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TSO plans plenty of surprises for fans

Paul O'Neill, Al Pitrelli and Robert Kinkel of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra
December 21, 2005 - As Paul O'Neill, founder of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, begins planning for each year's holiday tour, he looks to Pink Floyd for inspiration on how to make the show new and exciting for fans — many of whom have seen previous TSO holiday concerts.

"We keep trying to throw more and more surprises at the audience," O'Neill said. "I think I learned this from Pink Floyd. Every single time I thought the show couldn't get any better, the show had peaked, they'd come up with a new effect where I was like: 'Oh my God.' We do the same thing. We go through the show and then by the end we're throwing the kitchen sink at the audience. It's just like fog it, light it or blow it up, just keep it interesting and make it entertaining. It's going bigger and bigger."

So fans once again can expect a true concert spectacle from the Trans-Siberian Or-chestra, which O'Neill noted, is traveling with two additional tractor trailers full of equipment and pyrotechnics on this year's holiday tour. Fans will see several new special effects, including a form of pyro that throws flames into the air that change color, and a new lighting system that offers an unusual amount of flexibility to illuminate the show.

"The trussing system moves and changes shape during the show," he said. "It's just pretty impressive when you see like a ga-zillion tons of lights and effects and everything else just all of sudden in the middle of a song start to move."

As in 2004, O'Neill has divided TSO into two separate units crisscrossing the country to do the 80 stops on this year's tour itinerary — one led by keyboardist/musical director Robert Kinkel and the other by Al Pitrelli, who is perhaps best known as a guitarist for the art metal group Savatage and later for the popular metal band Mega-deth. O'Neill expects this year's tour to draw roughly 750,000 fans — slightly more than last year when the holiday tour was ranked second by Billboard magazine for most tickets sold.

"The only band that had bigger ticket (sales) was the Eagles, which is good company," O'Neill noted.

Musically, fans can expect the new tour to offer some new twists as well, O'Neill said.

This year's show features the first installment of TSO's three-CD holiday trilogy, the 1996 release "Christmas Eve & Other Stories," as the main rock opera of the even-ing. The second set of the show will feature selections from the group's other two holiday CDs, 1998's "The Christmas Attic" and last year's "The Lost Christmas Eve."

"Basically the plan is we're going to do 'Christmas Eve & Other Stories' this year and next year and then in 2007 change, only for the winter tour, to 'The Lost Christmas Eve' as the primary rock opera," O'Neill said. "The first half of the show is one rock opera in its entirety."

The decision to focus on the first installment of the holiday trilogy makes sense given its popularity. "Christmas Eve & Other Stories," which has sold more than 2 million copies, is the top seller of the three TSO holiday CDs and in 2004 topped Bill-board magazine's catalog chart for two weeks during the touring season. The other two releases, though, show signs of eventually reaching similar popularity.

"The Christmas Attic" has topped 1 million in sales and "The Lost Christmas Eve" has gone gold in its first year of release, with sales of more than 500,000.

Clearly, TSO has become one of music's most unique — and successful — phenomena. O'Neill founded the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in 1996 around the idea of combining a rock band and symphony to perform, for the most part, rock operas. The cast of musicians and singers would change to suit the needs of each composition.

O'Neill recruited Kinkel and Jon Oliva — front man for Savatage — to serve as his songwriting collaborators for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Musically, the TSO CDs boast all the bombast and sweep of the most ambitious of progressive rock groups — although TSO also employs a full orchestra and choir on some songs. For "The Lost Christmas Eve," for instance, O'Neill brought in 100 musicians to bring his visions for the songs to life, including four separate choirs, a string band and multiple guitarists, bassists, drummers and keyboardists.

O'Neill said Christmas was chosen as a theme because it offered the backdrop to create the kind of epic storylines that a musical unit like TSO demands.

"Because Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a combination of a full orchestra and a full rock band and at this point 12 lead singers, we have to do subjects that are sort of larger than life," O'Neill said.

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra plays two Friday, Dec. 23, shows at the Savvis Cen-ter, 1401 Clark Ave., a 4 p.m. matinee and an 8 p.m. show. Tickets for either show cost $45, $40 and $35.

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