Holiday music with a punch

by Lenise Willis


With its powerful vibrations and soothing rhythms that truly give a full-body experience, the music stands on its own. Its mix of progressive rock, metal and classical instruments has created some of the most highly recognized tunes around the world, and yet the musicians aren’t celebrities — in fact, the collection of strings, brass and laser lights is most notably tied to just one name: Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

The other name behind the band would be Paul O’Neill, founder, writer and producer, whose inspiration in the 1970s took progressive rock to a whole new level and has now created a new holiday tradition.

“Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a musically driven band,” O’Neill said.

“It’s not a celebrity-driven band. It’s more about the music. It’s like I tell the kids when they join, ‘You want to be known for your work because that will last.’” Teaming up with Hallmark Channel, Trans-Siberian Orchestra began its winter tour Nov. 15, presenting a live debut of its multi-platinum rock opera, The Lost Christmas Eve, which they’ll perform in more than 150 cities, including Greensboro this Sunday.

Encompassing a rundown hotel, an old toy store, a blues bar and a Gothic cathedral, the show combines a fused soundtrack of rock, classical, folk, Broadway and R&B, and the tale of an enchanted New York City Christmas Eve.

The show also includes brand new songs from TSO’s fall EP release Dreams of Fireflies (On a Christmas Night), as well as classics from Christmas Eve & Other Stories.

O’Neill says the sentiment behind the new album comes from his childhood memory of seeing dozens of fireflies for the first time and the magic and enchantment he felt during the experience.

The band debuted in 1996, but O’Neill’s vision for Trans-Siberian Orchestra formed in the ’70s after he saw the Who perform Tommy, as a teenager; afterward O’Neill said he thought to himself, “I want to do this, except way bigger and with way more toys.”

And he did just that. By adding a full orchestra to a rock band, and recruiting a variety of singers who bring to life the music’s characters, O’Neill created a new style of rock theater, complementing sensational musical scores with poetic narratives and visual displays, all to create an emotionally powerful experience.

“The purpose of art is to elicit an emotional response from those exposed to it,” O’Neill said. “Good art will make you feel an emotion you’ve felt before; great art is really hard to do. It will make you feel an emotion you’ve never felt before.”

Today, the band is described as a mix of the Who’s Tommy, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musicals and Pink Floyd’s extensive light shows.

Their first album, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, was produced in 1996, followed by The Christmas Attic in 1998 and The Lost Christmas Eve in 2004. These albums are now referred to as the “Christmas Trilogy,” and have anchored many fans’ holiday traditions.

Since their debut, Trans-Siberian Orchestra has sold more than 8.5 million albums and played live to more than a million fans each year.

But they weren’t such a raging success in the beginning. “I’m sure the average person out there thinks it was a hit right away,” O’Neill said. “It wasn’t. The first year it didn’t do well at all. But we were very lucky.”

O’Neill contributes TSO’s success to two things: a nurturing record label that allowed them to make mistakes and grow, and picking the right time in the music industry that allowed them to appeal to a very wide demographic, from 6-year-olds to 60-year-olds.

“Unless you were 90, for the first time everybody had rock in common,” O’Neill said. “It allowed us to be at the right place at the right time… and when you jump any of the silly walls that people put between themselves, be it nationality, economic class, whatever, it feels great. When you jump the generational divide, that feels the best.”

Today, TSO is considered a leader in rock theater, ranking in the top 10 year after year.