It’s December, which means the annual Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) Christmas tour is performing soon at the NYCB Live, Home of The Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale.
Known for coordinating their musical performances with spectacular laser and light shows, the TSO holiday tours usually include their popular “Christmas Canon Rock,” a modern version of the well-known “Canon in D” (as the Canon and Gigue) by the 17th-century German composer Johann Pachelbel.
Adding seasonal lyrics for a children’s choir, late TSO founder Paul O’Neill included the track on their 1998 holiday album The Christmas Attic. He later reworked the song, re-christening as “Christmas Canon Rock,” with the jazzed-up version appearing on TSO’s The Lost Christmas Eve album in 2004.
While many singers have performed the song for TSO’s live holiday shows, former Long Islander Jennifer Cella provided one of the most powerful performances.
In one popular YouTube version currently amassing nearly 9 million views, Cella is accompanied by backup singer Danielle Landherr as the blonde duo sway rhythmically to the Baroque melody in elegant long black dresses.
“We actually recorded that at the QVC studios when we were putting together a TSO CD,” said Cella from her home in Connecticut.
Raised in Copiague, Cella first took voice lessons in 8th grade and claims a few family musical connections.
“My father was really into jazz and loved Frank Sinatra, and my first voice teacher was a jazz singer,” she said. “My father’s brother was a saxophone player in the Glenn Miller Orchestra.”
After high school, Cella accepted an acting scholarship to NYU but eventually settled on a musical career.
“I bounced around Long Island for a while, living in Manhattan and Queens, before ending up in Connecticut,” she said. “I was originally interested in musical theater and Broadway but became burned out on the auditioning process. So I started a band and was doing gigs all over the place when my agent arranged the TSO audition.”
Dishearten by previous audition rejections, Cella nearly skipped the TSO interview but her agent recognized the career opportunity.
“Paul O’Neill wasn’t at most of the auditions but just happened to walk in on the tail end of mine – a Pat Benatar song,” she recalled.
When O’Neill glanced at the clipboard of the people who were running the audition, he saw they’d crossed Cella off.
“Paul – who later told me this story – looked at them and said, ‘Are you crazy?’ and wrote a ‘Yes’ next to my name. He asked me to sing some more – the Janis Joplin song “Piece of My Heart” – and was sold!”
Cella would tour with TSO from 2001 to 2007, in addition to appearing on some studio albums.
“I stopped touring because I wanted to start a family but was involved in the TSO studio recordings for many years with songs on the Night Castle and Letters from the Labyrinth albums. Both reached the Billboard Top 10.”
She still recalls the early days with TSO and O’Neill’s enthusiasm for the troupe.
“We were playing small venues in the middle of nowhere, sometimes to empty houses and it could be a little discouraging. But that didn’t matter to Paul. He’d come backstage and say one day we’d be playing large arenas. He was a dreamer with big dreams and they came true.”
While TSO has showcased many talented vocalists since Cella’s departure, the sheer power of her voice – as well as remarkable breath control – have made her performance of “Christmas Canon Rock” memorable. Especially striking is the final note completed in a single breath lasting around 20 seconds – an eternity in the vocal world. Few (if any) singers have subsequently managed that last phrase without pausing for air.
“When we began rehearsing for the first tour I remember everyone saying ‘Wow!” when I held that long note,” she recalled. “You can do retakes in the studio but have only one chance on stage, so you have to push yourself to maintain the same intensity and precision. I definitely had to prepare for that last note by taking breaths at the precise moments leading up to it or it would be off. It became a signature song for me.”
Cella says she will always be grateful to O’Neill for the opportunity to work with TSO.
“He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” she said. “He truly gave me wings.”
O’Neill, who died in 2017, was well-known in the music industry as a record producer and concert promoter. But, Cella said he was “one of a kind, not only generous in his encouragement but was philanthropic. I saw families come up to him and explain how their school music program had been cut and Paul would help fund the program again. He was truly thankful for all he had and recognized what a blessing it was to give back.”
These days, Cella performs with producer/DJ Monikkr as the duo Beauty in the Machine. According to their website, their music combines “elements from progressive rock and bass-driven house music.”
“Starting from the ground up is always a challenge, but it’s something we’re both passionate about as we build an audience,” said Cella. “We’re going to push our limits and see where it goes! Right now, we’re putting together an EP for release early next year and I’m working on a ballad that will showcase the range and power of my voice and hopefully be out in the spring.”
Though it’s been a decade since performing with TSO on tour, social media videos of her “Christmas Canon Rock” performances continue to draw high praise from fans.
“It fuels me that they admire my voice.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 700 magazines and newspapers. See getnickt.com