BWW Reviews: MANNHEIM STEAMROLLER Continues Holiday Tradition

Christmas has a brand name. For more than 25 years, Mannheim Steamroller has marked itself as the authority on Christmas music. Mannheim Steamroller is Christmas, and Christmas would not be Christmas without Mannheim Steamroller. Oh, there are plenty of other groups like the Trans Siberian Orchestra that come close, but Mannheim Steamroller has such a unique sound all its own, contemporary, yet far away from modern music, that has enabled it to brand itself as the official music of the holidays. Founder and composer Chip Davis has not-so-successfully branched out with Halloween and relaxation music, but his true mark on the Christmas holiday is what draws so many to touring concerts of his music each year. This year, the West Coast tour comes to Fresno, Bakersfield, Sacramento and Redding.

I had the pleasure of attending a Mannheim concert a few years ago. The San Francisco concert took place the day after Christmas in a small venue with a stage about a third of the size of the Fresno Saroyan Theatre stage. Compared to what I saw in Fresno on December 13, everything was downsized. I have yet to decide if I prefer the more homely, downsized concert or the more elaborate version created for the larger stage. On the smaller San Francisco stage, a somewhat see-through screen was rolled out in front of the musicians for the Renaissance segment, enhancing the intimate feel of the concert, and the concert used little dramatic lighting. On the larger stage, almost every song has an accompanying video projected on a large screen behind the musicians. Dramatic lighting both on stage and in the auditorium creates an energetic rock concert atmosphere. Of course, you must keep in mind that the concert I saw in San Francisco will differ, as concerts change from year to year, but the music remained the same between concerts, for the most part.

Mannheim plays all the fan favorites, from Carol of the Bells to Pat A Pan to Good King Wenceslas and much more. The group has a mechanical, electronic sound, but includes traditional, pure sounds that come across in music featuring recorders and the violin. Chip Davis has created original arrangements of classic Christmas music that you won’t find anywhere else... except on his CDs. The program is nice enough to include a list of all the songs and which CD each is found on. 

In the West Coast Tour, longtime Mannheim participant Chuck Penington acts as conductor and plays the piano, keyboard and some percussion. Jeff Yang, concertmaster, plays the violin and recorder. Glen Smith plays the bass, lute and guitar, taking audiences back in time for the Renaissance segment with his old-fashioned instruments. Joey Gulizia plays percussion. Gulizia takes the spotlight during the second half with the electronic woodwinds, which can create a variety of different sounds, including the choir. Also on percussion, in addition to drums and recorder, Tom Sharpe gives the most enjoyable performance. All five musicians look ready to relish the holidays with their red and white suits, but Sharpe has the most energy of the five. He spins the drumsticks around in his hands, doing fancy tricks, and really gets into his music. Adding to the wonderful sound, a small orchestra plays in the background. Unfortunately, the orchestra members, which include trumpet, violin, and clarinet players, do not have their names listed in the four page program.

Throughout the concert, the five talented soloists switch from instrument to instrument with ease, playing each with perfection. The concert lasts about two hours plus a little extra time if you clap loud enough to be rewarded with a two-song encore. The fun videos and creative lighting only add to the pleasure of watching the musicians play. A final video pays tribute to many years of successful music and performance. And it’s no wonder that the group and its music has become so successful. As Chip Davis says in a video at the beginning of the concert, it’s a family experience as each generation passes down the gift of music to the next generation.


Mannheim Steamroller Christmas

Fresno Dec 13

Bakersfield Dec 14

Sacramento Dec 15

Redding Dec 16

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From This Author Harmony Wheeler

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