Interview with Rock Violinist Mark Wood
Wood talks about the importance of string sections, Beethoven's link to lasers and smoke machines, and life on the road with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra
That "greasy rock band" was born a dozen years ago when Wood—a classically trained violinist with Juilliard experience, a life-long love of rock 'n' roll, and a wardrobe that favors skin-tight leather pants—was approached by Al Pitrelli, a self-described "spawn of Satan rock guitarist" whose resumé includes stints with such major rock acts as Megadeth and Alice Cooper.
As Wood tells it, Pitrelli pitched the idea of forming a rock orchestra that would do classical music with rock grooves. To give the band some "classical cred," Wood says, Pitrelli invited the musician to bring his violin to the fledgling ensemble.
"I couldn't believe it," Wood says. I immediately said, 'Absolutely, man!' For a violin player, any gig that has to do with rock 'n' roll is rare, so I was definitely into it."
Rock-tinged variations of classical tunes are hardly new, of course. Procol Harum's 1967 hit "A Whiter Shade of Pale," famously, is based on J.S. Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3, Air. The power trio Emerson, Lake, and Palmer based their 1971 prog-rock hit "The Barbarian" on Bartók's Allegro Barbaro and recorded an amped-up version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. And Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band had a huge hit in 1976 with "A Fifth of Beethoven," a disco version of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But before TSO, no major band had attempted to build a career primarily on rock 'n' roll treatments of classical pieces.
In TSO's wake, several other groups have ventured into similar territory, most notably the East Coast Opera Company, which performs great opera arias the way a big-haired '70s stadium-rock band might have done them.
As Wood tells it, the original members of the band—rock composers and Savatage bandmembers Paul O'Neill, Robert Kinkel, and Jon Oliva—knew that their idea might be a hard sell, and that they would need to score a hit quickly. Savatage had enjoyed a hit with "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24," a rock-fueled instrumental medley of "Carol of the Bells" and "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen."
And with the neoclassical electronic band Mannheim Steamroller doing well by staging big, splashy, New Agey covers of famous Christmas carols, TSO elected to hit the Christmas market, producing the 1996 concept album Christmas Eve and Other Stories.
Thanks to word-of-mouth and the assistance of a handful of radio DJs who knew a good thing when they heard it, TSO eventually built an avid audience, incorporating original tunes and classical pieces into a repertoire of familiar Christmas tunes. To date, TSO has produced three Christmas-themed CDs, a fully-staged DVD release, and the fantastical rock-opera Beethoven's Last Night, which sets several of the maestro's most famous compositions to a rock 'n' roll beat.