Mannheim Steamroller has been a part of my Christmas canon for as long as I can remember. So many Christmas dreams came true with their music playing in the background. The beautiful sounds would paint patterns in the snow whirling through the air on the long drive to Grandma’s house. Every new CD – and before that, cassette tape – wouldn’t make it home from the store unopened.
I know every note, every word, every unique melody of Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas music by heart. Of course I have my favorites – Carol of the Bells, Veni Veni, Good King Wenceslas, Pat A Pan, and Hark the Herald Trumpets Sing, to name just a few – but the fact is, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Mannheim Steamroller.
I’d never really thought about seeing them perform live. While I enjoy the Christmas Live album, it is not my absolute favorite. Yet when I heard that they would be performing the Saturday before Christmas in nearby Rosemont, I knew I wanted to go. I just had no idea what to expect.
Firstly, I was surprised by the age group in attendance. Most people where clearly in their 50’s. I know Mannheim Steamroller has been around a long time, 40 years. It has been 30 years since their first Christmas album. I just didn’t expect the crowd to be so decidedly of the previous generation.
When I got my seat – which I splurged on for the special occasion – and looked at the program, I was both thrilled and a little disappointed by the song selection. A couple of my favorites made the list, but they also decided to play several tracks from their non-Christmas Fresh Aire series. Let me clarify my disappointment. I love Mannheim Steamroller CHRISTMAS music. I have their Disney album and their Halloween album. Otherwise I don’t know their music. I’m sure it’s wonderful. I just don’t know it. When I purchased my ticket I was expecting a Christmas concert much like what you hear on their Live album. I was sad to see that wasn’t the case, and that means there wouldn’t be time left for more of my holiday favorites.
All that fell away when they started to play. When they played their modern rendition God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman I was so happy I teared up, and again when they played Silent Night for an encore. I know that live music can’t sound exactly like the CD. When Above the Northern Lights was augmented by some jazzy improvisation I was actually thrilled! In my opinion that piece has always needed that type of change, and I wish they had that version on CD.
I learned that there are now actually two touring Mannheim Steamroller groups, and East coast and a West coast. That may have explained why founder and composer Chip Davis was not with them, but rather greeted us by video. Funny guy. It would be nice to see him in person some day.
I was really impressed by their use of synchronized video. I know from experience how difficult it can be to sync audio and video together properly. I have also performed with an instrument before, and I know how easily things can go wrong no matter how hard you practice. Mannheim Steamroller synchronized LIVE music to video that had its own audio. For instance, they performed O Tannenbaum, which was sung by Johnny Mathis. Of course Johnny Mathis wasn’t there. Instead they had behind the scenes footage of Mathis recording the song. That video played in perfect sync with the live performance of the song. If the tempo had been the slightest bit off, if anyone had come in late on their part, it would have stuck out like a sore thumb. It was flawless.
The video screens served several purposes. They illustrated songs like God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Pat A Pan. They contributed audio from vocalists like Johnny Mathis and the Michigan University Men’s Glee Club. They showed a behind the scenes look at the recording of some of my favorite places. For some songs like Catching Snowflakes on Your Tongue the screens helped to fill the theater with falling snow. For other songs still the screens were filled with kaleidoscope patterns of color. Some videos were fascinating. Some screamed “I’m from the 90’s!”. Some were too distracting when you wanted to watch the musicians on the stage. Some were definitely necessary.
If there was anything that disappointed me – besides the non-Christmas songs they performed – it was the brass section of the Mannheim Steamroller Orchestra. When a Steamroller song features horns, I expect them to be big, bold, and triumphant. You can’t miss them. They take over and drive the song forward. Live, either they were a performer short, they were not adequately mic’d, or they just didn’t play to the proper volume. I’m not sure which it was, but the horns didn’t grab me and demand my attention the way they always have on the albums.
Overall, I really enjoyed the concert. I kept my program and bought the CD as souvenirs, and the memory of seeing them live will never completely fade. Will I go again? Not next year. As a holiday tradition seeing the live performance isn’t as important to me as being able to listen to any song I want to off my iPod during the holiday season. Perhaps in five years I will consider it.
On a completely different note: Rosemont Theater, you are a RIP OFF. Parking was $20! I was expecting $10, but I was also ready for Murphy to show up. There are 2 concession stands on the 2nd floor, but they were never opened. This forced everyone to go downstairs, and the lines were so long at intermission I gave up without a try. All I wanted was a bottle of water but $4.25 was outrageous to me.