach.26 Twenty years later Germany gave birth to Franz Léhar and Franz von Suppé, and in the same period (the Victorian era) the United Kingdom could count on Arthur Sullivan’s large production.27 Italy, instead, was initially indebted to France and Offenbach, and later to Germany. Only across the XIX and XX centuries it produced operettas by Mario Pasquale Costa, Carlo Lombardo and Virgilio Ranzato, Giuseppe Pietri, Ezio Carabella and a few other (let us not forget that there are also many films based on successful operettas by such authors). All this coincided with the rising of European middle-class and the creation of new models of entertainment (e.g. see a similar situation in France with the Film d’Art whose history starts in 1908 and is summarized in Part II of the present text).

26 Those who are interested in the subject can read two famous French authors: Robert Pourvoyeur, Offenbach, Idillio e parodia, It.trans. L. Della Croce (Turin: EDA 1980) and Alain Decaux, Offenbach, re del secondo impero, It. trans. A. Pogni (Milan: Rusconi 1981). A more complex writing is by Mario Bortolotto, “Storia e geografia dell’operetta,” in Consacrazione della casa (Milan: Adelphi, 1982), 153-82. A sort of complete manual on operetta is Claudio Casini and Maria Delogu, “L’operetta,” in Musica in Scena. Storia dello spettacolo musicale, IV, Altri generi di teatro musicale, ed. Alberto Basso (Turin: UTET 1995), 277-568. Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

27 See Alan Hyman, Sullivan and his satellites: a survey of English operettas 1860-1914 (London: Chappell and Co., 1978).

In addition to the fact that the above mentioned history cannot be compared with Rieu’s career, he is not even a composer, but rather an arranger and conductor of music composed by other. So was Arthur Fiedler, but with much higher skills (see Chap 4.0). Nonetheless, between 1993 and 2014 Rieu churned out more than 50 self-produced CDs, with one entirely dedicated to film music (André Rieu at the Movies, 2003). He also produced a CD dedicated to Italy in 2004 (Live in Tuscany) and again in 2014 (Rieu — Love in Venice, but some pieces are not in tune with Venice and some are not Italian). The number of live performances varies each year: recently his orchestra reached the outstanding number of 200, the average being 90 concerts per year. However, what really strikes those rare, objective listeners is the enormous success the “Johann Strauss” Orchestra has everywhere. I invite the reader to watch Rieu’s DVDs or some of the dozens videos posted on YouTube, because words cannot fully describe the gigantic audiences who attend those performances. I personally watched around 250 videos in their entirety: many show only a few pieces, but a good deal contains the whole concert, e.g.: Life is Beautiful (Berlin, Waldbühne), André Rieu in de Arena (Amsterdam, 2011), André Rieu Live in Brazil (2013), André Rieu (Prague, 2014), and André Rieu Happy Birthday! A Celebration of 25 years of the Johann Strauss Orchestra (Maastricht Arena, 2014).

Film music is a recurrent presence in this kind of show. The following is a random list of film tracks played by Rieu, including those that were not originally composed for film but became famous through cinema: Šostakovič’s (Шостакович) Second Waltz, Love Theme from Titanic, Sirtaki Zorba’s Dance and Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago, Mary Poppins, Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina from Evita, Western Music by Ennio Morricone, Love Theme from Romeo & Juliet (Zeffirelli-Rota, 1968), Dances with Wolves, Love Theme from The Godfather, Ben Hur, The Gladiator, etc. Also musicals could not be spared from Rieu’s ‘robberies’. For example: Memory from Cats, I’m Singin’ in the Rain and The Impossible Dream from the musical Man of La Mancha (I will come back later on this piece).

Rieu’s cannot afford to have Carreras, Pavarotti and Domingo all together. Thus, he hired three tenors who go under the name of Platin: Gary Bennett, Thomas Greuel and Béla Mavrák. These three cannot be compared to the celebrity trio directed by Zubin Metha, but they are much appreciated anyway.

Rieu’s wide audience.

Life is Beautiful live in the Berlin Waldbühne.

Every component of the orchestra looks happy to be working for André Rieu. Women in the orchestra are pleased with their 1700-like costumes or evening dresses with a touch of the past. Their graceful moves are so spontaneous that they do not even seem rehearsed. Men are also visibly satisfied and willing to stage gags that the audience likes very much. For example, they run away from their seat to rush toward a string quartet invited for the concert and composed of four, half-undressed beautiful girls (the quartet name being quite interestingly Bond). Similarly undressed are their instruments, since they are electronic and, therefore, do not have a sounding board. In the meanwhile, Rieu shakes his head and calls in vain his musicians to order. It is as if the violinist-conductor, who displays not only a constant smile on his face but great satisfaction at every single bow strike he makes, even the most insignificant, just to please the audience, casts a spell on the entire orchestra, not to mention many of his fans. In fact, spectators are touched, swing their heads at the rhythm of the music, sing at the top of their lungs, whistle, wave their arms, dance or eat — at the side of the audience there is sometimes a huge outdoor restaurant for hundreds of diners.

My statements are not plagued with classism or elitism; they just briefly reflect what happens during a concert of the “Johann Strauss” Orchestra. Rieu’s cynical and successful ‘recipe’ is made up of some invariable ingredients, starting with a typical clownish concert opening followed by a ‘romantic’ piece from the universal repertoire that the spectators, of course, appreciate. He knows how to seduce his audience. Wherever he is playing, he knows that first he must ingratiate himself with the audience; thus he chooses a local hero who passed away not so long ago,28 so that his/her image is still very alive in the mind of the listeners. There is then Sinatra at New York — Radio City Hall –, Piazzolla at Buenos Aires, Rota in Italy, Larionov (Ларионов) in Russia, and so on. Another ingredient consists in ‘seasoning’ the show with a clownish number possibly staged by a musician the audience already knows well. It is the case, in fact, of the Brazilian soprano Carla Maffioletti whom Rieu met in Sāo Paulo do Brazil and then hired for many other concerts in Europe. Rieu usually invites also musicians (possibly playing folk instruments) from the area where he performs with his orchestra. Last but not least, another ingredient of Rieu’s recipe book is the friendly way with which he presents every piece: unlike what frequently happens in ‘serious’ music, there is neither elitist distance nor calculated or engaged seriousness, and his audience is quickly pleased by such a ‘spontaneity’. Therefore, thanks to the gags, the audience’s gratitude toward Rieu turns soon into a sort of empathy and, eventually, unconditional admiration.

28 The literal translation of the original text says “a local hero who passed away, but not too much”, to mean that he/she is just physically, but not sentimentally dead. The inside joke went lost in the English translation [EN].

Now it is time, though, to establish a firm distinction between Rieu’s undeniable cynicism and the audience’s reaction. At the cost of mocking a famous passage from Proust’s Les plaisirs et les jours, it is worth to read what the French writer said:

Détestez la mauvaise musique, ne la méprisez pas. Comme on la joue, la chante bien plus, bien plus passionnément que la bonne, bien plus qu’elle s’est peu à peu remplie du rêve et des larmes des hommes. Qu’elle vous soit par là vénérable. Sa place, nulle dans l’histoire de l’Art, est immense dans l’histoire sentimentale des sociétés.29

29 Marcel Proust, “Éloge de la mauvaise musique,” in id., Les Oeuvres complètes, tome neuvième, Les plaisirs et les jours, précédé d’une préface par Anatole France, (Paris: NRF, 1935), XIII, 166. Source: Archive S. M., Florence. “Detest bad music but do not make light of it. Since it is played, or rather sung, far more frequently, far more passionately than good music, it had gradually and far more thoroughly absorbed human dreams and tears. That should make it venerable for you. Its place, nonexistent in the history of art, is immense in the history of the emotions of societies.”
Marcel Proust, The Complete Short Stories of Marcel Proust, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2003), 126 [EN].

It is hard to add something to such an enlightened thought. However, one could dare correcting, or better, updating that marvelous consideration, because 120 years have passed already since its conception. In fact, when Proust formulated it, there were no means of musical reproduction, TV, Pop and Rock music, PC and, certainly, no tablets. Above all, there was not the so-called Neue Musik whose hyper-determinism had a relevant role in distancing a certain audience, that I now define demi-cultivée,30 from academic music.

30 Although it might sound like a quite generic definition, it is of use to exclude a good part of the audience who believe in Rieu and his arrangements. My definition alludes to those who, after having approached some ‘educated’ symphonic music, have been then shocked while listening to a contemporary composition coming from Darmstadt and similar places. I will come back on this important aspect in the next chapter.

All this might suggest that Rieu’s audience and alike can be understood and justified nowadays much more than the ‘humans’ Proust was referring to, but, once again, the comparison is inaccurate.

At this point the reader might have already figure out what is my critical appreciation of Rieu. However, before being explicit on this point, as I will do in the Conclusions, I should add another piece of information and then continue with the analysis of other kinds of mixed and/or successful shows.

In order to know more about the “Johann Strauss” Orchestra, the reader can consult CDs, video clips, podcast series, apps for Apple iPod, iPhone, and iPad (or Android), DVDs, iTunes recordings and similar sources. Obviously, Rieu has used all the available means of communication to promote his orchestra. Therefore, it is basically impossible not to find an audio or video recording (either on disc or online) of his performances.

Sources: YouTube (accessed in 2013-2014-2015).

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