Ever one to throw curve balls at the expectations of his music- industry brethren, Paul O'Neill had a few especially grand surprises in store as his Trans-Siberian Orchestra set out on the road this winter. And they all had to do with timing.
First, there was the time of year. Typically, TSO — the epic prog-pop ensemble that O'Neill founded nearly 20 years ago — tours in November and December with selections from their multi-platinum-selling holiday recordings. But because the band's newest album, Night Castle, steered clear of yuletide inspirations, performing during the other 10 months of the year became an option.
Still, when time came for a post-holiday tour, O'Neill put Night Castle on hold to spotlight a 12-year-old, self-described "rock opera," Beethoven's Last Night. That's right. The focus of the tour that brings TSO back to Rupp Arena for its first non-holiday concert is a complete performance of a record that was released in 2000.
Listen closely and you can almost hear the collective groan of record company marketing executives.
"In rock 'n' roll, the normal standard is that you tour behind your latest album," said O'Neill, who composes and produces the ensemble's music (although he is not a regular touring member of the band). "And, in our case, Night Castle is that album. It came out in 2009 and has gone platinum. As such, Warner Bros. (which oversees TSO's recordings) expected us to perform that as our main rock opera for this tour. So a lot of the initial feedback from Warner Bros. on what we wound up doing for this tour has been, well, a little weird.
"But so much of what we do is based on timing, which was hard to explain to Warner Bros. I just felt that even though Beethoven's Last Night came out in 2000, it was the more timely story to present."
Long fascinated by the instrumental extremes of prog-rock, O'Neill has been equally taken with the life, times and works of Beethoven and Mozart. In the former, he found a story of perseverance and determination. In the latter, he discovered a kind of grandiosity and audience appeal that translated into the centuries-old equivalent of rock stardom.
"I've always worshiped Beethoven and Mozart. But for my whole life, I've been in awe of Beethoven. He was born into an impoverished family in Germany, but, through sheer willpower, made his way to Vienna. By the time he was 21, he was recognized as the greatest piano player that ever lived by the likes of Mozart. By the time he was 25, he realized he was going completely deaf. He found out he had massive severe lead poisoning, which caused not only his deafness but depression and maniacal mood swings. But he fought his way through and wrote the Ninth Symphony, Moonlight Sonata and Prometheus.
"This was music that has brought — and still is bringing — peace and happiness to millions of people. Yet it was music that he himself would never get to hear."
The story line of Beethoven's Last Night seems to borrow a little from the great musical folklore that had Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the famed crossroads for the ability to play the blues. In O'Neill's piece, Beethoven spends his last night alive in a battle for his soul with Mephistopheles. Although not a new work, Beethoven's Last Night will be reissued this spring as a two-disc set that features much of the narration that colors the piece when TSO performs it live.
Of course, a robust story with music that generously references Beethoven's compositions is only half of the TSO story. On stage, the band is as elaborate and theatrical as they come. Flames, lasers and lights galore, with multiple guitarists, keyboardists and vocalists make TSO into pure, unapologetic performance spectacle. It's part KISS, part Queen and part Spinal Tap.
But O'Neill also sees TSO, especially as it tours Beethoven's Last Night, as something of an introduction, especially for younger audiences consumed almost exclusively by rock 'n' roll, to some of classical music's most recognized and enduring composers.
"So many of our fans are teenagers," O'Neill said. "They might normally never listen to Mozart or Beethoven. But when they hear a rock band play their music, they might go, 'Oh, that's Beethoven? Let's check that out.'
"I mean, there is no way you could ever convince me that if Beethoven and Mozart were alive today, they would not be using electric guitars and keyboards. And for people familiar with the classics, they get to hear some new ideas, fresh arrangements and different instrumentation at our concerts, not to mention some new music of our own.
"Ultimately, TSO is like any other living thing. It's just that it's musically driven as opposed to celebrity-driven."