They say you learn something new every day. Last Saturday at the Gallo Center for the Arts, I learned enough to carry me through the holiday weekend.
For example, I learned that Mannheim Steamroller’s live holiday tour is, at 35 years, the longest running consecutive tour in music industry history. The group has sold over 41 million albums, outselling artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel.
Walking out of the Gallo Center, I understood why. Accompanied by Vegas-level lighting and special effects, Mannheim Steamroller’s music ushered us into the holiday season in extremely grand fashion.
Frankly, “education” could have been the theme of the afternoon. During the two hour show, over and over again, I learned how beautiful an oboe and a recorder could be. I played the latter as a kid. It never sounded like Mannheim Steamroller made it sound.
During the second half of the cultural juggernaut’s matinee performance in Modesto, Mannheim Steamroller founder Chip Davis, via video, outlined the history of so many of the Christmas songs that we all love. Many of them date back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Of COURSE they do! You talk about an “a ha moment!” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing?” No one uses the word “hark” any more. “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen?” Ditto with “ye.” And no one would have beckoned Jeanette OR Isabella to bring a flashlight during a traditional Christmas song. During those darkened pre-PG&E times, those folks reached for torches.
Even the melodies of popular Christmas carols harken back to the Victorian era, but I had never heard that truth in the intricate compositions until Saturday’s Mannheim Steamroller show. The music was, simply, beautiful…and timeless.
The highlight of the concert’s first half was one of the most delicate arrangements of “Cantique de Noel (O Holy Night)” that I have ever heard. After a brief intermission, Mannheim Steamroller amazingly topped themselves with a series of songs that illustrated the Christmas music cannon’s aforementioned history (accompanied by a cinematic-grade video projected on an enormous LCD screen), and ended the set with an aptly named “Stille Nacht (Silent Night).”
It was during that second half that Mannheim Steamroller performed their first groundbreaking Christmas album from 1984, Mannheim Steamroller Christmas, in its entirety. I had never heard the entire project, and now understand how the group has enjoyed almost four decades of success after its release.
The group has released 12 Christmas albums in total, but I’d wager a few shillings that none of the subsequent 11 are more beautiful. (Shillings…that Victorian history must be rubbing off!)
Mannheim Steamroller graciously delivered an encore, but uncharacteristically, I could have lived without one. I knew they couldn’t possible top “Silent Night”’s final “Sleep in heavenly peace.” It was heavenly, indeed,
The concert’s second half, miraculously, left me walking to the car singing “Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella.” Until Saturday, I hated that song. I used to have to practice that song as a kid in my elementary school choir, and I hated it. I’m certain that my sustained protests drove Mrs. Burns, our choir director, bonkers. Even Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ Motown version left me wishing for a mighty wind to extinguish that torch.
But on Saturday, November 30, 2019, at approximately 4pm Pacific Standard Time, Mannheim Steamroller finally got through to me, and I silently apologized to Mrs. Burns for the pain I had inflicted at Carter G. Woodson Elementary School. “Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella”’s heavenly melody and poignant lyrics spoke to me.
In fact, almost every song in the show did. Christmas music has always been an easy sell for me, but in Mannheim Steamroller’s hands…wow. My Apple Music Christmas playlist has forever been altered.
And again, Mrs. Burns: please forgive me. Quite simply, I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about.