Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Al Pitrelli ponders gargantuan winter trek, passing of Paul O’Neill

Photo provided by Jason McEachern

The annual touring tradition known as Trans-Siberian Orchestra is raring to revisit the Allstate Arena for two shows on December 28 and deliver its latest, super-sized version of “The Ghosts Of Christmas Eve” rock opera. Though the gargantuan operation always runs like clockwork and is the ultimate symphonic rock n’ roll holiday celebration, this year marks the first without co-founding producer, composer and lyricist Paul O’Neill. However, as Chicago Concert Reviews learns from fellow originator/all-star guitarist Al Pitrelli on a teleconference phone call, the show must absolutely go on in honor of his memory, while thankfully, there are plenty of future projects already brewing in the pipeline.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra has become an annual touring tradition. How do you go about making sure there are enough familiar elements that stay the same each year within the show, but also changing it enough to keep things fresh?

Al Pitrelli: I think we’ve been doing that pretty much from the jump. Our first tour was in ‘99 and we had performed “Christmas Eve And Other Stories” in its entirety. We kind of surrounded it with a few songs in the front as an introduction and some different things in the second half of the show from different records we had done. But every year we’ve been pretty much staying true to that formula where if the show is very well received, the folks are enjoying it and we’re hearing great feedback, then we’ll do the same rock opera again the following year, which is a familiarity that they’ve grown accustomed to. Again, it’s always been a matter of keeping them on the edge of their seats. The front of the show and the back of the show will always change, but once we perform a piece in its entirety… You’ve said it. We’ve become such a tradition. We’ve become to people what “It’s A Wonderful Life” or “Miracle On 34th Street” was to me when I was kid. This is something that people who have latched onto and made part of their holidays. Their families enjoy it and there are multi-generations of families just coming out and watching it. It’s a lot of fun. Most of the folks in the audience have the entire catalog. They’ve purchased the entire catalog or downloaded it or however you get music these days. We always keep that in mind. What’s their favorite songs? What are the songs that people always requesting? When you’re doing “The Ghost Of Christmas Eve,” like we are again this year, it’s almost the greatest hits collection, so everybody will hear their favorites.

Your ticket and your merchandise prices seem to stay at such a reasonable rate yet your production keeps on growing. How is that possible and why does that remain so important to the band?

Pitrelli: Going back to when this first started, Paul O’Neill, the creator of this, always taught us to chase art and don’t worry about money. If you create great art, everything will kind of follow later on, but it doesn’t matter what you’re doing if you’re not really paying attention to the art form that you’re a part of. He just wanted to make great records. He didn’t care how much the records cost to make, and when it came time to touring, he wanted to put on the biggest rock n’ roll show ever. All of us grew up in New York City going to see bands at Madison Square Garden. When a band would come through the Garden, not only would they do their normal show, but they’d always bring extra production because they wanted to show off in front of the record companies, the radio stations, whatever it was. Paul, Paul’s family, the folks here at Night Castle Management, everybody in the band always kept that paramount. Let’s put on the biggest show we possibly can and then we’ll figure it all out later on. I mean we’ve been doing this for 22, I guess almost 23 years now. The plan seems to have worked.

Obviously this is a whole new phase for you guys [in light of Paul’s passing]. What’s in store for the creative future of TSO?

Pitrelli: Well, Paul and his writing partner, John Oliva, have quite a few projects in the works. There’s a few records that we had been recording. Maybe we’re halfway done, 60 percent done, things like that. I know “Romanoff” was one of them, “Streets” and “A Gutter Ballet.” There’s so many things we were working on during the downtime in between tours. But Paul and his family, Paul and his wife, this was their child that they gave birth to years and years and years ago. It’s so nice to know that the family is going to carry on the family’s legacy. TSO is one of their children. I’m just glad to be part of it. Whatever they want to do, we’re good with. The tour is the tour. Fortunately, Paul was a workaholic and he has plans for tours and production ideas a couple of years ahead of where we are right now. The same with records…Walt Disney, Disney World, Disney Production and everything Disney was carried on by Disney’s family and it has grown up to something that even Walt didn’t foresee and I’m looking forward to the same thing with Paul.

Photo provided by Mark Weiss

I just wanted to switch it up and ask how did playing with so many massive hard rock bands over the years help pave the way for what you do in Trans-Siberian Orchestra?

Pitrelli: [I’ve been] exploring different musical styles since I was a baby, starting out with The Beatles in 1964 falling in love with them and falling in love with music in general. I was part of the public school system and played in the orchestra and the wind ensemble and the jazz band and the choir. AM radio when I was kid wasn’t genre specific. I mean you just listened to everything and you learned to love everything for the fact that it was great music. Playing with Alice Cooper and Celine Dion or Megadeth and Dee Snider and Taylor Dayne, just like everything I’ve done in my career, I think was just getting me ready for everything that was to become TSO. Again it’s all styles, all genres rolled into one and whatever Paul wanted to create musically, whatever soundtrack he had in his head, I was just proud to be part of it and to be able to deliver what he needed because I have such a diverse background, as most of the people involved do. This isn’t a one trick pony. This isn’t one style. This is everything musical rolled into one and you never know what he’s going to throw at us, not only musically, but the production as well because it’s not traditional rock n’ roll concert arena lighting. It’s become something completely different because of the varied backgrounds that everybody comes from.

Beyond Christmas music, TSO’s catalog of original music is also growing. Has there been any consideration for doing another non-holiday tour and what have you enjoyed most about those projects?

Pitrelli: I enjoy touring. I mean I enjoy touring in the winter. I enjoy touring in the spring. I like taking breaks from that. I love to go into the recording studio. To be honest with you I don’t know how much chit-chat there’s been about spring tours or subsequent things like that right now because everything is so brand new to everybody involved that we just want dig in, get this winter tour rolling and then we’ll deal with everything else later on. Again, with Paul’s family manning the ship, I have all the confidence in the world that everything’s going to continue to move forward. I can only multitask so much. I just want the winter tour for this year to be extraordinary for many reasons, so that’s all I’m really worried about right now, as is most everybody else.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra performs at the Allstate Arena at 3pm and 8pm on Dec. 28. For additional details, visit, and