Mannheim Steamroller’s national holiday tour starts today, and three Quad Cities string players will be performing in three Iowa concerts in its first week.
Matt Manweiler (violin), Jennifer Pickering (viola) and Paula Hartmann (violin) are joining the popular group — which bills itself as the No. 1 Christmas artist in history — in Dubuque on Thursday, Nov. 17, and two shows in Iowa City on Saturday, Nov. 19. They will be at Dubuque’s Five Flags Center and Iowa City’s Hancher Auditorium; there are no QC dates on the 2022 Christmas tour.
Manweiler grew up listening to Mannheim Steamroller in northwest Indiana, as far back as he can remember. He started playing violin in 4th grade.
“Mannheim for me is very special because I do a lot with synthesizers and taking the violin into new territory and they were one of those first groups that showed me what can be done with bringing the violin out of strictly classical music into these multi styles,” he said recently.
“I owe a lot of my journey of who I am today as a musician back to what Mannheim Steamroller did way back then. So it’s gonna be really exciting for me,” said Manweiler, who teaches grade 6-12 orchestra in the Rock Island-Milan school district.
While the neoclassical New Age ensemble (founded by percussionist/composer Chip Davis) started in the mid-’70s, Manweiler has actually never seen them in concert before.
“So this has kind of been on my bucket list. I’m always busy in the month of December as a music teacher and performing musician,” he said. “And every time they come through, I’m always swamped, so I’ve always wanted to see them. Now, I’m gonna get to see them from a different angle.”
It’s fairly common for big touring acts to contract local musicians to fill out their orchestras or ensembles, Manweiler said.
“It’s a good way to involve the local musicians and bring orchestras to these wonderful rock and kind of inclusive ensembles,” he said. Manweiler got the new gig from the contractor who booked him to play on tour with the rock band Foreigner in March 2018 (also for Iowa dates), with their orchestral arrangements, and said it was the time of his life.
“The arrangements for the Foreigner music were very well done and just fun to play,” he said. “It just was a really good collaboration and everyone was fully committed. It was a dream gig and one of those things that you hope comes up again, because it just went so smoothly the first time.”
The local musicians usually get just one rehearsal with the touring act, the day of the concert (they get the music ahead of time), Manweiler said.
“It is quickly put together, but everyone on these big tours is highly professional and it’s working with people of that caliber, it can be put together that quickly because everyone comes prepared,” he said.
An Augustana graduate, Pickering plays and teaches violin/viola and has performed with many area ensembles from Celtic ensembles to string quartets and rock bands, including a season as principal viola in the Clinton Symphony Orchestra.
Making a living as a musician, her primary occupation is that of string instructor in her private studio, which is split between her home in Rock Island and Sound Conservatory (1600 2nd Ave., Rock Island). Students of all ages (5-75) have played a part in more than 20 years of individualized instruction, 17 of which have been in the QC.
*I have never had the opportunity to be part of a national stadium-style touring ensemble — I’m so excited to see what this experience entails,” Pickering said recently. “I’m always looking for life’s next adventure, and if it contains music, even better.”
She was contacted by Marc Zyla for Mannheim, and she’s worked with him before since she has students in every level of the Quad City Youth Symphony organization, and the pair has played together in outside ensembles that required classical musicians.
“The musical community here in the Quad Cities is a pretty tight circle, so we tend to cross paths with one another,” Pickering said.
*I have been acquainted with the music of Mannheim Steamroller for some time, although not intimately,” she said. “I am definitely more familiar with their holiday music than anything else, although the existing catalogue is certainly impressive. I’m so very excited to see how a group at this level functions, and I’m extremely gratified to be a part of it.”
Pickering also has never seen Mannheim Steamroller live.
“One of the biggest challenges that I can foresee is the short amount of rehearsal we will have, plus the logistics of playing with in-ear sound, something I have never done before,” she said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how the individual players and parts in this group will pull together with a short rehearsal schedule.”
A violinist, Hartmann taught orchestra in the Davenport schools many years before retiring in 2018. She also was a violinist in the QC Symphony for a number of years. She currently teaches privately and at the Boys and Girls Club in Davenport.
“I have played with Mannheim before, in the late 1990s,” Hartmann said recently, noting she’s also performed for tours of Trans Siberian Orchestra, The Moody Blues, Weird Al Yankovic, Manhattan Transfer, Bob Hope and Andy Williams.
“I have always been a fan and look forward to these concerts,” she said. “The challenge is having only one rehearsal, and that is without all the performers. You really don’t know exactly what will happen until the concert.”
The last time Hartmann played with Mannheim Steamroller, they had flaming pyrotechnics right behind the orchestra, and they were separated by Plexiglass, but not during the rehearsal.
“The conductor warned us it would be warm, and not to run from the stage,” she recalled.
Sharing with audiences, students
“I am almost ready to go. It’s very fun music and I can’t wait to share it with the audience because they have a very wonderful lineup of some new stuff, some old stuff and songs from my childhood,” Manweiler said of Mannheim. “I have very fun memories of that.”
He noted that as a teacher, he can show students career opportunities like this for professional musicians.
“I’ve been able to talk with the students about the professionalism and what’s needed to get music ready for these larger productions,” Manweiler said. “They do relate to that because I want my students to understand the different types of opportunities for them, out there after graduation and classical music is one venue that they can pursue.
“And there’s also these inclusive styles that blend rock and classical,” he said. “I’m trying to expose my students to everything that they could be doing and taking their instruments to. So it’s a learning experience for many of them.”
Manweiler is directing a Mannheim Steamroller piece now in his Edison Junior High orchestra, which will be part of their Dec. 8 concert.
The last time that Mannheim played the QC was a November 2019 Christmas show at the Adler Theatre. For more information, visit the group’s website.