• The no. 2 CD on the Billboard classical chart last week was The Vienna I Love (Philips), a collection of waltzes, marches and snippets from familiar operas, performed by Andre Rieu, a Dutch violinist who looks a bit like Mel Gibson. At No. 8 was Rieu's From Holland with Love. Poised just below the chart was his newest release, Strauss Gala. This impressive lineup has made Rieu, at least for the moment, one of the hottest acts in classical music--rivaling Luciano Pavarotti, Kathleen Battle, even David Helfgott, whose recording of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto returned to the top spot, ending the Dutchman's two-week stay in that position. Yet Rieu has never played a note in the U.S., and his albums have gone unreviewed by critics. He is the superstar nobody knows.

    Nobody, that is, except thousands of waltz-happy PBS viewers. Rieu's concert videos, in which he and his 26-piece Johann Strauss Orchestra are seen playing for delirious throngs of European fans, have become a staple of public-TV pledge-drive programming. Last year The Vienna I Love came in right behind Riverdance in viewer popularity. The telecasts not only bring in money for local PBS affiliates, they also promote Rieu's CDs. When he visited the U.S. in August to work the phones at stations across the country, his on-camera appearances helped lift Vienna into Billboard's No. 1 spot. This month he will release The Christmas I Love, a collection of carols and holiday standards. Then in November comes his first North American tour, with stops in Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington.

    Rieu, 47, seems utterly unsurprised by his emergence as a musical matinee idol. "It's my personality," he says. "When I come onstage, the audience is in my hands. I'm feeling very well when I'm standing there in the lights, seeing the public and having fun with my orchestra. It's very nice playing violin for 20,000 people. They laugh, they cry, they give me flowers."

    A graduate of the Royal Conservatory in Brussels, Rieu spent the early part of his career playing anonymously in symphony orchestras. "I was sitting there," he recalls, "playing for one conductor after another who did everything wrong, and I knew I could do it better. So one day 10 years ago, I told my wife, 'Either I die now, or I do something else.' I quit my job and started my own orchestra, and had success immediately--the halls were filled."

    Rieu is hardly the first musician to fill concert halls by playing Viennese waltzes and polkas. Johann Strauss II composed On the Beautiful Blue Danube and dozens of other classic waltzes for his own touring orchestra, which he led while simultaneously playing the violin (a practice emulated by Rieu); countless other purveyors of light classical music have flourished since. What sets Rieu apart is timing. Today's conductors and soloists, however gifted, mostly lack the charisma of the previous generations of classical-music giants such as Leonard Bernstein and Vladimir Horowitz, and they have largely failed to capture the imagination of the listening public. As a result, classical-record sales are in free fall, and the major labels are eagerly looking for fresh and photogenic faces to market. Rieu's hunky good looks (he always leads the orchestra facing the audience), fluent English and affable manner are ideally suited to the media age.

    Though far from a world-class soloist, Rieu is a perfectly respectable violinist and conductor, and he has a knack for picking danceworthy tempos. His slickly polished albums may not be especially demanding, but they aren't gimmicky either; he doesn't play reggae versions of Tales from the Vienna Woods or pose in a G-string for publicity shots. All he does is look handsome and make music--a concept as old-fashioned as the music he makes. Therein, in fact, may lie the real secret of his success: the perpetually hummable tunes of the 19th century waltz king after whom Rieu's orchestra is named. "When I want a melody/ Lilting through the house,/ Then I want a melody/ By Strauss," Ira Gershwin wrote in 1936, and six intervening decades of swing, rock and hip-hop have done nothing to diminish the truth of his words. Handsome fiddlers come and go, but Strauss, it seems, is here to stay.