Chicago Christmas Shows: Trans-Siberian Orchestra Extravaganza Heads to Allstate Arena
The festive season is upon us, with celebrations in many forms. Festivities can include family and community dinners, a Hanukkah menorah, a Kwanzaa kinara, visits to Christkindlmarket in Daley Square, or even a Festivus pole.
If, however, nothing complements your own joyous celebration better than dazzling lights and lasers, pyrotechnics and Christmas carols accompanied by blaring guitars, chances are you’re a fan of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The group, affectionately known as TSO, returns to the Allstate Arena on December 21 with “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve – The Best of TSO and More.”
TSO was founded in 1996 by the late composer/producer Paul O’Neill, whose idea was to create a project that would push the boundaries of symphonic rock. The vision was inspired by the theatricality of progressive rock bands like Pink Floyd and the conceptual storytelling of rock operas like Who’s “Tommy.” Broadway composers, including Andrew Lloyd Webber, and classic pieces like Carl Orff’s bombastic “O Fortuna” provided further inspiration. O’Neill enlisted members of the heavy metal band Savatage, including TSO guitarist and musical director Al Pitrelli.
“Paul grew up in New York seeing all styles of music in Madison Square Garden,” says Pitrelli, describing how tours would raise the bar with elaborate productions when performing at the prestigious venue. “He said, ‘If I’m ever given the chance, I’m going to put more into a show than anyone in God’s Land has ever seen,'” Pitrelli says. TSO’s family show has since been described as Christmas meets July 4th.
Savatage’s “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” from 1995’s “Dead Winter Dead” album became TSO’s blueprint and remains an enduring touchstone. The song adapts familiar chants “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells”. O’Neill’s composition was inspired by Bosnian cellist Vedran Smailović, who performed during the 1992 siege of Sarajevo atop the rubble of his hometown to protest the death of civilians from a mortar shell Serbian.
The song also marked Pitrelli’s first recording session with O’Neill and Savatage.
“Paul brought up the faders, and I said, ‘What’s that Christmas song, man? “, Pitrelli said. “He said, ‘It’s not really a Christmas song.’ He told the story so vividly that the hairs on my arms stood on end. I said, “Go back and hit save right now.” This experience solidified our relationship on a personal and musical level.
Shortly after, Savatage was touring Europe when the band learned they were having an unexpected hit.
“We got a message on the road that ‘Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24’ was the #1 requested song in America,” Pitrelli said. “You know you’ve got a hit on your hands when they even play it on talk radio.” O’Neill soon announced plans to write an entire album and story including the song. The project’s identity as the Trans-Siberian Orchestra followed.
This year’s TSO tour (which includes 101 shows) centers on “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve,” which began as a 1999 TV special featuring songs from TSO’s first two albums, “Christmas Eve and Other Stories.” and “The Christmas Attic”. The story involves a prodigal son who longs to return home on Christmas Eve and learns that it’s never too late to reconcile with his loved ones. The expanded concert schedule, which includes holiday staples like “A Mad Russian’s Christmas” and “Wizards in Winter,” first premiered in 2015 and ran seasonally through 2018. has evolved, but Pitrelli stresses the importance of maintaining its core.
“When I was a kid, I had ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,'” Pitrelli says. “People have embraced TSO as part of their holiday traditions. They want to hear the songs and fall in love with the story and the characters all over again. Keeping these traditions intact is a huge responsibility. The beginning of the show is always different and we will play songs that we have never performed in the second set. TSO also develops new material.
Throughout its touring career, TSO has donated a portion of every ticket sold to charities in host cities. Chicago-based organizations have included food banks and arts programs in public schools.
Chicago is an important city for TSO and is home to many long-time fans whom Pitrelli affectionately calls his “repeat offenders.”
“There were seven cities on our first route in 1999, and Chicago was one of them,” says Pitrelli. Since 2003, TSO has made 18 visits for 33 performances at the Allstate Arena. The guitarist is eagerly awaiting his return.
“I love standing center stage for the solo on ‘O Holy Night’ and looking at that wooden ceiling,” says Pitrelli. “And after the second show at the Allstate, bring me my Lou Malnati pizza!” Once a year is my guilty pleasure.