SALT LAKE CITY — There’s a golden rule musicians follow when performing with Trans-Siberian Orchestra: Leave the good instrument at home.
With a large arsenal of laser lights and pyrotechnics at TSO’s disposal, every show has its risks and no musician is immune.
“When that stuff shoots up, it’s 300 degrees,” said Salt Lake violinist Meredith Campbell. “It’s not like you’re sitting there (thinking), ‘Oh, I can roast my marshmallows on this!’”
Campbell, a prominent freelance musician who has performed with TSO for a decade, even recalled an out of the ordinary incident many years ago when some sparks landed on a fellow musician — now there’s a glass screen that protects them from such hazards.
Despite the risks, Campbell never hesitates when asked to perform onstage with TSO, and she’ll be doing it again when the rock band visits Vivint Arena on Tuesday, Nov. 20. The violinist, who has been the concertmaster of the Orchestra at Temple Square since 2003, is a part of Utah’s small network of professional freelance musicians — the go-to musicians whenever artists such as TSO, Josh Groban and Michael Buble come to town.
“Salt Lake is a hidden treasure trove of stellar musicians … and I just love that big names can come to (town) and they can trust that we have great talent right here for them to work with,” said Cassie Olson, a local freelance musician who has performed with TSO since 2011. “I feel really lucky to be part of that group, and I think a lot of people don’t know how much talent is here in Salt Lake.”
That’s a lesson Olson learned when she moved to New York to study music at the Manhattan School of Music. After earning her master’s degree in orchestral performance, Olson eventually opted to move back home, where she had become familiar with the music network while studying at the University of Utah.
“I knew that in order to make it in New York as a musician, I would also have to have side jobs, and the idea of waitressing all day to get a few gigs here and there didn’t seem as appealing as being able to come to Salt Lake and jump right in the scene,” Olson said. “It felt like there were actually more performing opportunities for me (in Utah) at that time, so I decided to take that risk … and work hard here in order to build my way up on the call list and earn more gigs.”
Over the years, Olson has performed with local talent including David Archuleta, Kurt Bestor and Jenny Oaks Baker, but through her connections, she’s also been able to perform alongside James Taylor and the B-52s. Campbell, who has been a freelance musician since 1980, has built up an extensive performing catalogue that includes Quincy Jones, Barry Manilow, Sarah Brightman and Smokey Robinson.
And then there’s TSO — a rock band that gets its own category.
Aside from being the loudest — and hottest — show both Campbell and Olson have ever played in, TSO’s production comes with a unique set of challenges for the musicians. For starters, calling the strobing lights, flames and stage smoke a “distraction” would be a gross understatement. These special effects aren’t used sparingly, and they can often make reading sheet music placed even directly in front of the musicians tricky.
Factor in that the musicians are sight-reading the music on the spot — they get one run-through a couple of hours before the show — and the feat seems near impossible.
But the challenges don’t end there. More often than not, the musicians’ conductor, TSO violinist Asha Mevlana, can be found prancing from platform to platform across the stage. Having a moving target for a conductor isn’t exactly a situation most orchestral musicians are used to.
“It’s a whole different skill set when you get on a stage like that,” Campbell said.
But it’s these challenges that make the experience of performing with TSO all the more enjoyable. And it’s these behind-the-scenes challenges that also give local musicians greater appreciation for TSO and their well-oiled show.
“Everything they do is of the highest quality, that’s for sure,” Campbell said. “TSO definitely has the stage that wins because nobody else uses lasers and pyro quite in the same way that they do. But the thing that I love (most) is (TSO’s musicians) have this stylized flip of their hair, and they do it all together in rhythm.”
For Olson, a classically-trained musician, her favorite part of TSO's show is the chance it gives her to branch out into the pop and rock genres — something she first experienced when she performed with electronic musician Moby during the 2002 Winter Olympics.
“That was my first taste of being a sideline rock star and I was hooked,” she said. “But hands down, TSO is definitely the most exciting show that I’ve ever played. …The energy of the band, and especially the energy and excitement of the fans — it’s so infectious. It’s really fun to feel like we are rock stars — even if it’s just for a day.”
If you go …
What: Trans-Siberian Orchestra presents “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve”
When: Tuesday, Nov. 20, 4 and 8 p.m.
Where: Vivint Arena, 301 W. South Temple
How much: $42.50-$77.50