With their twinkling bells and unhurried tempos, Christmas carols tend to evoke images of falling snow, the scent of gingerbread and fuzzy knitted mittens. They conjure the kind of Christmas where velvet-clad children run around the parlor room as a lambent fireplace crackles softly. There’s a delicate sense of charm more redolent than a mug of mulled cider.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra pictures Christmas a little differently — the fire is dialed all the way up, and the cider is spiked.
On Dec. 1, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra returned to San Jose to perform its winter tour and celebrate the 25th anniversary of the landmark album Christmas Eve and Other Stories. Since its founding in 1996, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra has made a name for itself through symphonic rock renditions of Christmas classics. (Indeed, there are far too few orchestras so ready to rock.) The concert welcomed the holiday season with flashing neon lasers and jaw-dropping pyrotechnics.
It seems almost obvious that such a unique, unconventional music group would amass an eclectic audience. Patrons arrived at SAP Center sporting everything from Santa hats, football jerseys and V-necks to baseball caps, peacoats, cargo shorts and espadrilles. It was a smorgasbord of apparel, but by some Christmas miracle, everyone was going to the same event. The musicians, in contrast, wore deliberately disheveled black suits reminiscent of ‘70s rock stars.
The concert introduced elements of theatricality as Bryan Hicks embraced the role of a storyteller, loosely chronicling a young girl’s reunion with her father while an angel searches for the best representative of humanity. The story aspired to lacquer the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s music in a unifying coat of paint. Its feel-good Christmas collectivism felt like a comforting gesture, but the concert thrived more episodically — a mosaic rather than an oil painting. Each of the group’s juggernaut songs held its own, and it was impossible to compete with astonishing strobe lights, smoke machines and a violinist who can shred.
The ethos of rock ‘n’ roll curled around the Trans-Siberian Orchestra like cigarette smoke. The gifted musicians have a flair for the dramatic — whether it’s violinist Asha Mevlana bending over backward as she plays with impossible precision or keyboardist Derek Wieland flagrantly gesticulating to play a single, staccato note. The sense of star power emulating from the band was invigorating.
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra showcased its signature modus operandi and flipped Christmas classics on their heads: Pachelbel and Beethoven would never have anticipated their melodies to inspire this many hair flips. “Christmas Eve / Sarajevo 12/24,” arguably the band’s most famous song, unfolded as an experimental instrumental medley of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Shchedryk,” the Ukrainian version of the “Carol of the Bells” melody. The spasmic lights flickered with every beat, transporting the audience into a wild, ravelike environment.
Excitement continued to build in “A Mad Russian’s Christmas.” Tchaikovsky’s fluttering themes from “The Nutcracker” harden from snowflakes into throwing stars as “A Mad Russian’s Christmas” descended into a haunting, spiraling show of instrumental virtuosity. Images of the candy-colored towers of St. Basil’s Cathedral flashed on panels across the stage as Al Pitrelli and Angus Clark riffed and wailed on their guitars with the bravado of Eddie Van Halen.
The bombastic numbers were refreshingly balanced with the performance of several evocative ballads. In front of projected stained glass windows, singer Chloe Lowery kindled a sterling sense of intimacy in the immense venue. Her impressive vocal chops stunned the audience and earned impassioned applause.
Along with Lowery, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra brought out several vocalists, each with a unique persona. Yet, it was vocalist Rosa Laricchiuta whose rasp and prowess stole the show. Laricchiuta exuded an enticing brand of confidence a la Joan Jett, cementing her as one of the most memorable performers of the night.
The delightfully kitschy display of symphonic rock was infectiously exciting, and the musicians made sure to spruce up audience members’ spirits as they strutted — and, on two occasions, flew — through the venue. In paying homage to its debut album, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra brought kinetic energy that electrified San Jose.