Al Pitrelli interview by Firewoman
March 15, 2010
Trans-Siberian Orchestra, long noted as the band that rings in the Christmas season, is hitting the road this spring with their first non-holiday tour. When guitarist/emcee Chris Caffery announced the tour during TSO’s winter shows, most fans assumed it would be in support of the new Night Castle CD. They were surprised to learn instead that it would cover the 2000 release, Beethoven’s Last Night.
Written by producer, composer and lyricist Paul O’Neill, Beethoven was TSO’s first non-Christmas rock opera. It’s the fictionalized story of Ludwig Von Beethoven on the night he finishes writing his Tenth Symphony. Fate and her son Twist visit the composer to tell him that this night will be his last. It’s then that Mephistopheles arrives to claim Beethoven’s soul. The devil offers Beethoven the opportunity to keep his soul, but the price will be having all of his music erased from mankind’s memory. While the composer considers the offer, Fate gives him the chance to review his life, making any changes he wishes. With every change Beethoven considers, Fate shows him that his music would be destroyed. Does Ludwig lose his soul? Will his music be lost forever? The opera offers an interesting answer.
Al Pitrelli, musical director and guitarist for TSO’s western tour, explained why the band chose to stage the decade-old opera now. “Paul wanted to have his vision of Beethoven come to life. It’s such a great story and such great music. It capitalizes on the great vocal qualities in the orchestra. We have such great singers, who, when they got in character for Beethoven in rehearsals, it really came to life.”
Night Castle won’t be forgotten. Fans familiar with the winter tour will recognize a similar format in the spring. The winter tour features Christmas Eve and Other Stories in the first half of the show, followed by selections from the band’s entire catalog. Pitrelli assures fans that Night Castle will be well represented in the second half.
Most similarities of the 2 tours end with the format. The winter tour often threatens to blow the roof from large arenas. Beethoven will be performed in small theaters, allowing for a much more intimate presentation of the character and vocal-driven opera. Pitrelli says, “These are a lot of the same rooms TSO first started in. For the band it’s extremely exciting because it’s going to be a lot more up-close and personal with the people who come to see us.”
For those accustomed to TSO’s bombastic productions of pyro, lasers and swinging trusses, Pitrelli says that Beethoven won’t disappoint. “It’s mind-boggling what Paul can pull off. He will do as much as he can humanly get away with in the building he’s given. It will be the most extravagant production people have witnessed, given the context of the buildings we’re playing.”
While the winter tour is split into eastern and western divisions in order to cover many cities in a limited time, this tour will combine musicians and singers from both. Fans from all parts of the country will get to see a wide variety of TSO band members. Eastern musicians include Chris Caffery on guitar, Johnny Lee Middleton on bass, drummer Jeff Plate and Vitalij Kuprij on keyboards. Vocalists Rob Evan, Jay Pierce, Danielle Landherr, Valentina Porter and narrator ….Bryan…. Hicks round out the eastern contingent.
From the west, Pitrelli will reprise his role on guitar, while his wife Jane Mangini will also be on keyboards, and Caitlin Moe will be the violinist. Vocalists include Andrew Ross and Jeff Scott Soto, who Pitrelli describes as having “a career that reads as a Who’s Who in rock and roll.”
During rehearsals, Pitrelli is also handling band production, while O’Neill and eastern musical director/keyboardist Bob Kinkel will be working with the singers in what Pitrelli describes as “a vocal-driven production filled with subtilties and nuances.”
It’s unusual to hear subtle and TSO used in the same context. Known for taking orchestral and operatic works of the great composers and tweeking them for the 21st century, what’s not unusual is seeing the names of band members listed beside the names of the great maestros of the past. It makes for a very diverse audience ranging from, as Pitrelli says, “a kid wearing a Megadeth t-shirt sitting next to his grandmother wearing a crocheted Christmas sweater.
“The band isn’t genre specific . . . we don’t write for a particular demographic. We didn’t realize when we started this that we would be exposing a whole new audience to these (Beethoven, Mozart, Rismky-Korsokov, etc.) works. We have kids who are now being exposed to them in a different setting, maybe inspiring them to pick up an instrument or listen to music they normally wouldn’t listen to.”
While most fans know TSO was born from Savatage’s 1995 release Dead Winter Dead, Pitrelli says the idea of the orchestra came much earlier. “Paul’s had the idea since 1975 or ’76. He may not have had the name, but he certainly knew he wanted to do something no one had done. He wanted to surround himself with great talent . . . great string players and 8 to 10 outstanding lead singers.” Having a large pool of vocalists is an integral part of TSO’s success. “We do things backwards from what a normal rock band would do. Paul writes the song and then casts the singer whose voice and interpretation works best for it.
“Pitrelli says O’Neill is very open to musical ideas from band members. “Paul surrounds himself with talented people and knows when to let those people contribute. Someone comes up with a musical idea . . . a riff . . . a concept, and if it fits into his world or the storyline he’s trying to compose, he takes it and runs with it. He’s a master of crafting songs.”
It’s not unusual for TSO to invite special guests on tour to further enhance shows. Past guests have included Paul Rodgers, Tommy Shaw, Jon Anderson, Geoff Tate and Joe Walsh, to name a few. Pitrelli isn’t sure what’s in store for the Beethoven tour, saying “I haven’t heard about anyone yet, but we still have a couple of weeks before we roll out. One of Paul’s gifts is that he never ceases to surprise me. I’ve learned to just follow him blindly.”
The special guests have allowed Pitrelli to work with some of his heroes. “One of the first songs I learned was the James Gang’s Walk Away. To sit in a dressing room with Joe Walsh and teach him my guitar parts from Christmas Eve Sarajevo was a surreal moment.” As for people he still has on his “performance wish list,” he says, “When I hear Gladys Knight sing, it gives me chills. And Greg Allman . . . one of my biggest influences growing up. Playing Melissa with Greg Allman would be something very special.” He adds, “I’m pretty satisfied with the run I’ve had for the past 30 years.”
Although TSO is becoming a year-round commitment, once the tour is over, he says “I’d bet the farm that within a couple of days some of us will get down to the production facility in Tampa and get to work on whatever it is Paul wants to do next.”
Past breaks from TSO have allowed Pitrelli to work on outside projects including O’2L. Even then, he’s not far from the orchestra’s influence. O’2L’s members include his wife Jane and “a couple of the guys from the TSO west tour . . . the west coast band without the tuxedos.”
He says that getting back to the stripped-down basics of the music is an enjoyable departure from the huge production that is TSO. “As a musician, playing clubs is where we cut our teeth. It keeps our chops sharp, and it keeps our heads clear as musicians.”
In the meantime, Beethoven will be performing to sold-out venues, playing 33 shows in 31 cities, and running through May 2. According to the TSO website, a planned European tour has been postponed until spring 2011 “due to logistical difficulties and the band’s desire to put out the best production possible.” While looking forward to a European tour, Pitrelli agrees with the decision. “First impressions and last impressions are the most important. After all these years of the European community hearing about (the show), the last thing we want to do is go over there and not do the best job we possibly can. We want to go over there and have the people say, ‘Oh, my god’.”
Pitrelli promises that with Beethoven, there will be something for everyone. Musically and visually it’s going to be enough of the familiar for people who are used to the Christmas tours, yet there will be enough new stuff to make it special.” Because this will be a blend of the east and west coast groups, he says there will be a noticeably different dynamic. “It’s so good, so tight, so ferocious that we’re thrilled just to play, never mind the bells and whistles going off over our heads. It’s going to be a terrific evening.”