It was in the city of Stuttgart, not today or yesterday, that I first became aware of the phenomenon that is André Rieu. I was making my way to a football match in the stadium where Ray Houghton put the ball in the English net 30 years ago.
Right next door is the Hanns-Martin-Schleyer-Halle, Stuttgart’s major indoor venue, named after a prominent German industrialist and one-time member of the board of Daimler-Benz in the city who was kidnapped and murdered by the Baader-Meinhof Gang in 1977.
Parked beside the imposing arena was a sizeable troop of articulated trucks, the back-up battalion for the Johann Strauss Orchestra that brings the magic of 19th-century Vienna to audiences today.
With a crew that size, this had to be some touring troupe, and indeed it is. From small beginnings, it has grown into a band of 50 regular musicians.
In a way, it was appropriate that it should have been in Stuttgart where I became aware of the phenomenon, for it was just six months before Ray Houghton’s goal that the Johann Strauss Orchestra first performed.
Fittingly, given the music they play, it was at New Year in 1988 that they gave their very first concert.
André Rieu was destined for his role. His father was a conductor, directing the then Maastricht Symphony Orchestra for over three decades. André was born in the city 69 years ago last Monday.
A top student – he took First Prize at the Brussels Conservatory – he began his career with what had been his dad’s band, now renamed the Limburg Symphony.
That was his day job, but he was also involved in another little group, the Maastricht Salon Orchestra. It was while playing with them that he fell in love with 3/4 time.
His website credits Franz Lehár’s Gold and Silver Waltz as the one that left him spellbound.
With the Maastricht Salon Orchestra he made recordings and went on tours.
They were so successful that Rieu was encouraged to expand the band and strike out on his own. And so the Johann Strauss Orchestra was born.
They were a 12-piece back then, playing in a style that was very much a recreation of what would have been in Vienna back in the day.
Rieu, like Strauss, performing as a Stehgeiger – the German term for a violinist who plays while standing – doubled as the orchestra’s conductor.
As the programme for their first tour put it, you could almost imagine Johann Strauss himself in person in front of you.
With a playlist full of scores by the waltz king, they soon built up a huge following.
Rieu’s enthusiasm for his music is infectious. You don’t even need to have seen him live to know this.
The annual concert he stages in his home town is televised around the world. The enjoyment of everybody involved is obvious.
The fleet of pantechnicons is still on the road. They’re in South America at the moment for six shows in Buenos Aires before they head for Australia.
The European leg of their current tour kicks off in Belfast on December 6, with two shows in Dublin on the following evenings. Then he’s back in the Hanns-Martin-Schleyer-Halle in January.
It seems the world just can’t get enough of the music of André Rieu – the Waltz King of the 21st century.
George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday