On a Trans-Siberian Holiday

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra's two touring ensembles travel with truckloads of special-effects equipment for shows.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra's two touring ensembles travel with truckloads of special-effects equipment for shows. (By Mark Weiss)
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.

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