Mannheim Steamroller rolls into town
Every November and December for the past 35 years, the neoclassical new-age band Mannheim Steamroller goes on tour, its three troupes giving 80 performances in the space of two months.
“The music is so uplifting and full of joy,” said Roxane Layton, group spokesperson and one of its 20 members. She plays percussion and recorder. “Like a steamroller, it really moves you. It’s 18th-century rock and roll. It’s just a delicious sound.”
Mannheim Steamroller’s unique sound comes from its combination of electronic synthesizers and traditional instruments such as recorders, lutes, guitars, trumpets and a harpsicord.
As part of its 35-year anniversary tour, Mannheim Steamroller will perform on Dec. 6 at Baltimore’s Modell Lyric.
Named for Mozart’s hometown
Mannheim Steamroller formed in 1974, when Omaha musician-composer Chip Davis, who couldn’t find a production company for his unique music, started his own record label.
He named the band after the Mannheim Roller, a type of extended orchestral crescendo developed by the Mannheim school, a group of 18th-century composers in Mozart’s hometown of Mannheim, Germany.
The records sold well, and the group’s tours sold out. Ten years later, Davis released the group’s first Christmas album, which hit number 50 on Billboard’s 200 chart.
The group went on to win a Grammy Award in 1991 for Best New Age Album. It has sold 41 million records overall and is the top-selling artist of Christmas albums, beating out even Elvis.
Mannheim Steamroller has played at the White House’s National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony for three presidents, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and on several television shows.
“One day we played the Today show, hopped on a plane, went to L.A. and played the Tonight Show,” Layton said. “We were like, is it today or is it tonight?”
To accomplish 80 annual performances in two months, the band divides into several ensembles. Two groups tour different areas of the country, and a third ensemble plays beneath the roller coasters at Universal Orlando in Florida.
Home away from home
Layton, who plays recorder and percussion for the group, hasn’t had a holiday at home with her family since she joined the band 24 years ago. However, after sharing Thanksgiving meals together for decades, the band members are now close friends.
“This is my family. We are silly. There are a lot of pranks,” she said, recalling a rehearsal when the musicians wore false teeth, eliciting a few guffaws.
She and her fellow band members have performed with greats such as Johnny Mathis, Olivia Newton-John, LeAnn Rimes, Patti LaBelle and Martina McBride. Mannheim Steamroller also collaborated with NASA to record space shuttle launches and landings.
One of the most rewarding aspects of being a band member, though, is signing autographs after the shows, Layton said. Concert-goers bring their children and grandchildren to the annual performances.
“Now we’re getting three generations [of fans],” Layton said. “I get to hear the most beautiful stories. This music affects people and families and lives.”
During the off season, Davis, now 72, is working on a new project with the Mayo Clinic to provide soothing music and sounds of nature to hospital patients, even during surgery.
Called Ambient Therapy, the “healthy” sounds are meant to replace typical hospital noise — beeping, clattering carts, etc., — to help patients heal.
In addition to the Mayo Clinic, Davis’ sound therapy has been used at Wake Forest University, the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda, Maryland.
Mannheim Steamroller Christmas CDs are bestsellers, but Layton said they can’t replace the videos, light shows, fog and other special effects at the live concerts.
“There’s nothing like listening to something organically, having it go through your body and feeling it live,” she said. “There’s nothing like getting those ‘vitamins’ in person. It’s more than just a concert: it’s an experience.”
The Mannheim Steamroller Christmas performance will take place at 8 p.m. on Dec. 6 at the Modell-Lyric Theatre, 140 W. Mount Royal St. Tickets range from $46 to $95; no senior discounts. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 900-4150 or purchase them at http://modell-lyric.com.