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It's yuletide joy that really rocks

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra's holiday light and sound spectacle packs arenas as it supersizes.

December 19, 2007|Richard Harrington | The Washington Post

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 last decade become a yuletide phenomenon. What started as a single show in 1997 is now a 90-city, 133-concert tour that began in mid-November and ends 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.

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 18-wheeler trucks hauling sound and light equipment.

All this happened with a little bit of serendipity.

Thirty years ago, founder Paul 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, Fla., 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."

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). They followed their debut album, "Christmas Eve and Other Stories," with 1998's "The Christmas Attic" and 2004's "The Lost Christmas Eve."

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