Trans-Siberian Orchestra in Lexington
By Alan Sculley
The Tran-Siberian Orchestra of today is a marvel of success and a one-of-a-kind entity on the music scene. The combination progressive rock band and orchestra routinely sells more than a million copies of each of its CDs – despite existing in a time when downloading has made that milestone reachable for only the biggest of music acts.
The group is a touring powerhouse, selling more than a million tickets for its annual holiday tour, which runs from the beginning of November until the end of December, playing roughly 120 shows. It’s the only act doing a holiday tour that plays arenas – sometimes playing two shows each day.
What also makes Trans-Siberian Orchestra unique is that no other music act does things on as big a scale. Its albums, which are conceived and for the most part written by TSO founder Paul O’Neill, commonly feature contributions from more than 100 singers and musicians. The group’s touring ensemble numbers more than two dozen singers and musicians plus an orchestra, all performing amidst the most visually elaborate set there is, with lasers, pyrotechnics, smoke and all manner of special effects lighting up the venues.
“My favorite (description) is from a magazine in Britain, which said ‘Enough pyro to barbecue an entire school of blue whales,’” O’Neill said.
But if O’Neill, long-time producer for the progressive rock band Savatage, were to try to start Trans-Siberian Orchestra today, chances are it would never have gotten off of the ground.
Instead, O’Neill feels when he came to Atlantic Records in 1993 to pitch his concept for TSO, he arrived just in time to be one of the last acts to benefit from the old-fashioned record business model of artist development.
“A lot of people think Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, the Who, Queen were all hits out of the box,” O’Neill said. “They weren’t. A lot of them didn’t break until the second or third (album), some didn’t break until the fifth or sixth. They were nurtured by the labels.
“When Trans-Siberian’s first album came out in ’96 (the CD Christmas Eve and Other Stories), which was the first installment of the Christmas trilogy, the first year, we didn’t even crack six figures (in sales),” he said. “If that had happened in 2006 instead of ’96, we would have been dropped.”
Instead TSO is thriving. Its fifth CD, Night Castle, arrived last fall, and O’Neill is now full speed ahead on other projects. In fact, he has five more rock operas in the pipeline – each of which O’Neill hopes to turn into a Broadway production.
Plus, TSO has expanded from touring only with its holiday show to taking out a show built around its non-holiday albums in the spring and summer.
O’Neill is very particular about TSO’s live show, which is why he has been in the Omaha area since mid-October for three weeks of preparation and rehearsals. TSO has taken over the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs to build its impressive stage (O’Neill calls it the flight deck), set up its spectacular light show and test out the array of special effects that go into the holiday concerts.
“We used to rehearse at the Lakeland Civic Center in Florida, but the arena, by about four years ago, the arena couldn’t support the weight of the rigs,” O’Neill said.
Fortunately the recently built Mid-America Center was a perfect replacement.
“It’s hard to find an arena where you don’t have to break down at least once or twice for a hockey or a basketball team coming through,” O’Neill said. “So we kind of lucked out up here (with Mid-America Center). It’s gorgeous, the people are nice and it’s become our second home away from home when we go into rehearsal.”
The holiday show TSO will perform this fall will be familiar in a major way to fans that have seen past productions. As in past years, the first set will feature a complete performance of the first of TSO’s trilogy of holiday albums, “Christmas Eve and Other Stories.” The second set will include material from “Beethoven’s Last Night,” “Night Castle” and perhaps the debut of a few songs from two of the upcoming rock operas, “Romanov and Kings Must Whisper” and “Gutter Ballet.”
O’Neill said he considered switching to The Lost Christmas Eve rock opera for the first set of the show. But he was talked out of the idea by his booking company, William Morris, which argued that in tough economic times like these, audiences want something familiar. So Christmas Eve and Other Stories remained in the opening set.
“We try to give the best of the traditional and the best of the new,” O’Neill said. “Trans-Siberian Orchestra is that type of band. We are owned by the fans. We’re here for them, and the minute we forget that, we’re not entitled to these platinum albums, we’re not entitled to sell over a million tickets every year, and the minute we forget that, that’s the minute we start to decline.