The Fresh Aire Music of Mannheim Steamroller, presented on March 20th by Broadway Series South in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, was a multimedia dazzler by one of the 20th Century’s few contemporary music orchestras. Despite its popularity with the record-buying public, Mannheim Steamroller is still something of an enigma. Now 23 years old, the group, as one might call it, began as the dream of one man, Chip Davis. Davis was a musician in the 1970s, creating on his own time what was then a really different style of music, combining aspects of classical, rock, and synthesized music to create an entirely new sound. Davis created a full recording of this style, titling it “Fresh Aire,” and took it to several big music labels. But their reaction was always the same. It was too new, they said, and there was no “group.” Who was playing this brand-new style of music? They needed a group, a band.
Davis drew on his own classical music knowledge to concoct “Mannheim Steamroller,” drawing on an experience discovered by the orchestra director in the city of Mannheim. He noted that on a regular basis, when the music came to a swell, the audience became more excited. The phenomenon became known as the “Mannheim Roll.” Davis used this footnote to musical history to create the new name, adding the modern steamroller image for power. So now, there was a group, and a name. But that did not satisfy the big labels. If the group as such could fluctuate from being a single individual to an entire orchestra, well, this was a novel concept.
Undaunted, Davis opened his own label, “American Gramaphone,” in 1975. Its first release was “Fresh Aire,” a suite of tunes that celebrated nature. It would become the first of four Mannheim Steamroller suites that were based on the Seasons. Davis has been writing music for the group ever since, as well as producing for other artists on his label. Steamroller’s first visit to Raleigh was in 1990, when Davis brought a consort of musicians to Memorial Auditorium for a gala concert to raise funds supporting Yellowstone National Park, after wildfires had destroyed much of the park’s woodlands and habitat. The album released at the same time both celebrated, and raised money for, the park’s continued recuperation.
Fast forward to the present. “Fresh Aire” has now grown from one to a collection of eight recordings, the first four being based on the Seasons and the second four looking at Man’s own delving into the strange and mysterious aspects of the world around him, both natural and — one might say — the supernatural. The Fresh Aire Music of Mannheim Steamroller, combining selections from all eight albums and adding in a few more just for fun, is now touring for 2008 with a quintet of musicians and an accompanying light-and-film show, assembled by Davis himself expressly for the tour. Using five highly trained and talented musicians, Davis has designed the music for a small orchestra consisting of a total of 15 members, 10 of whom are local musicians. Sadly, that list of musicians was unavailable at press time.
The group’s core quintet consists of conductor Chuck Penington; concertmaster and violinist Jeff Yang; bass guitar and keyboard player Ron Cooley; master keyboardist Jonathan Swoboda; and drummer Logan Penington, who, as the name suggests, is the son of the conductor. With the supporting instruments spread out behind them, the five entered in red shirts and white tails. Yang stood stage right, with the strings behind him. Logan Penington’s trapset sat center, on a huge dais, from under which would come the dry-ice effect of smoke, which would sweep the stage during a particular piece. Chuck Penington conducted from in front of the set. Cooley, with both bass guitar and a keyboard, stood left of center, and Swoboda was stage left, seated at what appeared to be a grand piano. Behind him was a rather futuristic-looking synthesizer. The accompaniment consisted of three violins, two violas, and a cello; a gentleman who played two different clarinets; a trumpeter; a multiple-horn musician; and (another) percussionist.
Mannheim Steamroller founder Chip Davis’ hand-selected series of video, slides, and animation gave our eyes something to do while our ears focused on the music. The first selection, “Come Home to the Sea,” from “Fresh Aire VI,” might just be the band’s best-known work. Images on a wide screen behind the musicians were of speeding porpoises, whale flukes, crashing waves, and lovely sailing vessels. As we had just witnessed a welcome to the concert made previously, taped by Davis himself, the entire concert proceeded without interruption. The only pause came when, after a fabulous rendition of “Fresh Aire II’s” Fantasia, we broke for intermission. This extended work consists of seven pieces, which are described as “doors,” and jump to various subjects just as a man’s thoughts might jump, quickly and seemingly without direction, to various topics.
As may be expected, each member of the group’s core quintet is a superb and talented musician on his own; together, with highly skilled and experienced support, they truly brought this music to a rousing life, giving it a very palpable presence and character. Further, each of them looked as though he was having a very grand time doing it. Young Penington, surrounded by cymbals and both standard and electric drums, was a blur of activity anchoring the music with super style and a flying mane of hair. Cooley, who might be the senior of the quintet, is the longest-standing of the Mannheim players; he is himself a 40-year professional musician. With a singular combination of walking and melodic bass styles, he provided the foundation for the arching and soaring combinations provided by Yang and Swoboda.
Two instruments provided a full complement of sounds and two dazzling virtuoso performances. The electric violin Yang played is capable of a magnificently full range of instrumentation that caused us more than once to look about the stage to pinpoint the source. This electronic capability provides Yang with an amazing pallet of instrumentation from which, with seeming ease, he covered the technically complicated and lyric melodies of Davis’ pen. Swoboda performed grand piano, synthesizer, and during “Midnight on a Full Moon” (from “Fresh Aire III”), a toy piano on a moving stand that he moved with him all about the stage, and never once missed a beat. Swoboda’s secret weapon in this concert is his “grand.” What appears to be a grand piano is in point of fact a highly sophisticated electronic instrument combining synthesizer and other keyboard and orchestra instrumentation. This information explained to this reviewer why it was that he could hear both piano and harpsichord, while it appeared that Swoboda was playing only one. At another point, he stands between the “grand” and the synthesizer behind it, and plays both simultaneously! Each artist is a virtuoso on his instrument, but this was the performance that most caught this audience’s attention!
The group, in addition to the regular program, provided a three-song encore with music from Davis’s re-arrangements of popular Christmas carols, tonight beginning with “Winter Wonderland,” featuring Yang on violin; and then my absolute favorite of these reworked tunes, “Deck the Halls.” This is definitely Swoboda’s forte. Finally, one of Davis’ own creations, “Going to Another Place,” included an introduction by Cooley on mountain dulcimer, and wrapped up with a fully orchestrated conclusion that brought this crowd to its feet.
This concert has been rearranged for 15 pieces by the composer, and presents a unique complement of music that has spanned more than thirty years in its creation. It is a sound that covers flights of fancy, glories of nature, inventions of man, his foibles, his magnificence, and his intellect. This concert presents a composite of eight different and diverse suites, that summarizes Mannheim Steamroller’s advancement from the simple piano solos heard in “Fresh Aire I’ to the complicated and symbolic music presented in “Fresh Aire 7” and “Fresh Aire 8.” If you enjoy classical music, this is a concert that is worth traveling for. Mannheim Steamroller should return to Raleigh for another Christmas concert. Keep a sharp lookout and mark your calendar. If you missed this show, you owe it to yourself to catch the next one.
For concert dates and recordings, go to http://shop.mannheimsteamroller.com/. This entire concert is available on CD!
Mannheim Steamroller: http://shop.mannheimsteamroller.com/. The Fresh Aire Tour: http://shop.mannheimsteamroller.com/content/Tour.htm. Broadway Series South: http://www.broadwayseriessouth.com/.