Meghan Thomassen | Sunday, December 2, 2012
Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. The music, the lights, the snow, the cookies, the candles, the Advent wreath, the tree, the presents – everything. But if you try to combine all those things with techno lights, fog machines and bad audio mixing, you’re not celebrating Christmas. You’re ruining it.
Mannheim Steamroller performed at the Morris Performing Arts Center on Nov. 29. The group consists of six main technical musicians, supported by a small orchestra. Created by Chip Davis, the group has been touring the world since the 1970s. And it certainly sounds that way, too.
They began the night with a “Fantasia” version of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” with every instrument imaginable digitized. One woman played three different kinds of recorder and the finger cymbals made far too many appearances throughout the night.
They certainly played up the Mannheim brand throughout the night, advertising their new CD, “Winter in Venice,” by playing an old hymn with video vignettes of a Venetian banquet playing in the background. The first 15 minutes were spent promoting their future appearance in Las Vegas at the Venetian Hotel with a tacky video of the show’s creator surrounded by three fawning, feather-clad showgirls.
Believe it or not, the videos got worse. At one point there were dancing dolls and what looked like a bad version of a MacBook screensaver. The audience was subjected to an intense audio-visual experience, one far too harsh for the sentiment of the season. At one point, green fog smothered the stage while snowflakes were pumped from the ceiling. The bass throbbed and the lights fractured like a disco ball. I felt like I was at a dubstep show, not a Christmas concert.
I suppose I should mention the positive parts of the night. The lead violinist was excellent. She demonstrated the most showmanship out of the entire group, and really knew how to make the violin sing, even though it was electronic.
The harpsichord was my favorite part of the night because it was the only featured instrument that wasn’t hooked up to a synthesizer. They played a pretty good variety of Christmas songs, from “White Christmas” to “Wassail, Wassail” to “Carol of the Bells.” The rest of the real orchestra was stuck in the back two corners, barely visible and barely heard. I assume they were skilled, but were unfortunately underplayed, and therefore, underappreciated.
The band’s problem was that it was trying to sensationalize Christmas when the holiday is already the best part of the year. Everyone already loves Christmas, so they didn’t need to add all those pounding, crashing drums and dramatic echoes.
Maybe I’m missing something because I didn’t grow up with the group. I’m sure there was talent somewhere on that stage, but you would have to cut through 10 feet of wire to find it. Who knew that you could tour the world with a stage version of “GarageBand”? The entire night I felt as if I could have performed just as well with my old keyboard at home on the reverb setting.
The point of a live concert is to see people playing music. But with Mannheim Steamroller, all you see is a bunch of people standing and bobbing their heads as they push buttons. At the very least, the performers should have tried to inject a little more personality and seasonal spirit in their show. If you like your Christmas music to sound like a Tim Burton soundtrack or a Macy’s shopping playlist, then Mannheim Steamroller will be the perfect way to spend the holidays.
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