Mannheim Steamroller brings Christmas concert to Strathmore this weekend

Listen to the full conversation on our podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Mannheim Steamroller at Strathmore (Part 1)

Their neoclassical new-age style changed the face of holiday music as we know it.

On Saturday, Mannheim Steamroller comes to Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland.

“We put a star on this date on our calendars that this is a highlight show for us,” drummer Tom Sharpe told WTOP. “When we walk into that theater, it is just breathtaking, so it’s a real special treat for us to be coming back to Strathmore. It’s wonderful. We have at least one new member that we’ve already been telling, ‘You’re not going to believe this place.'”

The band will perform its breakthrough album “Christmas” (1984) from start to finish.

“We have ‘Deck the Halls’ on there, ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ — of course ‘Silent Night’ is on there. … When you think back to the first time you heard that work, it was revolutionary.”

What about it musically made it so groundbreaking at the time? Sharpe said it’s about founder Chip Davis’ background and influences, particularly “the unique instrumentation between the synthesized parts and all the orchestral instrumentation.”

Davis’ background is as a classical bassoonist “I believe that was his university training,” Davis said. “So he’s bringing in all sorts of different unique styles and genres. … Before this, it was Bing Crosby and Elvis.”

Their second album, “A Fresh Aire Christmas” (1988), included the hit “Carol of the Bells,” which no doubt inspired future renditions by Trans-Siberian Orchestra and John Williams.

“As the drummer, that’s a very challenging piece for me,” Sharpe said. “It’s high-energy; there’s a lot going on, so to play a piece like that is a highlight in the show. I actually look forward to playing all of the pieces, whether they’re the high-energy or more introspective pieces. … How did that piece sound before Chip did it?”

You may even hear cuts from Davis’ Grammy-winning “Fresh Aire” albums, which started coming out in 1975.

“Chip has eight albums that are called ‘Fresh Aire,'” Sharpe said. “When you look at his catalog, it’s really mind-boggling to see the amount of material that he has. There was a good nine- or 10-year period before the Christmas music came out that these ‘Fresh Aire’ albums … were doing extremely well. It didn’t come out of nowhere in 1984.”

Today, Davis has retired from the road, but he supports the tour from afar. “We do video presentations, so he’ll say hi in that way,” Sharpe said.

There are six members in the touring band, surrounded by an orchestra. “To see it in action is really quite something,” Sharpe said. “There’s not a one of us that’s just playing one instrument. We all have multiple things to do, switching back and forth between traditional and electronic instruments.”

Sharpe joined the group in 2008, and says new generations keep discovering Mannheim.

“It’s parents bringing their kids and now their kids bringing their kids, so it really has transcended,” Sharpe said. “It’s timeless music. It’s going to go on forever, because it’s that good.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Mannheim Steamroller at Strathmore (Part 2)

Listen to the full conversation in our podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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