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Hamming to Strauss

A few years ago, I saw a clip of violinist André Rieu and the Johann Strauss Orchestra premiering a waltz written by Sir Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins was in the audience and heard his waltz being played, in public, for the first time. It was lovely to watch. I don’t know enough about music to say whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. And I certainly don’t know enough about music to debate whether, as some YouTube comments suggest, Hopkins might have borrowed a bar or two from elsewhere. But I know I liked it.

AndreTill then, I’d never heard of André Rieu, who along with his orchestra, rose to fame some 20 years ago when an unknown waltz on their recently released CD took Holland by storm and has become Holland’s unofficial second national anthem – or so he told us last week when he was in Budapest. He showed us a video of himself conducting football fans at the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam back in 2009 as they ‘sang’ the waltz.

I quite like my waltzes. I quite like classical music, even if I couldn’t tell Chopin from Bartok Bela. I’m not so keen, though, when it’s all very highbrow and everyone is taking it really seriously. Little did I know that Rieu seems to think the same. In almost pantomime fashion, some 50 or so musicians waltzed through the audience up to the stage in the half-full Papp Lázsló Stadium on Wednesday night, the ladies in their multicoloured ballgowns, the gents in their dickey-bows and tails. It looked a little like a macaroon and penguin fest.

The Platin Tenors (one of whom is Hungarian) were bloody amazing. Their version of Puccini’s Nessun Dorna was goosebumpingly great. With over ten nationalities on stage, this truly international orchestra is undeniably talented. And they all seemed to be having great craic. It was quite surreal. Serious music, with seriously talented musicians who were hamming about like Curly, Dick, and Moe.

You know that solemn atmosphere you find in the concert hall with classical music, and how it intimidates most people and keeps them away? With us, it is simply not there.

Rieu has a set piece. I’d wager that all his concerts are pretty much the same. But it was a first for me. The only other time I’d seen him was the brief YouTube clip of the Hopkins waltz. It seemed as if everyone else in the audience was on more familiar terms. Flags were flying, pictures of the man himself floated on banners through the air. And the usually timid audience I’ve come to expect in Budapest was waltzing in the aisles. Grannies and grandkids – the entire age spectrum was having a ball.

I’ve never before seen a musician who uses a translator. Rieu did. And even the banter between the two of them was comical. He spoke in English and she translated to Hungarian, never missing a beat. He does something weird with his eyes that is strangely amusing and his facial expressions hover somewhere between weird and zany. His portrait gallery on Google Images gives some indication of the many faces of the man who truly is doing his damnedest to make classical music more accessible without sacrificing his musical standards.

The hamming irritated me a little at first, but as the evening went on, and I began to realise that they all were genuinely having a blast on stage, I bought into it and thoroughly enjoyed the performance – because it was a performance. I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be encouraged to sing along to classical music. Brilliant.

Havasi Balázs, the pianist I was mad about a few years back, does the same. And you know, for those of us who grew up outside the classics and the salons, it’s lovely to see the high brows plucked a little.

Worth a night out, if he happens to be in your neighbourhood.

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