Last year’s holiday tour by Trans-Siberian Orchestra may go down as the most important tour ever by the hugely popular combination rock band/orchestra. In April 2017, founder/main songwriter/guiding light Paul O’Neill passed away suddenly.
O’Neill had always intended for TSO to continue after he (and other key members of the TSO team) were gone. That may have been easier said than done, but TSO came through the 2017 tour with flying colors, as O’Neill’s wife, daughter and other core members of the operation (including musical director Al Pitrelli and drummer Jeff Plate) delivered the kind of visually spectacular and musically complex live production fans expected, as the two touring units of TSO filled arenas across the United States from mid-November through the end of the year.
It helped that Pitrelli and Plate, as well O’Neill’s family and members of the TSO crew, had been involved in bringing past holiday tours to life. It’s no small task considering that not only do the musicians have two and a half hours of music to play flawlessly, but TSO employs the biggest array of lighting, pyrotechnics and other special effects of any concert.
Pitrelli admitted there was pressure last year in getting the show ready to go on the road and to run seamlessly as it moved from arena to arena, sometimes with two performances a day. And then there were emotions to navigate.
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“I think it was probably one of the hardest years of our professional careers, (for) both Jeff and I and some of the other guys have been with Paul since 1993, ‘94. I got started with him in ‘95,” Pitrelli said. “I think sorrow and the pain that goes along with losing a loved one was prevalent with everybody, but also I think the task at hand was to say OK, well, Paul had always said ‘We want this thing to live long past all of us.’ I don’t think any of us were prepared for that to occur so soon, but we were kind of handed that task. And with his family steering the ship and their guidance, we kind of really hunkered down last year, even more so than usual, to make it the best it could possibly be.”
Now TSO is back for this year’s holiday tour, and Pitrelli and Plate are excited to get this year’s show on the road and continue honoring O’Neill’s work. Like last year’s outing, the first set of the show will feature a performance of 1999’s, “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve,” one of TSO’s four full-length holiday albums. “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” (1996), “The Christmas Attic” (1998) and “The Lost Christmas Eve” (2004) — the albums that formed a Christmas trilogy — are the others. “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve” made its debut as the centerpiece of TSO’s holiday concerts in 2016 — O’Neill’s final holiday tour with TSO — and the response to that opera made it obvious that it should return for a third year.
“When Paul put this show together (for the 2016 tour), he absolutely loved it, and it was one of his favorite shows,” Plate said. “Paul was extremely excited about it. The response to the show, and everything just seemed to have gone according to plan. It couldn’t have gone better. So I think, when we lost Paul, doing this show again was just a great way to honor Paul.
“We’ve also realized, too, that a lot of audience sees us for the first time every year,” he added. “And if you’ve ever seen TSO, you know every year we go out there with different production and the show itself is always going to be different, but the (“The Ghosts of Christmas Eve”) show has just gone over extremely well.”
One thing that wasn’t immediately clear following O’Neill’s death was if TSO would now become a touring-only entity. But steps are now being taken to further the musical side of O’Neill’s legacy.
When O’Neill passed, he left behind a wealth of material. Pitrelli and other members of the TSO team are now starting to finish what O’Neill started, hoping to add to an album catalog that, in addition to the Christmas albums, includes three non-holiday rock operas — “Beethoven’s Last Night” (2000), “Night Castle” (2009) and “Letters from the Labyrinth” (2015).
“There was a lot of material that Paul had written with his partner Jon Oliva, also stuff that Paul had written by himself and things that he had written with his daughter. There’s just so much material that hasn’t been recorded yet,” Pitrelli said. “We’ve been doing a lot of demos, a lot of maps, having some singers down, and there’s plenty of stuff taking shape, no releases in mind yet, nothing like that. I think the process, just to get back and start recording and start working on some of this material, I’m really glad that it’s starting to happen. And it’s exciting to see some of these things come to life. I mean, there are songs that we’ve been talking about for 15 years that now it’s like, OK, now they’re going to see the light of day.”
If you go
What: Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Bryce Jordan Center, University Park