Last year’s edition of Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s annual holiday tour was an outing unlike any other for everyone involved in bringing the visually spectacular concerts to audiences across the United States.
On the one hand, coming off of 2020, a year in which the TSO Christmas tour could not happen because of the COVID pandemic, there was a special excitement and appreciation for being back performing the concerts.
“Missing 2020 certainly made us realize how fortunate we are to do what we do,” said Jeff Plate, the drummer for TSO’s Eastern U.S. touring unit.
But it was also the most challenging outing in TSO’s history, thanks to the lingering issues with COVID.
“It was riddled with anxiety, to say the least, because every morning you’d wake up and it’s like ‘OK, is somebody sick? Did somebody test positive? What are we going to do? Is the crew there? Are the folks in the audience OK?’,” said Al Pitrelli, musical director for the Western U.S. unit of TSO. “So it was definitely the most stressful tour we’ve ever been on.”
It’s not as though TSO didn’t take precautions for COVID or have contingencies in place in case any of the performers came down with the virus. As Pitrelli noted, the job is to deliver the memorable concert spectacle that fans have come to expect and make sure any issues aren’t apparent to audiences.
“The audience just wants their show. Whatever hoops we’ve got to jump through to make that happen, that’s what we’re going to do,” he said. “So yeah, we had a couple of people in the bullpen. On a moment’s notice, they could fly out to a show or we would cover each other’s parts on stage. If one of the singers was sick, one of the other singers that was there would cover the song. Again, the show must go on.”
Pitrelli and Plate, obviously, are hoping the 2022 TSO tour will be more like the pre-pandemic outings, when masking wasn’t a requirement of rock shows — unless it was a band like Slipknot or Avatar.
Over its first two decades, TSO’s shows have become easily the biggest and most elaborate of the holiday tours. It was all the vision of the group’s founder, Paul O’Neill, who sadly passed away in 2017.
O’Neill’s concept for Trans-Siberian Orchestra was a rock band combined with an orchestra playing concept albums and rock operas with cohesive story lines. Instead of building a brand around a singer, guitarist or conductor, the ensemble would use multiple singers and a range of instrumentalists, who would remain largely anonymous to listeners.
Plenty of industry people questioned whether TSO could be viable financially. Taking such a large musical group on the road would be expensive. To accommodate the visual production, TSO had to play arenas from the start — something no music act had done.
Nevertheless, Atlantic Records got on board with O’Neill’s vision and signed TSO. The label has been rewarded, as the trilogy of Christmas-themed albums all became hits and continue to rack up top-10 sales among holiday albums every Christmas season.
The first release was 1996’s Christmas Eve and Other Stories. Spurred by the hit single “Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24,” it has sold 3 million copies and set the stage for the other two holiday rock operas that make up TSO’s Christmas trilogy: The Christmas Attic (1998) and The Lost Christmas Eve (2004) — which have each topped 2 million copies sold. In addition, the group has released a Christmas EP, 2012’s Dreams of Fireflies (on a Christmas Night), and three full-length non-holiday rock operas — Beethoven’s Last Night (2000), Night Castle (2009) and Letters From the Labyrinth (2015). In all, the group’s CDs and DVDs have sold more than 12 million copies and generated 180 million streams in 2021 alone.
The group’s annual Christmas trek is easily the most popular holiday tour going. Since its debut in 1999, the holiday tours have played to about 18 million fans and grossed $725 million.
The entire TSO organization, of course, misses O’Neill. But Plate said the good thing is O’Neill and his family surrounded themselves with a stellar team that knows every part of the operation.
“Paul told us many, many, many times this thing is going to outlive us all and it’s going to last from generation to generation,” Plate said. “I cherish every time we go out there, every note we play. We’re doing it for, not just the audience, but for Paul and his family, and it means a lot to us.”
This year’s show finds TSO performing The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, which is the 2001 concert DVD that combined the most popular songs from Christmas Eve and Other Stories and The Christmas Attic. With the DVD initially being aired on PBS stations, it has become one of TSO’s most popular releases.
The Ghosts of Christmas Eve will take up most of the first half of the show, followed by a second section that draws on selections from across the TSO catalog. Because many of the most popular songs will be performed in the first section of the show, Pitrelli, Plate and the rest of the musicians have room for some songs this year that haven’t often been performed on past tours.
“We have a lot of conversations. Everybody will throw their ideas in,” Pitrelli said about crafting the set list. “We have such a large catalog of material to draw from, almost 28 years of recording, all of a sudden a song will pop up, like ‘Wow, I haven’t heard that song in so long. Let’s try that this year.’”
One thing Pitrelli and Plate couldn’t speak to is how this year’s visual effects and stage set will be different from last year. This interview was conducted in October, a short time before Pitrelli and Plate joined the band for production rehearsals. It’s only at those first rehearsals that they see the full stage production for the first time.
“You look up, and I always feel like a 15-year-old walking into that arena for the first time,” Pitrelli said. “It really turns you back into a teenager. But this time I’m not getting chased out by security or the police, so it’s lot more fun standing there looking up and going, ‘This is awesome!’”