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Trans-Siberian Orchestra an integral part of the holiday season

| Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Jason Douglas McEachern
Trans-Siberian Orchestra

On April, Trans-Siberian Orchestra as fans have known it, changed forever.

That was the day Paul O'Neill, the founder of the combination progressive rock band and orchestra, passed away from an accidental reaction to prescribed medications he'd been taking. As the main songwriter and the man who developed the stories and concepts behind each album from TSO, the group's future was altered with O'Neill's passing.

But Al Pitrelli, who serves as musical director for one of the two TSO units that bring the band's Christmas tours to arenas nationwide (Derek Wieland heads up the other unit), said fans won't see TSO fade away any time soon.

Pitrelli (as well as songwriting collaborator Jon Oliva) has been involved since the early days of TSO. The group was designed to carry on without O'Neill or any of its main music contributors. The group was not based around a frontman or primary instrumentalist. Instead, O'Neill cast musicians, and especially singers, to fit whatever song he was writing.

The idea was anyone was replaceable, and at the very least, TSO would be able to continue doing its annual Christmas tours — easily the biggest and most popular holiday tour that goes out each season — for many years to come. The tour comes to Pittsburgh's PPG Paints Arena for two shows on Dec. 22.

What isn't so certain is the future of several album projects that were in progress when O'Neill passed away. Pitrelli expects that with Oliva and O'Neill's wife, Desiree, involved, these projects will come to fruition.

“There are a few records that we had been recording. Maybe we're halfway done, 60 percent done, things like that,” Pitrelli says, mentioning the rock operas “Romanoff: When Kings Must Whisper,” “Streets: A Rock Opera” and “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, (TSO) 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.

What TSO accomplished during O'Neill's life was already impressive and quite unique within the music industry.

The seeds of the project started to sprout when O'Neill came on board to produce the rock band Savatage, which at the time included Oliva, Pitrelli and Robert Kinkel.

O'Neill already had the idea of combining a rock band and orchestra to make rock operas, with many of the stories drawn from historical figures and events. Atlantic Records bought into O'Neill's vision and gave him the finances and creative freedom to turn his ideas into reality.

O'Neill first hit paydirt by breaking into the Christmas market with the elaborate albums “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” in 1996, followed by “The Christmas Attic” in 1998. The first album eventually became a triple-platinum hit, while “The Christmas Attic” has gone double platinum. The trilogy was completed with the double-platinum “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve” in 2004.

In 1999, TSO did its first holiday tour, playing arenas right and treating fans not only to its music, but delivering an innovative, eye-popping show filled with pyrotechnics, lighting effects and other visual bells and whistles that almost made a Kiss concert seem stark by comparison.

This year's concert will be anchored by a performance of the compilation album “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve: The Best of TSO and More.” Considering that many of the performers and production people working on this year's tour have been involved for many years, fans can expect the live show to deliver the musical favorites and visual spectacle that has always defined the holiday tour and kept fans filling arenas year after year.

“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,” Pitrelli says. “This is something that people 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.”

Alan Sculley is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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