I’ll admit it: halfway through my latest concert experience in my hometown of Reading, Pa., I realized how truly bizarre it was that I was surrounded by a crowd of people rocking out to “Flight of the Bumblebee,” the finger-melting classical orchestra piece from the 1800s. However, if there’s anything that the world-famous Trans-Siberian Orchestra does best, it’s proving that violins and pianos aren’t for wusses.
Best known for its guitar-heavy rendition of “Carol of the Bells,” which frequents the airwaves during the winter holiday season, the orchestra’s most spectacular show is based on its non-Christmas album “Beethoven’s Last Night.” This fully narrated rock opera tells the story of the composer’s last night on Earth as he fights alongside the beautiful spirit of Fate to keep his soul from falling into the clutches of the Evil One himself.
As the concert begins, the TSO immediately sets the ethereal mood of Ludwig’s dying night. Smoke billows across the blue-lit stage, and pianist Derek Wieland strikes up the ghostly Moonlight Sonata, which kicks into their “Overture” based off the Ninth Symphony.
As the introduction fades to the first real song, narrator Bryan Hicks enlightens us with details of the tale we are about to hear. In a voice overflowing with more theatricality than that of an entire Shakespearian play cast combined, Hicks describes the plight of Beethoven, struggling to finish his 10th symphony alone in the darkness while the voices of the spirits of his past torment his deaf ears. Twist, the mischievous son of Fate, leads the ominous chanting vocals of “Fate.” This is followed by “What Good This Deafness,” where the composer, portrayed by Rob Evan, bemoans the torturous spirits that haunt him.
Soon, Mephistopheles arrives in the form of former metal vocalist Ronny Munroe. With his shaggy black hair and spectacularly guttural voice, combined with a row of flames that rise and fall behind him at the wave of his hand, you feel as though you really are watching a demon at work. He informs Beethoven that he will spare his soul from damnation if he allows him to erase all of his music from the memories of the world and gives him an hour to contemplate his choice.
Beethoven is filled with despair, wondering what tipping point in his life doomed him to the inferno. In “What is Eternal,” he expresses his horror at having nothing from his life succeed him. The kind Fate offers to take him back through his life and change anything that he sees fit.
We are shown Beethoven as a young man arriving in Vienna, where he meets his “immortal beloved” Theresa. Voiced by the incredible Chloe Lowery, Theresa has two show-stopping numbers: “Dreams of Candlelight,” a love letter to Beethoven, and “After the Fall,” a pained, internal vow of faith to him after he leaves her behind, not wanting her to know he was slowly going deaf.
Beethoven is filled with sorrow over abandoning her and going through a life without sound. In the end, however, he realizes that these hardships made his music into the timeless art that it is. He returns to the present and informs Mephistopheles that he will not surrender the music. The devil refines his offer to include only the newly finished and unheard 10th symphony, which the composer rejects as well.
In a last-ditch effort, Mephistopheles sings the mesmerizingly wicked “Misery,” in which he threatens to fill the life of a nameless poor child outside the window with pain and despair unless Ludwig submits. This produces Beethoven’s most impassioned performance: “What is This Child,” which sounds straight out of Les Miserables. It earned massive applause. Finally, the composer gives in, and Fate draws up a contract for the two to sign. All seems lost, but in a finale appropriately revealed by Twist, we find that Mephistopheles hasn’t won after all.
There are many instrumental songs, which highlight the stunning talent of the TSO band and orchestra members, throughout the concert. Everything from a simple acoustic guitar melody to some serious shredding is covered. In particular, lead electric violinist Roddy Chong is perpetually headbanging and jumping across the stage with enough energy to make the average human explode. Nobody could imagine that the “Ode to Joy,” “Fur Elise” and other symphony standards could be elevated to works of screaming, thrashing art. Even the performers’ costumes take classic sophistication and weave it through with slashes and chains.
“Beethoven’s Last Night” is not a concert; it is a full-blown theatrical experience that cannot be done justice with mere words. In a chapel of bursting lasers and green flames, orchestra and hard rock are fused together in an unholy matrimony of sheer brilliance.