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Mannheim Steamroller sleighs crowd with ho-hum holiday fare

Posted 1:54pm on Friday, Dec. 30, 2016

Despite opposition from the calendar, Christmas made a comeback at Bass Hall on Thursday.

Mannheim Steamroller, the venerable Omaha-based ensemble known especially for its holiday music, delighted a near-capacity audience of about 1,900 which did not care that they had unwrapped their gifts days ago. The Christmas spirit engendered by the group knows no temporal bounds.

If you are not familiar with the Steamroller (whose name is an elaboration of an 18th-century musical term), the instruments used by the band, which numbered 15 for this performance, tell you all you need to know. Out in front of the strings, woodwinds, electric violin, drums and other traditional music makers, sat a harpsichord with a synthesizer keyboard resting atop it. That, in a nutshell, is what this group is all about: putting a modern, electronic sheen on traditional musical forms (if you consider the late 20th century to be modern).

Thursday’s concert was as familiar and predictable as many of our most treasured Christmas rituals, such as trimming the tree and having family arguments. There was almost nothing new about it. Some of the video elements screened behind the performers, for example, looked like they had been shot by Edison. The snowfall special effect produced only a small batch of flurries, and every number was rendered exactly as it has been for most of the more than 30-year run of this particular show.

The performance opened with Deck the Halls, one of the more trademark offerings from this branch of the band’s catalog. From there, the players glided through a usual-suspects list of carols that included Angels We Have Heard on High, We Three Kings and God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen. Almost all were presented as instrumentals, as is the norm with this ensemble founded by Chip Davis (who appeared only on film at Thursday’s concert). One of the few exceptions was a brief appearance (again, on film) by crooner Johnny Mathis on O Tannenbaum. Among the standout performances was an uncharacteristically robust reading of Carol of the Bells. It did not touch the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s version of that carol, but it came closer than anything else.

The only deviation from the Yuletide material came in the concert’s second half when the ensemble, led by pianist Chuck Pennington, offered a lengthy set of non-holiday tunes recorded by the band. Unfortunately, that straying from the path of Santa-ness broke the holiday feel of the show and killed its momentum.

The evening then closed with a whimper rather than a bang by offering plodding and tepid takes on Auld Lang Syne and Silent Night.

If you’re not a fan of this group, you might have found its approaches to our Christmas favorites to often be cloying, over-produced to the point of sterility and more than a little bit cheesy. Davis and company have been doing New Age-style music since before the term was even coined. So you can blame them for Yanni and John Tesh, if you like (but in their defense, I don’t think that is what they meant to do).

But, on the whole, Thursday’s performance was exactly what the band’s fans wanted it to be, as they enjoyed hearing Christmas get a glossy, synthesizer-rich second wind.

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