"Ladies and gentlemen, let's try it again," says the maestro, repeating a phrase he has used at least a dozen times this afternoon.
"This time, though, with a little feeling - please."And with a wave of his baton the orchestra - composed of the best instrumentalists money can buy - produces an exquisitely sweet symphonic sound.
"No, no - stop, that's not what I wanted! Again, please. Play it like you mean it."
So who is this guy - Georg Solti on the eve of a Carnegie Hall concert? Lenny Bernstein in a typical rehearsal?
Not exactly - this is Chip Davis, who has been called everything from a "New Age rip-off artist" to "the king of 18th-century rock 'n' roll."
"They call me a lot of things," says Davis between takes at Universal Studios, where he is recording a TV spot. "You figure it out."
For the moment, let's just say he's the shrewdest musician to hit a recording studio since Liberace first set out his candelabra. Davis - best known to the public for his hot-selling "Fresh Aire" albums and his New Age band Mannheim Steamroller - is the first to admit he has created a musical empire by selling warmed-over classics to buyers who don't know any better.
"You've got to realize - most people get scared off when you tell them you're making classical music," says Davis, who long ago figured out how to make them stick around and listen. "But when I put out my music to the baby boomers, they're not scared. They listen, and then they say, `Hmmm, I sort of like this.' We're simply spoon-feeding culture to the baby boomers.
"And we must be doing something right, because we can't seem to satisfy demand."
True enough, considering that:
- Each of the six "Fresh Aire" recordings Davis and his Omaha-based American Gramaphone label have released since 1974 has sold about 500,000 copies and is still going strong.
- His "Mannheim Steamroller Christmas" album has sold 1.3 million copies since it was released in 1984.
- The follow-up, "Fresh Aire Christmas," sold 780,000 orders before a single copy was shipped.
- And Davis' Mannheim Steamroller band played not one, but two nights at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre.
Clearly, the man is onto something.
"You know how I hit on all this?" asks Davis, as if he's about to share a trade secret. "In the late 1960s, after I graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I got a job teaching music in the Toledo schools.
"And to make classical music more understandable to my students, I started making up these jazzy compositions based on classical forms.
"So I simply used every one of those pieces I wrote for my kids on my `Fresh Aire' albums. It was that simple."
Indeed, the first "Fresh Aire" recording carried such cuts as "Pass the Keg (Lia)" (a pun on the Baroque musical form known as the passacaglia), "Saras Band" (as in sarabande, a Baroque dance form) and "Ron-do" (as in the classical rondo form).
Naturally, these forms were juiced up with hip-sounding melodies and much high-tech instrumentation. But, in essence, Davis was selling music appreciation to the masses, who were none the wiser.
"If you listen to `Fresh Aire I' through `VI,' it's like taking a trip through music history," says Davis, who takes pride in the sly bit of musical education he has perpetrated on his audience.
"`Fresh Aire I' is little more than an introduction to Baroque music, `Fresh Aire II' uses wondrous medieval harmonies, `Fresh Aire III' employs the parlance of contemporary American music, `Fresh Aire IV' is like a little introduction to the avant-garde, `Fresh Aire V' is basic Debussy, and `Fresh Aire VI' is hard-core Impressionism.
"So there you have it."
To the millions of record buyers who picked up "Fresh Aire," however, the recordings represented something quite different. Gentle, sweet and never very disturbing, they were made-to-order for a generation of consumers too grown-up for rock 'n' roll yet not quite comfortable with "serious" classical music.
"The boomers have always loved us," says Davis, who all but fell into
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the record business after quitting teaching in the late '60s to tour with the Norman Luboff Choir for five years.
"I finally wound up in Omaha at the end of one tour and took a job in a local recording studio as a jingle writer.
"That's when I first hit on the idea of `Fresh Aire,' but none of the record companies was interested.
"I'd go to a record president, give him my Fresh Aire tapes, he'd present it to his board and then tell me, `Look, we've listened to your music over and over, and we can't make it fit our format. It's not country, it's not classical, it's not rock 'n' roll, so we'll pass on it. But I'd like to order a box of 100, and my secretary would like a box of 50."'
Figuring he must be doing something right, Davis sank his own money into producing "Fresh Aire" on his newly created American Gramaphone label - and couldn't keep up with demand.
"I think the LPs took off because they were hits as demo records - the stereo salesman loved them, because of the way we had recorded them," says Davis.
"If a salesman wanted to sell you a $3,000 set of speakers, he'd put on `Fresh Aire' and crank up the volume.
"But I think `Fresh Aire' also caught on because we were recording unusual instruments in unusual ways. You didn't usually hear harpsichords on pop recordings back then, and even in classical recordings they were way in the background. But we used them big and miked them tight - it was a sound people weren't used to.
But there was marketing savvy in Davis' work, as well. The very name "Fresh Aire" conjures up pleasant, piney scents and, as such, lures the record buyer in a way classical recordings do not. The name of the electronic "band" playing Davis' music, Mannheim Steamroller, "was perfect because it sounds like a heavy metal group but it actually refers to the Mannheim Symphony of the 18th century (one of the first virtuoso orchestras in recorded musical history)."
When the audiophile LP industry began to collapse in 1983 with the advent of the CD, Davis and company seized on the new technology faster and with more energy than most of their competitors. Fortunately for them, their baby-boomer audience similarly leaped at the new hardware.
So Davis, at 41, finds himself head of a major independent label with more than two dozen albums in its catalog and, judging by advance sales on its latest Christmas disc, a decidedly bright future.
Not bad for a label that can't spell its own name correctly.
"We came up with the name `American Gramaphone' because we had always admired the quality of Deutsche Grammophone recordings," says Davis, pointing to one of the world's most sophisticated classical labels. "So an art director rigged up a logo for us, misspelled the word `gramophone,' and nobody caught it."