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Trans-Siberian Orchestra continues after founder and leader's death

By Gary Graff
ggraff@digitalfirstmedia.com, @GraffonMusic on Twi

Posted: Friday, December 22, 2017

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The show is going on for Trans-Siberian Orchestra this holiday season.

But it’s not easy.

The symphonic rock outfit best known for its Christmas-themed albums and tours was rocked by two losses this year. Most devastating was the death of co-founder and visionary Paul O’Neill in April at the age of 61 from a reaction to prescription medicines treating a variety of chronic illnesses. Three months later, bassist David Zablidowsky was killed in a traffic accident while on tour with one of his other bands, Adrenaline Mob.

TSO is nevertheless back on the road this year with its The Ghosts of Christmas Eve tour, and guitarist and musical director Al Pitrelli says it’s because O’Neill established the project as a machine that was built to last even in the absence of its key component.

“Paul always said he wanted this to live long past all of us,” Pitrelli, 55 — a TSO principal since its founding during 1996 — says by phone. “Long after we leave the planet he wanted the next several generations to run it and carry on, let the art live forever. That was always our definition of heaven, how people remember you 100 years down the road. If they’re still talking about us positively, then we did our jobs.

“We want the Orchestra to live forever. We know we’re not going to live forever. So it was never a question of Will we carry on? The big question was, OK, HOW will we carry on?”

In doing that, the surviving brain trust of TSO adopted a slogan of its own.

“In a post-Paul world what was once a monarchy is now a democracy, and the democracy is based on one ideal — ‘What would Paul do?’” Pitrelli explains. “We always keep that at the front of every sentence — ‘OK, what would Paul do here? How would he perceive this? What would he think?’ We’ve made some pretty big decisions of late, and that was what we would ask each other and everybody else involved.

“What I’m proud of most right now is that everybody in the hierarchy of the organization has put their egos and their personal thoughts aside to do that.”

O’Neill’s legacy is a musical behemoth that’s become a holiday tradition, at least in North America, and has spread to other parts of the globe, as well. Pitrelli, vocalist Jon Oliva and keyboardist Bob Kinkel were all part of Savatage, a band that O’Neill produced, and joined him in his desire to create lavish conceptual works.

Following the 1996 single “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24,” TSO has released seven albums — four of them Christmas rock operas, and four certified platinum or better — and an EP. Its last release, 2015’s “Letters From The Labyrinth,” was TSO’s first nonconceptual collection.

On top of that, TSO’s annual holiday tours have been box office successes, grossing $625 million and playing to more than 14 million people since 1999. During 2016, TSO played to 975,000, and tour attendance has been up 15 percent each of the last three years. The group has also raised money for local charities by donating $1 per ticket sold.

“To stop would be like taking the air out of my lungs,” Pitrelli says. “You might as well box me up and bury me right next to (O’Neill). This is one of our children, and the children live on when the parents die.”

Nevertheless, Pitrelli calls going out in the wake of O’Neill’s death “the most horrific feeling I’ve experienced since my father died, on a personal level.”

“Paul was my other best friend and my big brother and the guy who basically created an empire I was fortunate enough to be put in charge of, musically,” he says.

TSO pays tribute to O’Neill each night with its performance of “The Safest Way Into Tomorrow” from TSO’s 2009 album “Night Castle.”

Meanwhile, Pitrelli and the rest of the TSO creative team and management are grappling with what to do with projects O’Neill left unfinished, Pitrelli estimates there are up to five in motion and in some degree of completion. Before his death O’Neill spoke about “Romanov: When Kings Must Whisper,” about the 1917 Russian Revolution, and “The Pat of the Fairytale Moon,” among others. He also hoped to create stage productions for nonholiday TSO albums such as “Night Castle” and “Letters From The Labyrinth,” and to adapt at least one of the works into a Broadway musical.

“Nobody has given that too much thought because it was first dealing with, ‘Omigod, what’s happened to our world?!,’” Pitrelli explains. “I think the conversations about the other (projects) are just starting to happen now that we’ve booked the dates and everybody exhaled and went, ‘Oh, great, they’re coming around again.’

“It’s a little different going into the production facility in Tampa without him being there; The walls are there, the staff is still there, the music is still on the computer. But it’s different now. I don’t want to go forward without Paul, I just don’t have a choice in the matter, so we will go forward.”

• If You Go: Trans-Siberian Orchestra performs at 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 23, in Little Caesars Arena, 2645 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $42.50-$72.50. Call 313-471-7000 or visit 313Presents.com.

Web Site: www.313Presents.com

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