Putting a Happy Face on Classical Music ; Waltz King Andre Rieu Keeps His Concerts Light and Fun

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Andre Rieu just may be serving up the perfect musical "mommy food" for our times - comforting, familiar, satisfying.

The leader of the Johann Strauss Orchestra is playful, but traditional. Mature, but youthful. His orchestra plays classical music, but it's all done to entertain. Most of the selections are classical hits or traditional tunes, music recognizable to listeners who've never set foot in a concert hall. Some pieces are sweet and soothing; others set feet tapping - or maybe even waltzing.

Europe's reigning waltz king, Mr. Rieu (pronounced REE-you), is rarely seen in the United States except on public TV. Now he's touring North America, testing the waters to see if his brand of upbeat light classical music will sell as well here as back home, where his recordings such as "The Vienna I Love," "Romantic Moments," and "100 Years of Strauss" have placed high on the music charts.

Rieu's mission is a simple one: Make audiences enjoy listening to his music as much as he does playing it. That includes encouraging people to dance in the aisles.

"That's what I like," he explained in a phone interview prior to the tour. "And when they want to stand up and sing with me, [I say], 'Please, do it.' Because then I see that they are alive, and they are with me. Nobody at my concert is going to sleep. Nobody!"

Leonard Bernstein, who talked with his audiences about the music they were hearing, is one of Rieu's heroes. But he may owe as much to the spangled Liberace, who knew how to dress up the classics with glitz and showmanship.

"We play Strauss, ... Mozart, Bach, Beethoven," Rieu says. "But we do little pieces, and I speak to the people. I'm standing with my violin with my face to the public, as Strauss [conducted] in his time. In fact, he was the first pop star, I think. So I try to make a little combination of these two worlds."

The women in the 40-piece orchestra (which has both men and women players) wear long, bright gowns, and look as though they might leap up and twirl to "The Blue Danube" at any moment. "The girls have very beautiful dresses," Rieu says. "I designed them myself. I like it when the girls are beautiful.... Why should classical music always be so black and so serious?"

He also likes to keep the atmosphere light. "I'm not telling jokes," he explains. "I'm only doing my job and making music on stage. But I'm showing the people in the public that I like them and that I'm a normal human being." At most classical concerts, he says, musicians "ask the public to shut up and not to react . …