On a Trans-Siberian Holiday
Orchestra Rocks Out With Lasers, Pyrotechnics and . . . Christmas Carols?
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2007
Family Christmas traditions: "The Nutcracker." Handel's "Messiah." The Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra?
Indeed, the symphonic rock extravaganza (think Pink Floyd meets Yes and the Who at Radio City Music Hall) has in the past decade become a yuletide phenomenon. What started as a single show in 1997 is now a 90-city, 133-concert tour that includes matinee and evening shows Sunday at Verizon Center and at Baltimore's 1st Mariner Arena on Jan. 6.
The Orchestra's melding of classical and traditional tunes to original symphonic rock, with imaginative narratives wrapped up with Christmas bows, has become an arena-rock juggernaut. The group has sold 6 million CDs and year after year produces one of the largest-grossing concert tours.
Last year, the Orchestra sold more than a million tickets and, says founder-composer-producer Paul O'Neill, the show's demographics include "every background, every economic class, and the big thing for us is we have every age group -- it's kinda like going to a 'Lord of the Rings' movie. A promoter did a breakdown where the average age is 21, and it's 51 percent female, 49 percent male."
The Orchestra became so popular that in 2000 it split into two touring units (one for the East Coast, one for the West Coast) because that was the only way to cover the country when a Christmas-focused spectacular mattered. That split was amoebic: Each troupe features 24 people on stage (a six-piece rock band, a seven-piece string section, 10 singers and a narrator), along with an over-the-top laser and strobe-driven light show and loads of pyrotechnics. A support crew of 100 travels on eight buses, with a dozen semi-trucks hauling sound and light equipment.
Between the effects and the group's bombastic fusing of progressive rock and heavy metal with classical music, you might call it "The Earcracker." Or "The Powerbreaker": A recent concert in Jackson, Miss., blew the city's main power grid in the middle of "Good King Joy," a riff-heavy reinterpretation of "Joy to the World."
"We were actually proud to be the first band to blow the main power grid at the Meadowlands," says O'Neill of last year's power failure at the New Jersey venue, one of the nation's biggest arenas. "A lot of the smaller arenas, we bring in extra power generators, but the Meadowlands? We weren't worried about it -- until suddenly the stage went dark."
The crew wears T-shirts reading, "Fog it, light it, blow it up." O'Neill has never skimped on anything related to the Orchestra, which explains why the tour's accounting firm sent its own T-shirt, this one saying, "Jesus saves, Paul spends."
All this happened with a little bit of serendipity.
Thirty years ago, O'Neill was a guitarist in touring productions of proto-rock musicals "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Hair" but abandoned that to work in rock band management and concert promotion. In the late '80s, he turned to writing and producing, eventually hooking up with prog-metal band Savatage, creating concept albums and rock operas.
One of those was 1995's "Dead Winter Dead," set in Bosnia with a story about a Serbian boy and Muslim girl who fall in love with tragic consequences. O'Neill says a program director at a Tampa radio station particularly liked an instrumental track, "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24," an amped-up medley of "Carol of the Bells" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."
"He spun it once and got his best phones of the year," O'Neill says of listener reaction. "So he called his friend Scott Shannon at WPLJ [an influential New York station] and asked him to spin it once, and their phones went through the roof. Shannon called a couple of other stations, and that's how the radio thing took off."
A Cleveland station nagged Savatage into doing a live fundraising show that quickly sold out. Adapting its name from Russia's Trans-Siberian Railroad, the Orchestra formed in 1996 with O'Neill and Savatage keyboardist Robert Kinkel, singer Jon Oliva and guitarist Al Pitrelli (Kinkel and Pitrelli are musical directors of the two touring groups). The ensemble's debut, "Christmas Eve and Other Stories," about a young angel sent to war-torn humanity on Christmas Eve on a mission from God, remains the best-selling of the Orchestra's trilogy of Christmas albums (the others are 1998's "The Christmas Attic" and 2004's "The Lost Christmas Eve").
With orchestral augmentation and an ensemble of guest vocalists, the first two albums were never intended to be performed live. The group's first tour in 1999 included seven cities, mostly in theaters, O'Neill says, "but it did such business we knew we had lightning in a bottle. It was just a matter of how to do it and how to contain it."
Part of it was staging spectacles that engaged the eyes, the ears and the imagination -- now at the arena level. Still, O'Neill admits to a little surprise at how quickly and widely the Orchestra was embraced and how firmly it has settled in as a seasonal event.
The group currently performs "Christmas Eve and Other Stories" as Act 1, with Act 2 featuring songs from the other two holiday releases, as well as music from the non-holiday release, "Beethoven's Last Night," and the delayed but upcoming album, "The Night Castle." O'Neill says the plan is to finish "The Night Castle" and then tour "Beethoven's Last Night" as the front half of a show and "Night Castle" as the second.
Fans will have to wait and see which shows up first, "The Night Castle," or "Romanov: When Kings Whisper," a rock opera about the Russian revolution that has been talked about for more than a decade. In fact, O'Neill says it is headed for Broadway next year.
Meanwhile, pray for power, or you might end up with an acoustic Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
"It might work," O'Neill muses. "Anything works if it's done right."