Every year when the holidays roll around, pop culture watchers can count on a few things: decorations appear seemingly overnight, Santa Claus sets up shop at at the local mall, and Trans Siberian Orchestra begins a whirlwind schedule of live concert dates across the country. Launched in 1996 by Paul O’Neill, TSO combines the power and spectacle of an arena-scale rock show with the pageantry and sentimentality of a Broadway extravaganza.
The TSO concept developed from an unlikely source. Progressive metal band Savatage was in the midst of making its ninth release, Dead Winter Dead. A concept album set against the backdrop of the then-current Bosnian War, it featured a suite of songs by producer O’Neill and keyboardist Jon Oliva. Fresh from a stint with progressive rockers Asia, guitarist Al Pitrelli had recently joined the group. When Pitrelli first heard “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24),” he asked O’Neill, “what’s with the Christmas song?”
O’Neill provided context about the juxtaposition of war and holiday celebration, and Pitrelli was immediately won over. “Then a couple of DJs got their hands on it,” Pitrelli recalls. “It was a lightning strike; we knew we had a hit on our hands.” He recalls O’Neill telling him, “I’m going to write an entire record around that song.” With Pitrelli as lead guitarist and musical director, Trans Siberian Orchestra was born.
Between 1996’s Christmas Eve and Other Stories and 2015’s Letters from the Labyrinth, TSO would release nine albums; there have been several DVDs as well. But especially since O’Neill’s death in 2017, Trans Siberian Orchestra’s primary focus has been its elaborate stage show.
Having a musical character so closely associated with Christmas means that TSO’s touring calendar is packed into a seven-week period between mid-November and New Year’s Eve. But the sustained popularity of the show means that demand outpaces what one band could possibly achieve. “In ‘99 we did our first tour: seven cities,” Pitrelli recalls. In the wake of that tour’s success, the next year saw the band expand to what Pitrelli calls “the 13 colonies.” That run brought sold-out shows most everywhere, and TSO started getting inquiries from promoters wanting to book shows in Texas, Arizona and California.
Pitrelli recalls O’Neill telling him, “There’s physically no way one band can do it.” So O’Neill said that he would keep the band on the Eastern seaboard: “Al, start calling up your friends. You’ll take the band everywhere else.” Starting in 2001, TSO was actually two complete groups. “They’re as identical as two rock ‘n’ roll bands can be,” says Pitrelli. “Visually, they’re identical. Same production, same set list.” Allowing the top-flight musicians and vocalists a bit of personal musical expression among the tight choreography, Pitrelli says that the two lineups are “a solid 95% musically identical. And as long as we’re executing Paul’s material respectfully and properly, I’m happy.”
The band came off the road after its last show of its most recent run on December 30. And while most all of the musicians have other gigs – Pitrelli is still busy with Savatage, who have a new album due in 2024 – TSO doesn’t go dormant with the end of the holiday season. “We start talking about the next tour by the second or third week in January,” he says. Production, route planning, set design and writing of new songs all commence shortly thereafter. “By the summertime, we have a good outline” of the next season’s show,” he says.
Throughout the fall, sectional groups of singers and players begin rehearsals. And in October, the entire cast and crew convene in Omaha, Nebraska. “We put it all together there,” Pitrelli says. “And we run the entire show twice a day, every day, to make sure that everything works.”
And with a show that features split-second timing of lights, pyrotechnics and other visuals, precision is key. But because humans are involved, there’s always an element of spontaneity, of things going not-quite-perfectly. “Every so often,” Pitrelli admits, “something will go sideways.” But he insists that the audience will never know the difference.
“It’s not about presenting songs,” Pitrelli emphasizes. “It’s about bringing a story to life.” When an audience member sees a performer onstage delivering a lyric, Pitrelli doesn’t want them to see a TSO singer. “He wants them to feel, “That’s the father in the story, pleading for the safe return of his baby girl.” Al Pitrelli believes that in the end, TSO’s appeal is universal. “If you want to be great at something, remain accessible but never become banal,” he says. “And that’s a perfect way to describe the magic that is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, because everybody gets it.”