REVIEW: "Mannheim Steamroller Christmas" – Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

"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