There is something about Christmas music that makes people just want to play with it. The familiarity. The predictability. The unmatched place that Christmas music has in the cultural pantheon.
Musicians can’t help but want a piece of that, whether it’s Handel trying to outshine the heavenly host with his “Hallelujahs!” or Bruuuuce taking a children’s cautionary tune (You better watch out!) and rockin’ it into a boisterous celebration of Santa Claus bringing his tour to your town.
For Mannheim Steamroller, though, it is different. Christmas isn’t a novelty or a sideline. Christmas is the centerpiece of the franchise.
Like the holiday itself, Mannheim Steamroller in all its incarnations rolls around the country once each year, starting before Thanksgiving and continuing on until the last crumbs are shaken from the last holiday plate.
Saturday night was Buffalo’s night.
A crowd of the faithful filled the better part of Shea’s Performing Arts Center to see the “Red Tour” cast of the Chip Davis company present a well-oiled rendition of this year’s holiday show. The Steamroller has been doing this for close to three decades now, which turns out to be a good thing and a not-so-good thing for the show.
Fortunately, it is mostly a good thing. The carols of Christmas really do shine under the orchestra’s New Age polish, starting with a lively “Deck the Halls” and moody “We Three Kings,” enriched by the sounds of traditional instruments.
The video accompaniment, however, felt stuck in the ’80s. In a world that lives in high definition now, the fuzzy films had a sort of A.V. Club look, not helped by being projected behind a swirl of stage smoke. Anyone who has bought a television in the past decade is used to better at home.
The films were even more inscrutable when telling stories: “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” played over an oddly constructed narrative that started in a barn, then filmed under a horse, from the saddle of a horse, in trees looking down on the horse and then for some reason flying over the White Cliffs of Dover.
It really didn’t matter. No one goes to a Mannheim Steamroller concert for the movies, and the visuals improved dramatically when the team played to its strength – performing away under energetic light shows that raked the stage and the audience, spraying into stars and “trees” and snowfalls and heaven only knows what all.
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” benefited from this, with a solo spotlight on conductor Chuck Pennington as he played the first few bars on piano and then finding Jeff Yang and his violin, making a perfect match for the sleeping little town that is unaware of the wondrous events happening there that night. And then, the rest of the orchestra awakens and the lights celebrate the everlasting light, and all its hopes and dreams.
Once the “word” is out, the music launches straight into “Joy to the World!,” a carol made for a stage. Light travels around like the paths of the angels enjoying a fresh new life in its New Age rendition.
The take on Tchaikovsky was also a treat, giving us a Sugarplum Fairy with attitude.
The second half of the show was for the hard-core Steamers, with numbers from the Fresh Aire series filling out the set – “Toccata” was particularly well-received – before the holiday closing tunes.
Overall, though, the concert was too often rather workmanlike. Other than a brief introduction, the musicians followed the set list without any patter with the audience, friendly announcements or even acknowledgement of applause. The vocals for the show were prerecorded by Johnny Mathis and Elyse Davis, who appeared on screen, and in the performance’s drier moments, it felt like they could have been, too.
Thank heaven for their “O Holy Night.” It captured the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas tradition.