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WIZARDS IN WINTER: TSO puts a new twist on the holidays.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

By Steve Palopoli

WHEN they first started putting a rock opera twist on holiday tunes in 1996, the music industry definitely didn't "get" Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

"I'm pretty sure they don't get it now," says Al Pitrelli, guitarist and musical director for the group. This despite more than a decade of arena shows that earn somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million annually, putting them among the most successful tours year in and year out. Their first year, they played to about 130,000 people. By the end of this year, they'll have played to 1.3 million, at 140 shows.

The uninitiated might know TSO's song "Wizards in Winter," which was everywhere in 2005, especially after a video of Carson Williams' insane home Christmas light show set to the song went viral on the Internet. Pitrelli still can't believe that one. "That was one of those things we couldn't have thought up," he says.

But it also showed how the group's founder, Paul O'Neill, is an consummate perfectionist. "That guy did it so well that Paul called up our lighting director and said, 'Why are his lights perfectly in sync, and ours aren't?'"

O'Neill's drive has led to the epic TSO shows which feature somewhere around three dozen musicians, vocalists and narrators, along with 17 semis' worth of equipment. "It's a couple acres of gear," says Pitrelli. "It's absurdly huge."

The group has found a home in San Jose, returning to HP Pavilion on Sunday for two shows, on the heels of their latest release, the non-Christmas album Night Castle, which debuted on the Billboard charts at No. 5. Pitrelli says the group, which he still thinks of as "a bunch of kids from Long Island" (no, they're not Russian, the name refers to the connection between cultures), may have known better than the industry suits, but even they never thought TSO would get this big. "It's a dream come true, and I try to enjoy every second of it."

The TRAN-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA plays two shows Sunday, Nov. 29, at 3 and 7:30pm, at HP Pavilion, 525 W. Santa Clara St., San Jose. Tickets are $39.50–$59.50; 800.745,3000.

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