Trans-Siberian Orchestra has grown into a Christmas tradition

by Mike Osegueda

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

13 November 2008


When you talk to the composer, the man who stands in front of all the scattered pieces, who finds the order and makes them all fit together, you have to know he’s a little different.

Try talking to Paul O’Neill - whose brain gave birth to Trans-Siberian Orchestra in 1996 and has since turned it into one of the top annual concert tours - and see if everything makes sense.

It doesn’t. But in his mind it does. It’s in his mind where everything comes together.

Case in point: Tran-Siberian Orchestra, a 60-piece Christmas rock orchestra that speaks in operatic form, but also spends $2 million a month on pyrotechnics to complement its seizure-worthy lighting and special effects.

It all comes together in a The Who-meets-“Jesus Christ Superstar”-meets-Charles Dickens kind of way.

For O’Neill and his orchestra, Christmas started on Nov. 1, as TSO launched its annual holiday tour, which will play 140 shows in 90 cities this year.

Each year, the TSO brand operates two concurrent tours in different parts of the country, trying to put the show in front of as many eyes as possible.

And that makes total sense when you talk to O’Neill and he name-checks Walt Disney, Michael Jordan, Warren Buffett and Winston Churchill while talking about his show.

“Have you seen the show?” O’Neill asks, first thing.

Then he proceeds to talk for 20 minutes, uninterrupted, barely stopping to take a breath.

You’ve heard of the fast-talking New Yorker. That’s him.

Before TSO, he was in the music biz doing management, production and promotion, as well as playing in the band Savatage.

“I need to do something different,” he recalls saying in his initial pitch for TSO. “I want to take a full hard rock band with a full symphony and 18 lead singers.”

Why, he was asked.

His answer: “That way I can do anything.”

“This,” O’Neill says, “is the only band where you’re going to see a guitar player from Alice Cooper next the guitar player from Kool & The Gang.”

From there, it’s a mixture of Broadway performers, musicians from the Philharmonic and people from all over the world - rockers, symphony folks, gospel singers and whatever else catches his brain.

If that sounds all over the place, then consider O’Neill himself.

Thirty five minutes of talking to him (and not a single question asked from me, by the way) about Trans-Siberian Orchestra includes the following topics: the story of Beethoven’s death, the Japanese economy, cropdusting, New York City mayors and how expensive it is to go to the movies.

If it’s madness swirling around in O’Neill’s mind, it’s madness that has found a way to work.

Since 1996, Trans-Siberian Orchestra sold more than six million CDs.

In 2007, more than 1.2 million people came to TSO performances, enough to make it the biggest holiday ticket of the year and No. 22 on the annual list of highest-grossing concert tours, even though it only runs for two months.

“We never dreamed we’d become part of the holiday tradition, which is the Holy Grail,” O’Neill says. “When you’re writing anything about Christmas, you’re competing with the last 200 years. Anything having to do with holidays has to answer to the ultimate critic, the only critic you can’t fool - time.”

He quotes his grandmother. Something about how you can’t get complacent. But once it’s out of his mouth, it’s gone and it’s on to the next thing.

A popular topic today: How this holiday season people need Trans-Siberian Orchestra more than ever, because of all the misery in the world. That’s why the show lowered ticket prices and added special ticket packages in cities that were hurt the most by unemployment.

“Human beings need moments of joy,” O’Neill says. “Or at the very least, moments where they don’t have stress. When you come to a Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert, we are throwing out so many special effects, that for those three hours the brain can’t do anything but absorb all those things. So you can’t think about your problems.”

Not think? It’s surprising O’Neill even knows the concept.

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