Trans-Siberian Orchestra rocks Mid-America Center

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By Jasmine Maharisi – News Editor

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa – For a holiday as over-commercialized and drawn out as Christmas, people can grow tired easily, bored and cynical about the annual celebration. Green and red become cliché.  Aside from the true meaning of the holidays, the spirit of celebration can become stale, old and predictable for those who crave variety and unorthodox stimulation.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a group of classical and heavy metal musicians and performers, offers the epitome of variety and stimulation.

On Wednesday, Nov. 3, the group performed two sold-out shows in Council Bluffs’ Mid-America Center as part of its 2011 Winter Tour. Each performance lasted three hours and was jam-packed with what audiences have come to associate with the group: dramatic interpretations of symphonic classics, lasers and pyrotechnic mischief and lots and lots of hair.

TSO was formed in 1996 by producer, composer and lyricist Paul O’Neill. O’Neill, a New York native, performed many gigs on both the Broadway circuit and in the recording industry, including one as backup guitarist on the “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Hair” tours.

O’Neill, who writes the lyrics to TSO’s music, was joined by Jon Oliva and Al Pitrelli of the heavy metal band Savatage. Keyboardist and producer Robert Kinkle completed the quartet.

Later that year, TSO  debuted with “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” which is still today the group’s bestselling record. Two years later in 1998, “The Christmas Attic” was released as a sequel.

TSO released three more albums after “The Christmas Attic,” the most of which is “Night Castle.” Released in 2009, it serves as the group’s second album sans a Christmas theme.

During Wednesday’s concert, the group performed a few songs from “Night Castle,” including “Mozart and Memories,” an instrumental that begins with soft piano notes and quickly becomes more dramatic in sound. The song, though not their most well-received by the audience, was captivating as it escalated from slow, heavy melodies to rapid, lighter tones and back again.

Music is only half the equation in a TSO concert. The other half is pure visual stimulation. Laser beams of purples, magentas and blues shot around the auditorium. White lights were synchronized and dance with the music. Rows of small television screens lined the back of the stage and blinked images of clocks, mechanical red nutcrackers and blue lightening bolts. Fire flared during song finales, and a thick cloud of smoke crawled around the musicians’ legs before dripping off the stage.

It took the tour crew fifteen hours to set up the stage and all the equipment.

The TSO concert was divided into two parts without an intermission. The first part was a narrated version of the album “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” a slower, more peaceful set. The narration only occured between numbers and told a story about a Christmas angel having an existential experience on Christmas Eve. This year’s narrator was newcomer Tony Gaynor, whose strong, majestic voice made listening to the intervals a pleasure.

“And he took the music and held it in his hand,” Gaynor said. “He did this you see, because angels can.”

TSO uses an interesting combination of instruments includes two sets of keyboards, two electric guitars, an electric base guitar, a full set of drums and an electric violin. The group also performs and records with a full orchestra. For this show, it used the local talents of the Council Bluffs Strings.

Six to eight vocalists, divided evenly between men and women, backed up each song.  The stark contrast between their heavy metal look and the concert’s Christmas theme was quite entertaining.

The men and women  in the group appeared more suited to back up Led Zeppelin than to strum out “Come All Ye Faithful.” This year, the men got new tuxedos with black trousers, ruffled white button-up shirts and two-tailed jackets with velvet accents. The women wore their usual outfits: long, v-neck gowns with thigh high slits and large rhinestones at their  chests, fishnet stockings and black knee-high boots.

The band’s goal is to make the rock-opera as sexy as possible, and with the long bleached blonde hair of the women and the guitar ripping antics of the men (one, Angus Clark, has a hand-painted rose on his guitar), the ensemble is working.

The TSO experience is insanely invigorating as it weaves heavy metal with some of the best classical compositions available. For those looking for a spirited Christmas performance or just a uniquely dramatic show, the Trans-Siberia Orchestra is a must-see.

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