Long Center For The Performing Arts, Austin TX December 28, 2011
Carl F Gauze
In retrospect, watching Mannheim Steamroller three days after Christmas may not have been my most intelligent concert-going decision this year. Not that the show was disappointing, but I've been saturated with "holy this" and "holly that" for the past months and might have done better with a little Tejano or blues. Still, there are family obligations one must honor, so off we went with the minivan all the way down to Austin's Long Center for the Performing Arts. The space is an elongated cube with two large balconies, a relatively short orchestra, and a very high and acoustically bright ceiling. Even though we were in the dead last row of the second balcony, the sound came though clear and bright with no late echoes to muddy the skating rink.
There are two current incarnations of Mannheim Steamroller floating around. This roving operation is lead by Jackson Berkey while co-founder Chip Davis conducts an 80-piece orchestra over at Orlando's Universal Studios. This show is the more "traditional" version, and it shows how a quarter-century of touring has matched the product with the market -- the place was packed on a weekday post-holiday evening, and the standing ovation got nearly the whole room out of its seats. On stage there are six principal performers dressed in red and white and another eight anonymous string and bass players lurking in the shadows. The music tends toward a synthesizer-heavy mix of the holiday classics, some modern Celtic material, and a few un-introduced middle-of-the-road sounding tunes. Someone in my party commented "They sound like that old Moog synthesizer music," which I took to mean the 1970s hit "Switched on Bach."
And that comment pretty much summarizes the show. Technically Mannheim Steamroller is perfect: no missed notes or cues, "all the hits, all the time, all the same" programming, and, to quote another member of our party, this was "relaxing." As we relaxed, the band stood stock still as a giant projection screen gave us the real show, only stopping occasionally to turn off the lights and move equipment. The videos included acrobats at a generic "Renaissance" fest of indeterminate date, the women all wearing headgear that ranged from the court of Charlemagne to that of Henry the VIII. There were endless toy soldiers and nutcracker motifs, some sparkly and vaguely religious sunsets, and armies of animated toys walking around. It was done well enough, and even though the band wasn't moving around, this could have been a holiday DVD from Walgreens.
If we could put crisper bookends around the Christmas season, a show like this would be an excellent highlight, but with the steady stream of Christmas music permeating life from before Halloween 'til the new year's hangover clears, a Mannheim Steamroller show feels like drinking a glass of really good eggnog after a slice of fruitcake, a plate of candied yams, a helping of pecan pie, a plate of sugar cookies, and some honey-baked ham -- too much of a good thing.