Last year, Trans-Siberian Orchestra was forced to cancel their signature annual project — the holiday tour of North American arenas that typically draws more than a million fans.
To help fill the void, TSO put together a livestream concert. Scaling the show down from an arena where TSO deploys a spectacular light show and all manner of pyrotechnics and special effects to something that works on a TV or computer screen was a challenge, but the livestream, which featured the 1996 Christmas Eve and Other Stories album, went over well, an unexpected early Christmas gift for fans.
And in a way, the livestream took TSO back to its beginnings, before founder/songwriter, the late Paul O'Neill, was financially able to create the visual concert extravaganza fans know and love. The livestream also revealed an important truth to Al Pitrelli and Jeff Plate, the musical directors of TSO's two touring ensembles.
"If you go back to our first show in 1999, Jeff and I ... I think we had, I don't know, seven or eight cities on the tour," Pitrelli said in a teleconference interview shortly before rehearsals for their tour began.
"We had a box truck, two buses and a fog machine. The curtain came up, the lights went down, and we played the songs from top to bottom. It wasn't the sensory overload that it grew up to be. It was a beautifully written story that Paul O'Neill put pen to paper back in '95, and we started recording in '96. The people fell in love with the characters. They fell in love with the story. They fell in love with the sentiment of it. Because at the end of the day, the center of Paul's story is about missing somebody, and everybody misses somebody, especially around the holidays.
"I think during the livestream, it showed me, in particular, two things," Pitrelli concluded. "One is that people, they love the story. It didn't have all the special effects. There's no physical way we could do that. But the band played amazing. The singers brought the characters to life. I heard after the fact that we sold almost 250,000 of those things. From a financial standpoint, I could care less. It didn't matter to me. What really made me emotional is that people wanted their tradition. Albeit virtually, we were all joined together."
Pitrelli and Plate are taking the two touring ensembles of TSO back to arenas across the country starting this very week. Knowing fans will turn out en masse for the shows continues to make Pitrelli and Plate surprised and thankful. After all, when O'Neill founded the project, he envisioned something new and unproven in contemporary music.
For one thing, TSO combined a rock band with an orchestra playing concept albums with cohesive storylines. Instead of building an image around a singer, guitarist or conductor, the ensemble used multiple singers and a range of instrumentalists who would remain largely anonymous to listeners. How to market the group was a big question. The albums would require big budgets, and to be financially viable, the tours would need to play arenas from the start — something few music acts had pulled off.
Nevertheless, Atlantic Records got on board with O'Neill's vision and signed TSO. The label's faith has been rewarded as the trilogy of Christmas albums became hits that continue to rack up big sales every holiday season.
The first release was Christmas Eve and Other Stories. Spurred by the hit single "Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24," it has sold three million copies. The other two holiday rock operas that make up TSO's Christmas trilogy — The Christmas Attic (1998) and The Lost Christmas Eve (2004) — have both 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 albums — 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 the Christmas tour plays to nearly a million fans each year.
This year, as in 2019, TSO's show will feature the Christmas Eve and Other Stories album as a first set, followed by a selection of other material in the second set. That 1996 debut album was played for a dozen years when TSO started touring, then was set aside to feature the other albums in the Christmas trilogy on subsequent tours. Bringing back the album that began the TSO journey has been special for Pitrelli and Plate.
"Yes, this is my favorite show," said Plate, who joined Pitrelli for the teleconference. "I've said all along, I think this story is really the star of the show. This is what kept bringing people back every year ... when people connected with the story and realized it's about them. It's about everybody. This is just how people, just word of mouth, kept coming back. These audiences kept building every year. This [was] our first venture with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, so this has a lot of meaning. It's very special for all of us. The songs, the story, [everything] about it, I think is fantastic."