Mannheim Steamroller played to a packed house Sunday evening, bringing their slide show, some video clips, a couple of trinkets to sell, a few special effects and, above all, a musical program geared toward the season.
It’s a concept that Chip Davis came up with back in the 1970s when he first formed the group, releasing records that sold mostly to audiophiles and gradually building the brand.
Things really got under way after he released the first Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album, and now, according to his promo material, Davis is the top-selling “Christmas Music Artist” in history.
The group’s recordings have sold millions over the years and been certified by the Recording Industry Association of America as gold, platinum and multi-platinum sellers.
Those recordings broadened audiences beyond that associated with audio fanatics to include people who, even if they’d never heard any of the group’s earlier albums, liked Mannheim Steamroller’s lush, easy-going, rock(ish) take on Christmas classics like “Joy to the World,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.”
Even though he no longer tours regularly with one of the Steamroller groups, Davis’ quality control is evident in every note played and every special effect seen.
For example, Sunday’s concert opened with a video segment of Davis greeting the audience and setting them up for the show. Then it was easy for listeners to know what would be performed that night, because every tune that was played, except for the encore, was already listed in the program handed out before the ticketholders entered the hall.
There were no surprises to astound the listener, and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Arrangements were typical Steamroller fare, mixing classical settings (recorders were key instruments for this element of the overall sound) with rock-and-roll drums and a tinge of jazz-inflected winds and keyboards.
The five core musicians were solid and the backup string and brass sections played well. It was a professional production all the way around, with tune after tune segueing almost seamlessly into the next. The video clips playing on the huge screen mounted over the stage were used to provide a context for the pieces played.
When “Gagliarda” and “Wassail, Wassail” were being performed, scenes with a medieval flair – featuring castle dining halls, costumed lords and ladies, jesters and acrobats – wove a bit of video atmosphere for the tunes. “Carol of the Birds” was illustrated with avian flocks crowding the screen.
While many of the tunes were pleasant, the most affecting performance of the evening was probably a piano jazz take on “Winter Wonderland” by the conductor (and longtime Mannheim Steamroller member) Chuck Penington.
It sounded less like an arranged piece of music – although the possibility that it had been shaped ahead of time can’t be denied – and more like a well-constructed improvisation on a theme.
The audience responded well to the whole program. They came knowing what to expect and seemed happy that the concert delivered it. It was a good night for all.