"Christmas music, as they say, is eternal..."
And, while transposing those well-known holiday melodies from major keys to mixolydian mode, the holiday-season behemoth “Mannheim Steamroller” enthralled a transfixed audience last Sunday night at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, adding plenty of percussion and reverb to make any recorder sound in tune.
Now in its 35th year, the New Age Christmas-carol pop-orchestra is a marketing juggernaut of music, its easy-listening electronics not only the biggest-selling Christmas album repertoire ever, but also ranking among the top selling recordings in the record industry overall.
To open the show, “Mannheim Steamroller’s” Grammy award-winning founder and composer Chip Davis appeared on the large screen, welcoming the audience. Even if you don’t acquiesce to his fusion of classical and pop, Davis is an undeniable musical force. Originally lambasted by loads of rejection from major record companies, the tenacious Davis decided to found his own record label, called “American Gramaphone.”
His “Mannheim Steamroller” was the brainchild of himself and Bill Fries, who together dreamed up a trucker named C.W. McCall in 1978 and cashed in on the CB craze with the song “Convoy” and a movie by the same title. Davis then plowed his profits into creating what he called “18th-century classical rock,” performed by a group he dubbed “Mannheim Steamroller,” named for a musical term which means 'crescendo.'
The Steamroller plowed on to become one of the top 50 biggest musical acts ever. To date, they have acquired 19 gold, 8 multi-platinum and 4 platinum certified records, placing Davis among an elite group of artists such as Jay-Z and U2. Chip Davis now sells a lifestyle segment of his empire with foodstuffs, bath and body products, apparel, and has also ventured into environmental causes as well as psychoacoustic music technology, partnering with notable arenas such as the Mayo Clinic and NASA.
If you’ve never heard the zany synthesizer sounds of "Mannheim Steamroller," you might assume the songs originate from computer programmed material. But make no mistake, behind these futuristic tunes are in fact, human beings. Trappings of contemporary rock concerts - fog, colored mist, electronically controlled accent lights - are all part of the show. So is a steady stream of video on multiple screens with such Middle American holiday themes as nutcracker and ballerina dolls, toy trains, and ice skaters direct from a Bob Hope Christmas special – there’s even a very funny Renaissance-era madrigal feast synchronized to music.
Some footage is vintage, featuring historic milestones, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade appearances, U.S. presidents or NBC talk show hosts with the band. Other video segments portray coastlines, castles, or deep space star fields with diaphanous angels. Performing with two bands in an average of 80 cities per year, they have been privileged to host the White House Christmas Tree Lighting ceremonies under three different presidents.
To be more precise, it was the musicians of the Red Tour, which covers the western part of the United States that performed last Sunday. A second ensemble, the Blue Tour, also calling itself "Mannheim Steamroller," is simultaneously performing in other parts of the states. In addition, they boast several PBS specials, Holiday on Ice telecasts, a performance at the Goodwill Games in Russia and a two-year Concert for Yellowstone National Park.
The group performs two types of instrumental tunes – one is their trademark synthesized, highly rhythmic and melodic takes on traditional and original compositions; the others are like fun, courtly dances performed by a hip group of troubadours.
Supported by a handful of wind, string and brass players called the Mannheim Steamroller Orchestra, the Red version of Mannheim Steamroller consists of six core musicians – Mark Agnor (Conductor, Violin and Recorder), Anna Lackaff (Harpsichord, Synthesizer), Joey Gulizia (Percussion, Recorder), David Plank (Piano, Synthesizer), Tom Sharpe (Drums, Percussion, Recorder) and Glen Cecil Smith (Guitar, Bass, Lute).
Stage-managed by Morgan Karmann, the fantastic lights were directed by Toby Gibson, with assistance by Jesse Diaz. Sound and audio by Luke Scroggin. Christian Behm designed the video presentations; production manager and assistant was Robby MacLean and Gry MacLean respectively. Karen Renne handled all things merchandise, and the tour was managed by Chelsea Langord.
In over three decades, “Mannheim Steamroller” has become synonymous with Christmas music, claim the crown as the number one Christmas act ever. As an apogee to that accomplishment, the Segerstrom’s 3,000 fixed seats became analogous to a Las Vegas venue, delivering a sleigh full of mellow chestnuts like “We Three Kings” and “Deck the Halls.” Mark Agnor’s dancing violin in “Faeries” and “Toccata,” along with Chip Davis’ daughter, Elyse, performing “Greensleeves” were also memorable highlights.
But the show’s heart-pumping, scale-tipping numbers, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” (a rock interpretation), the military-themed “Christmas Lullaby,” “Good King Wenceslas” and the voguish, New Age, uplifting arrangement of “Carol of the Bells,” featuring Anna Lackaff’s expert synthesizer, were the real treats of the evening.
Many of the show’s simpler songs struck a sweeter chord. The Renaissance music enchanted with the clarity of a recorder, the jingle of a tambourine, and the melodies of “Gagliarda,” “In Dulce Jubilo” and “Wassail, Wassail” became emotional mantras. Other, more gentle songs, such as “Carol of the Birds” and “Coventry Carol” made for a calm, soothing feeling, focusing more on the piano in a more whimsical and playful performance.
Davis, a Midwesterner, boldly brands his band with heartland values and formality, providing pure, tried and true family entertainment. Dressed in black tuxes with red vests, with the women wearing luxurious gowns, the group exemplifie the highest class in showmanship. Certain taboos for performers and musicians have become a standard, including radical tattoos or piercings, and you never wonder whether a performer will scream profanities onstage or even call undue attention to themselves.
Many tend to compare “Mannheim Steamroller” with “Trans-Siberian Orchestra,” the other rock electronic Christmas band that has created a niche for themselves with modern takes on Christmas music, but "TSO" tends to skew towards a heavier rock sound than “Mannheim Steamroller.” “TSO” is similar in many ways to “Emerson Lake and Palmer,” in fact, with all three groups converting traditional holiday music into livelier, thriving masterpieces.
In contrast to style, “Mannheim Steamroller” has a more formal approach in their performance taking listeners on a journey with songs that reflect the beauty, mysticism and excitement of unique places around the world.
This is one reason “Mannheim…” has led the way in changing the traditional sounds of Christmas forever, a name synonymous with holiday canticles celebrated throughout the country. I look forward in making their tour stop an annual ritual in my own Christmas celebration.
The Show Report