REVIEW: Trans-Siberian Orchestra @ Toyota Arena in Ontario

Updated: Mar 25

No Doubt About It! TSO is a Certified Rock Phenomenon!

There's one sure sign that the live concert industry is back in business as usual: Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the beloved seasonal arena rock ensemble, is back on the road!


Last year, TSO took its annual holiday show online, hosting a livestream event for fans while most in-person concerts were still on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


But although the virtual version proved quite popular, Al Pitrelli and Jeff Plate are thrilled to be back with the band in 2021, celebrating the Christmas season once more in front of live audiences.


Currently the group has two touring ensembles playing to arenas across the country, including the Toyota Arena in Ontario, which had two performances on Dec. 4th. Knowing fans, including myself, turned out en masse for the shows, leaving original founding members, Pitrelli and Plate, feeling astonished and gratified.



Just as in 2019, TSO’s show featured 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 very special for the band.


Narrated by Phillip Brandon, the show takes the audience on a global adventure centered around a spiritual figure (in this case, an angel), who helps an earthly innocent discover the true meaning of Christmas. An elaborate array of lights, lasers, torches and screens, which numbered at least 20 and displayed images of cathedrals, churches, lightning bolts, fire and, of course, nutcrackers that marched by during “A Mad Russian’s Christmas,” help to set the scene, and one need not work too hard to imagine – and be swept away – by the story being told.


First and foremost a rock band, the tour includes vocalists April Berry, Ashley Hollister, Jodi Katz, Rosa Laricchiuta, John Brink, Caleb Johnson, Chloe Lowery, Dino Jalusik, Dustin Brayley, Erika Jerry, Georgia Napolitano, Kayla Reeves, Natalya Rose Piette, Robin Borneman, Russell Allen, Zak Stevens, Nate Amor, Andrew Ross and Jeff Scott Soto; guitarists Al Pitrelli, Angus Clark, Chris Cafferty and Joel Hoekstra; bassists Tony Dickinson and John Lee Middleton; Asha Mevlana and Roddy Chong on strings; and Vitalij Kuprij, Mee Eun Kim, Jane Mangini and Derek Wieland on keyboard.


“O Come All Ye Faithful/O Holy Night,” offered as the fourth song, was both as rocking and as lovely as ever. So was “Good King Joy,” which actually sounder funkier and fresher this year, from both the band and singer, “American Idol” winner Caleb Johnson, on the tour for his second year. Also, “Promises to Keep," ”First Snow," “This Christmas Day” and, of course, TSO’s trademark song, “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24),” featuring a massive light show, lasers and pyrotechnics all in sync with the music.


This year’s show actually upped the video quotient, with five large screens looming above the stage and the band’s two risers in front that lifted performers above the audience. Projections sent the audience flying above, through a snowy city to set the stage for the performance. Without the setting of a theater these past two years, the stage seemed even more expansive than before. It also became, for example, a stained-glass cathedral for a lovely, operatically sung “Prince of Peace/Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”



The band's 2021 tour kicked off on November 17th with shows in both Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, with an itinerary that includes 99 shows in 59 cities before wrapping up on Thursday, Dec. 30, with performances in Cleveland and St. Louis.


The long-awaited tour celebrates the 25th anniversary of the hard-rocking, holiday-themed group’s landmark album “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” the 3x certified platinum album that launched the group to superstardom and spawned the bring-the-whole-family rock holiday tradition that has now played to millions of fans all across the nation.


When Paul O'Neill (who passed away in 2017) first conceived Trans-Siberian Orchestra, his goal was as straightforward as it was incredibly ambitious. Al Pitrelli, another founding member who shared O’Neill’s vision, has since taken over the reins of the group and helped to create the current audio-visual extravaganza concert. "The whole idea," he explains, "was to create a progressive rock band that would push the boundaries further than any group before... Way, way further."


With more than 10 million albums sold, TSO has inspired generations of fans to rediscover the multi-dimensional art form of the rock opera. Meanwhile, on the road, they have become one of the world's top acts, with Billboard magazine naming TSO as one of the top touring artists of the past decade -- a $20 million-plus production that has played to over 100 million people in 80+ cities, selling more than $280 million worth of tickets and presenting $11 million to charity.



Although O'Neill is gone, he still has tremendous influence on the group as a whole. As a New York City native growing up with a wide-ranging world of rock musical influences, O’Neill soaked up sources such as Broadway musicals, Motown and singer-songwriters like Jim Croce and Harry Chapin, while authors such as Oscar Wilde and Robert Graves fueled his literary tastes. He began his career playing guitar for touring productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Hair,” then went to work in the late '70s for Leber-Krebs Inc., the Manhattan management company whose clients included Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, AC/DC, Def Leppard, the Scorpions, the New York Dolls, and scores of others.


O'Neill helmed Aerosmith's Classics albums before beginning a fortuitous relationship with the band Savatage that led to conceptual pieces such as “Hall Of The Mountain King,” “Gutter Ballet,” “Streets: A Rock Opera” and “Dead Winter Dead.” Producing introduced O'Neill to Jon Oliva, Bob Kinkel and Al Pitrelli, as well as reconnecting him with legendary studio engineer Dave Wittman, who all became key original collaborators in O'Neill's grand vision - Trans-Siberian Orchestra.


"He wanted to take the very best of all the forms of music and merge them into a new style. Rock opera parts from the Who, classical rock from Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Queen, combined with over-the-top light show from bands like Pink Floyd...a full rock opera with a full progressive band and at least 18 lead singers. Basically, his goal was for people to walk out of a TSO show speechless, still not believing that what they heard or saw was possible."



They took this idea to Atlantic Records which, surprisingly, financed the first installment of the Christmas trilogy, “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” album. Fueled by the socially conscious single "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24," the album was certified double platinum. More platinum certifications followed with 1998's “The Christmas Attic,” and the final installment of the Christmas trilogy, “The Lost Christmas Eve” in 2004. In the midst of completing the trilogy, TSO released their first non-holiday rock opera, the gold certified “Beethoven's Last Night.” And in 2009, TSO’s album, “Night Castle,” debuted at #5 and was certified gold by year's end.


But TSO really cemented its following in concert. The group hit the road in 1999, beginning an annual November-December extravaganza that is "as over the top as we can make it.” With two stages, pyro, light and lasers on both sides of the arena, as well as in the crowd, there's simply no second-class seats at any Trans-Siberian Orchestra show.


“Someone once said that if you want to change the world, don't become a politician – write a book, write a great song. I believe in that, and that's what Trans-Siberian Orchestra is all about…a constantly morphing group of extremely creative and talented individuals who are always trying to raise the bar of where a band can take its audience sonically, visually and emotionally. With that as our core ideal, the possibilities are endless."


Although this was a one day only event, if you get a chance to see TSO on their tour at another venue, I would strongly suggest you jump at the chance. It will be a concert you will never forget.


Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report