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Trans-Siberian Orchestra adapts, improvises, overcomes with virtual show

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Wednesday, December 16, 2020

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As the COVID-19 pandemic threatened and ultimately curtailed Trans-Siberian Orchestra's annual U.S. tour, the words of the project's late founder Paul O'Neill echoed in the head of guitarist and musical director Al Pitrelli.

"Paul told us a long time ago — you adapt, you improvise, you overcome," Pitrelli, who's been part of TSO since its beginnings in 1996 and usually leads its West touring company, says by phone from his home in Pennsylvania. "So that's what we're doing."

In lieu of the tour — which played to nearly a million people in 109 shows last year — TSO has, like so many of its peers, gone virtual. Members of the group's two touring companies gathered in Nashville to film "Christmas Eve and Other Stories Live in Concert," which begins streaming on Friday, Dec. 18. The production features the entirety of TSO's triple-platinum 1996 rock opera, narrated by Bryan Hicks, along with "one or two other songs, maybe more, some surprises," according to Pitrelli.

It's a different way to spend the season, but Pitrelli and his bandmates would rather focus on the silver lining than the COVID cloud.

"The way I look at it, at least I get a swing at the plate this year. At least we get to do something," Pitrelli, 58, notes. "This year more than ever before it's so important to join together and celebrate this tradition. Everything else has been stripped away from us. Paul's story has always been about missing somebody, and this year more than ever, when a lot of families are suffering horrible losses due to this pandemic, it resonates even more than ever.

"So for 90 minutes we can all be together, in front of the fireplace in the living room or wherever, and shake the world off your shoulders for a little while and feel like it's the holiday for a little while."

And TSO has certainly become part of the annual holiday tradition in the United States — and especially in metro Detroit, where it's played every year starting with the Detroit Opera House and then moving on to The Palace of Auburn Hills and Little Caesars Arena.

The troupe has released three Christmas-themed concept albums along with three other studio records and an EP. The single "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24," first recorded by TSO predecessor Savatage, is a gold-certified contemporary holiday staple. On the road, meanwhile, TSO's two companies have played to more than 17 million fans since it began touring in 1999 with pyrotechnic-filled spectacles featuring state-of-the-art staging and special effects.

O'Neill, in fact, used to joke that "all these manufacturers, when they come up with something new we get the first call, ’cause they know I'll say yes — and take two!"

Pitrelli promises the virtual concert will not shirk from that tradition, either — although no pyro was used for this production.

"All the bells and whistles will be well-represented," he says of the "Herculean undertaking." "If they could kill the virus with pyro, they should let us tour the world."

Pitrelli and other TSO principles were at the company's headquarters studio in Tampa, Fla., back in March, working on "Romanov: When Kings Must Whisper" — a rock opera about the 1917 Russian Revolution that was one of several ideas O'Neill was working on at the time of his death in 2017 — when the pandemic began to take hold.

"I was in the (producer's) chair with everybody, 'OK, let's make some new music!'" Pitrelli recalls. "Then somebody had the TV on and was like, 'Hey, are you watching this?' and then we got the call to close down the studio for a week and have everybody go back home and ride this out.

"So we did that ... but the idea we might not go out (on tour) was just surreal. I could never get my head around it. We've never canceled a show, never been late for a show. The thought of canceling a tour was beyond comprehension — but so is a lot of stuff that's happened this year."

Pitrelli and team TSO are hoping that encouraging news about vaccines will allow TSO to be back on the road in 2021 for a 25th anniversary tour, and back in the studio even earlier next year. He's filled the rest of his year staying home, helping to home school his daughters and getting to watch an entire football season — though his favored New York Jets went winless through the first 11 weeks.

"It's the first time I've been home for Halloween in ... I can't remember," Pitrelli says with a laugh. "There's a lot of things I'm just not used to, but that's how it is. What this has taught me is to enjoy each one of those moments and not take anything for granted.

"It's different, but everything in the world is different. Different is all we have now."

Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Christmas Eve and Other Stories Live in Concert" streams at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 18. Tickets are $30 with bundled packages also available via tsolivestream.com.

Web Site: www.tsolivestream.com

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