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
For Mark Wood—violinist, educator, electric violin manufacturer, and enthusiastic mouthpiece for the insanely popular Trans-Siberian Orchestra, last December's top touring act in America—the only thing better than playing violin in a classicaltinged rock 'n' roll band is getting to do it in front of thousands of rowdy, amped-up Earthlings who can't believe their eyes—or ears. "There's nothing like watching 20,000 people rocking out and dancing to Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven," says Wood. "It's an awesome thing to see! The big talk in classical music today is all about finding ways to get people excited again about classical music. Well, when we do Mozart's Figaro, or Pachelbel's Canon in D major, or anything from the Nutcracker, people are screaming, laughing, dancing, clapping, standing on their seats, and waving their arms. People are pumping their fists in the air. People are high-fiving each other in the audience. When was the last time you saw an audience do any of that at the LA Philharmonic?"
Learn more about Mark Wood and his music at markwoodmusic.com
Indeed, they'd be thrown out of the concert hall, but that's beside the point; Wood's made his case. "We not only don't throw people out when they get excited about our music," he says, "we welcome and encourage it. It's truly a phenomenal thing to watch, and it's an honor and joy for me to be part of a group that keeps classical music in the faces of kids, the kids' parents, the kids' grandparents, some of who've forgotten how much fun this music can be. Our job," he adds, "is to remind them of that."
By all reports, Wood and the band have been doing their job and then some. The 12-year-old TSO averages 18,000 tickets sold at every performance, three-hour-long shows that, as evidenced by the $2 million light rig, swooping lasers, towers of sound equipment, and scorching pillars of smoke and flame, more closely resemble your classic rock show than your average classical concert.
To date, TSO has sold more than six million records, with a trio of popular Christmas-themed albums anchoring the catalog. To keep up with demand, TSO has cloned itself, so at any time there might be two TSOs out on the road. Revenues from the bands' 2007 winter tour have yet to be tallied ( Billboard reported that the band topped even teen idol Hannah Montana as the highest grossing US single-concert date during the 2007 holiday season), but in 2006, TSO earned close to $40 million in two months of touring.
"What can I say, we're big and we're loud," laughs Wood. "We do Beethoven's Fifth infused with blues grooves and Motown riffs, we play "Carol of the Bells" while lights swoop all over the arena and explosions of fire are blasting from massive blow torches. We rock the house and we rock it hard, and people leave humming the most beautiful pieces of classical music ever written.
"Not bad for a greasy rock band from New York."
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.
This spring, TSO is set to release a new non-Christmas CD, Night Castle, which will reportedly contain the band's rock version of Pachelbel's Canon in D major, a popular number when performed at their stadium shows.
"We are definitely moving out of the holiday market," Wood says. "The Christmas niche was a smart and clever way to build up a multimillion dollar business, but we have other things to say, too, so we're branching out.
"The new CD is going to blow people's minds."
While the appeal for some might be the rock part of the whole classical-rock band premise, Wood says that without a major appearance by string players, there would be no "classical" in the band at all.
"Strings," Wood says, "are very much a part of the sound of the orchestra. If there were no strings on stage, it would just be a rock 'n' roll band doing classical music, and that would be very boring. We would have failed right out of the box.
"The fact that we have a string section gives us a really cool classical credibility."
For the studio recordings, a full string orchestra is brought into the studio, but onstage, Wood anchors a string section made up of local string players recruited in each city just for those shows.
It's a good gig—if you're the right kind of player for the job.
Over the last 12 years, Wood has established strong relationships with the strings bookers in the various cities in which TSO plays, bookers who know which temperament and type of player works well in the TSO environment, and which players will not. Each TSO show requires seven local string players: two cellos, two violas, two second violins, and one first, who sits next to Wood.
Over the course of a standard tour, TSO employs more than 100 string players.
"We've gotten to the point where we've established a really cutting-edge, exciting, spirited string section," Wood says. "The strings are onstage—they are very visible to the audience, so if you have a string players who are not necessarily trained to think about performance—about how they look, how they physically maneuver the instrument—then they won't work out as a part of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra."
Playing with TSO, it turns out, is not for everyone. One element that most professional string players are not accustomed to—especially those who've spent their careers in an orchestra pit or symphony section—is being seated five feet away from erupting fountains of hot fire, playing under lasers and smoke pots and big pieces of moving machinery. "It's like playing in a war zone," Wood laughs. "And they also have to sight-read, while playing three hours of music practically nonstop. I have to spend hours with the string players before a show pumping them up."
Then, of course, there's the little matter of the choreography.
That's right, choreography.
"We have choreography that the string players do," Wood says. "You can't be a string player and just sit there, not in one of our shows. We are moving all the time, we're using our bows in choreographed ways, were moving our heads in choreographed ways—we're doing all kinds of things. Our performances are not just musical, they're visual, too, and not every string player is prepared for that."
For Wood, who eats, sleeps, and breathes the whole rock-star environment, from the tour buses to the late nights and long hours, there is nothing better than playing violin in a rock 'n' roll orchestra.
"I love every second of it," he says. "I kiss the ground of every city we play in. I am the luckiest string player in the world, because for a string player who loves to rock 'n' roll, this is the perfect scenario. I get to be with my string-playing colleagues from all over the country, and they're all killer string players, and I also get to hang with my greasy rock-band friends. And, together, we get to rock the rafters night after night playing Beethoven and Mozart!
"How much better can it get?"