TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA Guitarist AL PITRELLI - "We Weren't Coming Out Of The Gate To Be A Christmas Tradition"

December 16, 2006, 10 years ago

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The following article appeared on The Oklahoman's official website on December 15th:

Band's Album Yields Holiday Ritual

By Gene Triplett

The members of Trans-Siberian Orchestra never intended to become typecast as a Christmas band, limited to unpacking their instruments and stage lights once a year like so many seasonal decorations stored in a dusty attic throughout spring, summer and fall.

But since a 1996 debut album of orchestral rock called Christmas Eve and Other Stories went all multi-platinum shiny, sales-wise, and made them the biggest yuletide harbinger since Macy's parade, they've been stuck with the holiday gig. And since TSO first took their own musical Christmas pageant on the road in 1999, playing shows that combine the arena-rock spectacle of Pink Floyd and the musical splendor of Queen with traditional Christmas classics and their own prog-rock originality, they have become December dynamite, ranking as the top-grossing and best-attended annual tour of 2005.

When they sweep through the Ford Center tonight like a bracing sonic snowstorm, it will be before a sold-out crowd of more than 13,000. And co-founder/composer/lead guitarist Al Pitrelli doesn't mind that a bit.

"Yeah, go figure,” he said in a phone interview last week. "This is just a goofy idea about 10 years ago that turned into this. ... And here we are, you and I, 10 years later, having a conversation. I'm sitting in Portland, Ore., at the Rose Garden Arena. It's sold out tonight, and I can't believe it. It's the same everywhere. Everywhere.”

The "goofy idea” came from producer/composer Paul O'Neill, who hired session man Pitrelli in 1995 to play on an album by the progressive-metal band Savatage.

"They were doing an album called Dead Winter Dead, and I went in and met with Paul and listened to some of the music and really enjoyed it,” Pitrelli recalls. "It was kind of heavy, a rock opera. It was a story built around a song called ‘Christmas Eve Sarajevo', which is kind of a sound track based on the war in Yugoslavia, years ago.”

'Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)', written by O'Neill, Savatage singer Jon Oliva and keyboardist Robert Kinkel, was a holiday-inspired instrumental with a rock 'n' roll edge, combining the melodies of 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' and 'Carol Of The Bells' with new, original music. Upon the album's release in October 1995, a Tampa, Fla., deejay named Mason Dixon took a shine to the "Sarajevo” track and added it to his station's adult contemporary programming. At the same time, a Top 40 station in New York City started spinning it as well. As the holiday season loomed, the song suddenly became a hit, grabbing airplay in diverse radio formats from classical to pop, and heavy metal to adult rock.

"It was the No. 1 requested song in America for that Christmas season,” Pitrelli said. "So Paul said, ‘You know what? I think we should write an entire record around this one song, and let's not call it Savatage, 'cause that'll paint us in a corner, calling it a heavy metal band, considering our demographic is anything but that.'”

Indeed, the stately rock opera that O'Neill, Oliva, Kinkel and Pitrelli concocted Christmas Eve and Other Stories (1996), eventually went double platinum, appealing to music lovers "from 7 to 70,” as did the rest of Trans-Siberian Orchestra's tinsel-y trilogy, The Christmas Attic (1998) and The Last Christmas Eve (2004). And true to O'Neill's vision, their majestic music incorporated something for everyone — a fusion of rock, classical, pop, folk, Broadway and R&B.;

To duplicate the symphonic grandeur of their studio work on the live stage, the basic six-member band — Pitrelli on guitar, his wife Jane Mangini on piano, drummer John O'Reilly, bassist Johnny Lee Middleton, guitarist Angus Clark and various players filling a second keyboard seat — is supported by eight vocalists, a narrator, eight string players (recruited in each community), and a concertmaster.

An additional 65 crew members tag along to handle sound, rigging, KISS-style pyrotechnics and the band's massive, Pink Floyd-ian light show.

"They're the real heroes on the road,” Pitrelli said. "They're the ones who are able to get this behemoth in and out of the building in a timely fashion so we can actually do our job.”

Since going live on the road in '99, demand has required TSO to split into two separate troupes, the West Coast band, which includes Pitrelli, and the East Coast version.

"So there's basically a mirror image of this traveling around the 13 colonies,” he said.

Pitrelli is hard-put to explain the band's monumental success, aside from the universal appeal of traditional music mixed with modern pop elements, and positive messages of faith, hope, love and good will conveyed in O'Neill's lyrics.

He's quick to note that the band's single non-Christmas album, Beethoven's Last Night (2000), sold well, and the band is working on another mistletoe-free album, Night Castle, which they hope to have out by June.

"We weren't coming out of the gate to be a Christmas tradition,” Pitrelli said. "We wanted to be able to go out and tour year-round. That (first) record just exploded, and now that's part of what we do. Now the Christmas story's become so huge that it basically occupies most of our time.”

For now, however, Pitrelli and his bandmates are happy to spread their special brand of holiday cheer, while donating to charity a dollar of every ticket sold.

"What I think, in my humble opinion, is that we made a record that we believed in,” Pitrelli said. "We weren't trying to jump on the trends that were going on. We just wrote a record that we love, and when you listen to that record, there's nothing fraudulent about it. We wrote a record that we love.”

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