[Photographer Andrei Chlytchkov’s got one last-second assignment for 2019: Trans-Siberian Orchestra at The Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto December 30. Text by L. Benny Sanders. – AC ]
The Scotiabank Theatre received a warm winter storm tonight, in the form of The Trans-Siberian Orchestra-one of the twin productions that toured through its tight holiday performance window. As the Eastern version took the stage, the Western troupe was about to start their gig in Chicago. In Toronto, it was it was the second performance of the day.
The Orchestra is the labour of love of Paul O’Neill, an American producer, composer that we lost to illness about a year and a half ago. The TSO (not to be confused with our own Toronto Symphony Orchestra) is an American band that was created by O’Neill after he visited Russia. He saw that the Trans-Siberian Railroad linked the citizens of that nation and hoped to use the music of the TSO to provide a common connection between people here across North America. The Washington Post once described the project as “an arena-rock juggernaut” combining the production styles of Pink Floyd with the symphonic quality of YES and the raw force of The Who.
If you’ve never seen or heard TSO, imagine The Nutcracker crossed with prog-rock This is what we were here to live at The Scotiabank Theatre. (There was no supporting act, and never has been).
The event begins with “Who I Am”. After a big introduction, and as the band arrives (a 10-piece choir, a 10-piece string section, two keyboardists, two guitarists, bass and drums), dry ice fills the air. The band has a crisp sound, the look is all crystal and frost.
From the beginning, the visuals (including lasers and planetary video clips) are brilliant. O’Neill began his story “On a snow blessed Christmas Eve a young man found himself alone in the back of an old city bar … Using his solitary drink as something of a moat between himself and the rest of the world, he was surprised when an elderly gentleman asked to join him at his table…within minutes he found himself engrossed in a story that the old man related to him; a story about another Christmas Eve when the Lord looked down from above at all his children…”
The evening featured TSO’s seasonal show, “Christmas Eve and Other Stories.” The tale of an angel sent to Earth to bring back a single item that represents the best of Christmas Day. As we became aware of the winter city scene, the narrator Bryan Hicks set the train in motion as the ensemble broke into “An Angel Came Down.”
This vista could have been any major snow-draped metropolis, and Dustin Brayley, dressed for a Christmas of old provided the lead vocals for the piece, reminiscent of traditional carols, but with a fresh feeling clearly expressed. “O Come All Ye Faithful / O Holy Night” followed and was played instrumentally, with guitars heralding the hymns. “The Prince of Peace” featured Erika Jerry singing a gentle ballad about the baby Jesus that began with a gentle voice transitioning into vocal powerhouse (and included an excerpt of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”). This singer had a Tina Turner-like vibe (with a jazz influenced keyboardist to back her up) and left the crowd yelling for more.
Whilst the assembly entered into “First Snow”, Hicks recited “… and as the angel continued on his search, for he knew the answer to his quest was somewhere on this Earth, and from London, Rome and Paris… the sky would start to snow…” and then the two guitarists (Chris Caffery and Joel Hoekstra) leapt into the audience, bounding to the back before rejoining the members on stage, as lead violinist Roddy Chong played the melody over a backdrop of digital frozen precipitation.
Next came the Nutcracker seeped “A Mad Russian’s Christmas” (with Hoekstra on Flying V) followed by the highly recognizable “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” a cover of the closely connected band Savatage. Hick’s spoke of the ruins in Sarajevo and how Christmas came there, with hope for a better day. This song with accented with a mind-blowing pyrotechnics show.
“Good King Joy” moved the crowd, “Ornament” brought a bit of R&B to the set and “Old City Bar “ (lead vocalist sounding a bit like Tom Waits while an acoustic guitar strum provided an organic feel and a nice change to the heavy rock so far), with the similar “Promises to Keep” as its caboose. “This Christmas Day” was next (a slowly building masterpiece beginning with female singer over a piano accompaniment, adding bass, then strings and finally the full band). The set was ended when “An Angel Returned” and everyone joined on the stage to close… the first half. The Epilogue completed the story.
The members of the orchestra were introduced and they had just enough time to catch their collective breaths before launching into the second half. My good friend, (and the keyboardist who works with me in my bands) Blair Krueger, who was so helpful to me by keeping detailed notes of the events tonight, reminds me that The Trans-Siberian Orchestra “first played this show in Toronto 21 years ago at Massey Hall”. There was no break between the 1st and 2nd halves.
The second act offered us selections by Grieg (“Hall of the Mountain King”) with a brain-searing amount of pyrotechnics, Mozart, an instrumental with Chong running all over the stage as he played the lead (Blair remarked “you won’t see that at the other TSO (Toronto Symphony Orchestra) concerts” and the piece everyone was anxiously waiting for, “Pachabel’s Canon – Christmas Canon”. The set continued with music by Beethoven, Liszt and an original, “Can You Hear Me Now” by the much missed Paul O’Neill. The latter was serene and without the massive production of the rest of the show, and meant to honour the man behind the concept. A little more Beethoven (5th) and the closer came in the form of a reprise, “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24”, an apocalyptic pyro-show, a standing ovation… and no encore.
Could our hearts have held out if there had been? I think not.