Considering how Trans-Siberian Orchestra has become an annual touring powerhouse that fills arenas nationwide with its annual Christmas tour, it might be surprising to know that there was plenty of uncertainty for those involved in the combination progressive rock band and orchestra when it played its first shows.

“I remember when Jeff (Plate) and I did the first show out in Philly, we look down and I kind of looked at him and I had half a heart attack,” said musical director Al Pitrelli, recalling the first TSO performance during a recent teleconference interview with reporters.

“We didn’t really know who was going to be in the audience,” he said. “We knew that we sold a couple million records from ‘96 to ‘99, but we did our first show in ‘99. And the lights went down in The Tower Theater in Philadelphia, and when I looked down there was a really attractive older couple in their Sunday go-to-meeting clothes and right next to them was this dude in a Slayer hoodie.

“And we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘This is either going to go really bad or really great.’ And two hours later, we realized that this was the most amazing thing ever.”

The story of the first show seems appropriate now considering this year’s holiday tour takes TSO back to where it all began by featuring “Christmas Eve & Other Stories,” the first of what became three Christmas-themed rock operas. That 1996 release was the centerpiece of TSO’s holiday show for the first dozen tours.

This year, it will be performed in its entirety in the first set of TSO’s annual holiday show, while a second set will feature material from across the group’s seven-album catalog of rock operas. 

TSO will perform two shows the Don Haskins Center on Wednesday, Dec. 4.

“This is something that Paul had actually been talking about doing before we lost Paul a couple years ago,” said Plate, who joined Pitrelli for the teleconference interview.

Paul is Paul O’Neill, who founded TSO in 1993 and was the ensemble’s main songwriter and producer, and the person who led the development of the group’s spectacular live shows. 

“He realized that this story was probably the most significant one in our catalog,” Plate said. “You know, ‘Christmas Eve and Other Stories’ was released in 1996, and that is really the CD that put us on the map.”

O’Neill died in April 2017. Since then, O’Neill’s wife, daughter and the circle of musicians (including songwriter Jon Oliva, musical director Pitrelli and drummer/band leader Plate) that have been closely involved with TSO for most of its history have been guiding the ensemble.

It hasn’t been easy, but the 2017 and 2018 holiday tours went on successfully and now work is resuming on several album projects that were in various stages of completion when O’Neill died.

“His family said, ‘Ok, well you know what, Paul wanted this to live forever. It’s going to live forever. Let’s continue working on the ideas for that to exist and just move forward,’” Pitrelli said. 

“All of the projects that were kind of being talked about and being looked at, and being demoed up and worked toward, over the last six to eight months or so, the family has definitely started the machine back up and running,” Pitrelli said.

“We’ve been spending a lot of time back down in Tampa in the studio. And we’re looking at all these things and we’ve been recording a bunch of stuff.”

TSO had already built up a catalog large and diverse enough to sustain the touring well into the future. 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 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). 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.

The group’s annual Christmas trek is easily the most popular holiday tour going. 

Since debuting in 1999, the holiday tours have played to more than 15 million fans and grossed $700 million. 

This year’s tour finds TSO’s two ensembles visiting 66 cities (for 109 performances, including matinees), and will feature the usual array of special effects, stage sets and lighting that make it arguably the most spectacular visual concert production going. 

 “The last time we did ‘Christmas Eve and Other Stories’ was in 2011, and we had a massive production at that point. But, now it’s certainly (bigger),” Plate said. 

“It literally fills up the whole arena. You know, we have a stage that expands the width of the arena, plus there’s production all the way out past the front of the house.”

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