Editor’s Note: I attended the 4 p.m. show by Mannheim Steamroller, which was followed by a 7:30 p.m. show. My take here reflects the first performance, and may be different than what some experienced at the latter of the two shows.
The band is perhaps the most venerable of all Christmas acts, with millions of records sold and a claim as the all-time-most-watched of any of the holiday tours. It’s a holiday tradition for many, both in Fayetteville, where the program has visited before, and nationally, with two concurrent tours running across the country with the group’s current program, “Christmas in Venice.”
At risk of being labeled a Scrooge, I fall into the less enthused side of the crowd. I struggled mightily to decide why I disliked the show. But the clinical execution by the band left me wanting for variety. Precision is a critical element to a Mannheim Steamroller performance; at one point, one of the group’s dueling percussionists beat his snare in perfect time with an animated drummer boy on a video board found above the band members.
The origins of the various swells of music coming from stage were often hard to distinguish between the players onstage, a credit to the complexity of founder Chip Davis’ arrangements and the diverse instrumentation. Many of the musicians were capable of playing multiple instruments, and if called on to do so, they played them well.
But Davis himself was only there courtesy of a short recorded message played at the beginning of the show. He stopped performing with the group several years ago after a surgery, but maintains his role as creative force and composer. That role is expanding, with the Mannheim brand now in the middle of a six week run in Las Vegas. With three concurrent Christmas shows — not to mention the glossy color handout from a the show’s presenting jewelry sponsor that was thicker than the program itself — it feels awfully commercial.
Still, a half-full Walton Arts Center crowd — many of them retirees, no doubt, considering the start time — gave warm applause after each selection concluded.
Mannheim provides an interesting quandary in terms of audience feedback. A sensible audience member would never cheer for a symphony during the middle of a song. So, how do you respond to a symphony that wants to be a rock band? Cautiously, if the crowd on Tuesday afternoon is to be used as a measuring stick. A few songs later in the set, such as “Good King Wenceslas,” and the less familiar “Above the Northern Lights,” were delivered with spark and received a response to match.
But the bulk of the show, particularly what passed before the intermission (Side rant: Is there ANY need for a 20 minute intermission after just 47 minutes of a performance?), was flat and very much what you could hear on one of Mannheim’s various Christmastime records. Like some 28 million people in the United States, I own one of those records, and I was surprised by just how blandly similar the live interpretations were when compared to the recorded versions. That’s fine, if that’s all you want, but if I desire a holiday sampler, I’ve had just as much fun listening to the radio or a Christmas station via the Pandora internet radio service. At least it comes with surprises.
Mannheim Steamroller Setlist: 1) Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; 2) Gagliarda; 3) Greensleeves; 4) White Christmas; 5) Little Drummer Boy; 6) Faeries; 7) Christmas Lullaby; 8) Joy to the World; 9) Above the Northern Lights; 10) Pat a Pan; 11) O Holy Night
12) God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (modern); 13) Wassail, Wassail; 14) Carol of the Birds; 15) I Saw Three Ships; 16) God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (traditional); 17) Good King Wenceslas; 18) Hallelujah; 19) Winter Wonderland; 20) Messengers of Christmas; 21) Carol of the Bells;
Encore: 22) Silent Night; 23) Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (reprise)