A review of “A Mannheim Steamroller Christmas” with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

A review of “A Mannheim Steamroller Christmas” with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
 
 
            My wife and I went to Powell Symphony Hall to watch the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra perform “Mannheim Steamroller Christmas” on December 14, 2013.
            A college roommate introduced me to Mannheim Steamroller in 1982, one year after the release of their “Fresh Air IV” album. I was hooked.
            They combined classical music (particularly baroque) with jazz and rock into a light-progressive instrumental style. It featured Chip Davis, the founder, on drums, Jackson Berkey on the various keyboards – from piano to pipe organ to, particularly, harpsichord, and Eric Hanson on bass guitar.
            Their music avoids labeling – it has been called everything from New Age to Baroque-and-Roll (this label was first used on the group “The Left Bank” – a proto prog-pop band from the mid-1960s). The band does not embrace the New Age label, nor do most New Age enthusiasts embrace their inclusion into the genre.
             I am the exception. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I hosted “A New Age” at my local NPR station on Sunday nights. I happily included Mannheim’s music in addition to other artists outside the genre – Ravi Shankar, Isao Tomita and Blue Chip Orchesta along with stalwarts Kitaro, David Arkenstone and Enya. By this time there were surprisingly good so-called New Age music from the likes of even John Tesh and Barbie Benton.
            “Fresh Aire IV” combined medieval instruments on pop and rock arrangements of damnably catchy melodies. Ancient instruments playing tightly structured songs but with enough obtuse and unexpected variations on the melody to keep me listening.
            Four more “Fresh Aire” albums were to come – each album with a “theme”: the excellent “V” (a trip to the moon), “VI” (Greek Mythology), “7” (themes involving the number 7 – 7 seas, 7 chakras, Sunday, and “8” (infinity) – these last two reaching Number Two on the newly-created New Age charts; the only chart their music would seemingly fit.
            In 1984 Mannheim Steamroller released a Christmas album. For this ensemble known for its quirkiness and undefinability to enter the realm of Perry Como, Johnny Mathis and Percy Faith was the last thing one would expect – so of course it was a natural thing to do!
            Jazz musicians have released Christmas songs for decades, and there have been Christmas versions of electronic music; but for a still-obscure musical group to release a Christmas album was a substantial financial risk. Would those who enjoy traditional Christmas fare buy an album from this eclectic group? Would fans of this eclectic group buy an album of traditional Christmas fare?
            Fortunately for Mannheim Steamroller, both groups did. That first album “Mannheim Steamroller Christmas” was done in their unique style while still respecting the traditions of Yule. It spawned twelve other holiday albums with tunes ranging from original compositions to “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch”. They have sold in the millions and over the past thirty years the songs are considered Christmas classics.
            I saw Chip Davis and company perform their Christmas and Fresh Aire tunes in Chicago in 1987 on their first tour. They’ve toured at Christmastime regularly ever since – the band now down to Chip Davis, various session men and orchestras big and small.
           
            In October I was looking at what was happening in St. Louis during the Christmas season – perhaps we could see “A Christmas Carol” being performed, or a madrigal or a special concert. Perhaps the Nutcracker.
            “Elf” was playing at the Fox. Nah. No special individual Christmas shows were announced yet – not even Trans-Siberian Orchestra (another eclectic group – although firmly ensconced in the rock idiom – that had taken some of the thunder from Mannheim’s Christmas popularity). The St. Louis Symphony was going to perform a Gospel Messiah during the week of December 7th and their traditional Christmas program on the 21st. But the weekend of the 14thwas set for the Music of Mannheim Steamroller Christmas.
            I misread it at first and thought it was Mannheim Steamroller performing with the Symphony. Stop right there. We have a winner. My wife was excited too – especially since there were still front row seats available.
            A closer look shows it was not Mannheim Steamroller themselves (or himself – the “group” is now solely Chip Davis’s baby) but the St. LouisSymphony performing its music.
            Fine by me; fine with my wife, too. Would I like to go see one of the best symphony orchestras perform some of my favorite holiday music from one of my favorite performers from the front row? Sure, what the hell…
           
            The conductor/arranger of the concert program was Arnie Roth, the orchestral arranger for Mannheim Steamroller for many decades; so there was at least a connection with Chip Davis. He was there in spirit.
            I was interested in seeing how the orchestra would handle some of Steamroller’s electronic doodlings: the synthesizer intro to “Deck the Halls”, the mechanics of “Little Drummer Boy”, the swirling ending of “Silent Night”. 
            I needn’t have worried – the strings (cello and bass violin in particular) handled the “Deck the Halls” intro, for example. We sat right in front of the violins. I was enraptured by their ability and talents. Throughout the concert the violins played in the quiet, serene background. When they took the lead of a song – they were majestic and moving.
            There are no bad seats at Powell, but one unfortunate side effect of the front row is we could watch the violinists play masterfully at the cost of not seeing anyone else. The brass, percussion, harp and piano/harpsichord were heard but not seen. I could spot one trumpeter between the legs and feet of the viola section, but that was it. And unfortunately the brass, percussion, harp and piano/harpsichord were the main instruments in the concert. From the intro of “Hark the Herald Trumpets Sing” I knew I was missing watching professionals playing excellent music. I didn’t mind though – I got to observe the entire violin section. I have been tinkering with the violin for many years and, as with guitarists, I loved watching their playing techniques.
            So next time we’ll sit a little further back.
            There were only a few sour notes – twice from the brass section. A missed note and an early intro; I have already forgotten which songs because frankly, I didn’t care. The drummer did an excellent job keeping the beat, but there were times he lagged behind the rest of the orchestra; I think it was during “Joy to the World”. Again, who cares? It did not distract from a superb show!
The set list:
Hark Fanfare
Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Do You Hear What I Hear
Traditions of Christmas (an original Chip Daviscomposition)
The Little Drummer Boy
Greensleeves
We Three Kings
Cantique de Noel
Carol of the Bells
Hallelujah (a highlight of the concert)
Intermission
Deck the Halls
Pat-a-Pan/Fum Fum Fum Medley (another highlight)
Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming
Joy to the World
Renaissance Suite: (my favorite part of the concert, a personal highlight)
            Gagliarda
            Il duci jubilo
            Wassail, Wassail
            Carol of the Birds
            I Saw Three Ships
            God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman
Silent Night
encore Angels We have Heard on High
            During the 1987 concert, Mannheim performed the Renaissance version of “God Rest Ye …” and broke into “The William Tell Overture” between lines. I was hoping for the same here, but they did not. The smiles in this concert came not from humor but from enjoying superb musicianship playing superb arrangements.
           
            Here is another review of the concert from a classical radio station in St. Louis – another interesting view that touches on the differences between this orchestral performance and the original arrangements: http://kdhx.org/music/reviews/st-louis-symphony-a-mannheim-steamroller-christmas
            My wife and I enjoyed our evening at Powell very much! During the intermission the line to the rest rooms were in the dozens. I told my wife I would chance it and miss the beginning of “Deck the Halls”. Don’t worry, I said, we’ll hear it on the radio on the way home.
            Over the years the various Mannheim Steamroller Christmas albums have not been played on my stereo. They are played on the radio at Christmastime – a lot. A lot. But this concert gave me a new appreciation of the music from the albums and their quirky arrangements. Here we heard these quirky arrangements done in a very traditional way with a fine, fine orchestra. Loving this concert made me love the original arrangements as well. I even dug out my old Fresh Aire CDs to play in my car and in the 5-CD changer in the living room.
            Welcome back to the rotation, my friend. I had forgotten how much I missed you.
Copyright 2013 Michael G Curry
             


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