Trans-Siberian Orchestra brings extravaganza to Pechanga

Published on April 2nd, 2021

By Jim Dail

What happens when you mix rock and roll, visual production, opera and the entire theatrical experience? You get the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, who will perform Friday at The Pechanga Showroom.

The group has sold millions of records and performed in front of more than ten million people on tours.

Their shows are not a musical experience, but an extravaganza of pyrotechnics, lights and lasers, along with a wide range of musical styles and talents.

It’s all connected to the vision of leader Paul O’Neill.

“Paul just keeps making good stuff, and I’ll take it,” said Al Pitrelli, one of the original collaborators of the orchestra. “I think it’s similar to the rock operas I saw as a kid. The first was ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ There was no speaking, just rock and roll that was pretty guitar-driven and aggressive.”

While Pitrelli loved it, his parents had a different idea.

“It scared my parents,” he said. “After ‘Kiss Alive’ came out, it made them ever more scared.”

O’Neill and Pitrelli both were influenced in the same ways.

“Paul and I both grew up in New York City where there were two of the most important institutions for performance and music,” he said. “There was Madison Garden and Broadway, so any given night we could see Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin or go up the street and see more theatrical things.”

As a result, O’Neil believes that influence has been the key to the entire success.

“The simple answer is it’s a culmination of influences,” he said. “The detailed answer to what has inspired all this is I have no idea. Paul is brilliant with songwriting and all the details. “

Those details and songwriting skills have paid off as the latest record, “Night Castle,” which was released in 2009 and quickly went gold. Next up for the band is a re-release of “Beethoven’s Last Night,” Including live performances of the songs.

Musically, it all began for Pitrelli when he was handed a trumpet.

“I grew up in the public system and in third grade I got a trumpet and my education began and then here came The Beatles in 1964,” he said. “When I saw them do their thing, that was it, much to my mom’s chagrin. See, back then I could either play the trumpet or play football, and I was too small to play football.”

As a result, he began to study music.

“I was reading the orchestral pieces and performing in all the various school bands,” he said. “Little did I know that I’d learn about scores and production and be able to transpose music.  It became important.”

“Night Castle” is a collection of 26 songs that tell an interwoven story featuring chorale, operatic and rock themes. The project took years to complete, but there is a simple explanation.

“I really couldn’t tell you exactly how long it took because I’m always working on demos and I’ve never stopped working, which is a good thing,” he said. “The simple answer is that you are not talking about an 8-9 song record like first Bad Company record. The album is a story and it can take a long time to write it.”

O’Neill works to get a lot of input and get people involved.

“Every time he finds a new vocalist, he needs a new song with that person on vocals,” he said. “It takes a long time to start recording a song and then breaking for five months for a tour. We start rehearsals in August. Then you are talking about 80 people in the band. Paul’s very generous and wants everyone to have a sense of ownership. It’s not like he was listening to a song for 6 months and obsessing over it!”

 The process begins with a little roundtable.

“Paul comes up with an idea and he relates it to myself, [Jon] Oliva, Bob [Kinkel] and  [Dave] in the studio when ideas thrown around,” he said.  “He has all this stuff in his head, and what makes him such a good boss is that he wants to open up the ideas to outside thoughts. That’s kind of where it starts.”

From there it is a set of demos with drum machines, keyboards, guitars and maybe bass.

“Nothing has really changed since the ‘70s,” he said. “Back then we ran tape and now we run computer. We play with the track and then bring in others to play. All of a sudden, we get the outline of a song and then Paul can take it from there.”

In the case of “Night Castle,” the songs center around the theme of a young girl and a mysterious stranger who meet on a beach in California.

“A good song is a good song and it should come together pretty fast,” he said. “I get a lot of ideas, but I don’t stare at it for months. When it’s time for it to come to fruition, it will. I’ve put song demos down and gave them to Paul and seven years later he will mention it to me about how it will work. I may have long forgotten it at that point.”

One thing that Pitrelli points out is the sheer artistic talent of O’Neill, as well as the dedication to something more than just making money.

“When I first started working with Paul, there was no money,” he said. “He bought me a cheeseburger!”

But he was immediately impressed.

“He showed me what he had and it was breathtaking and awesome, but I didn’t think anyone would buy it,” he said. “I mean you don’t write a rock opera about Bosnia, but it worked.”

For Pitrelli it’s further proof that you have to stay true to who you are.

“You have to be truthful and be honest, just like everything else you do,” he said.

And what is truthful is the fact that the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is appealing to all walks of life and all ages.

“When you see 18,000 people out there and three different generations of people having a good time, you will never forget the smiles on their faces,” he said. “I’m not there to just perform a bunch of notes but to have an experience.”

In some ways, the show is not just entertainment but a learning experience.

“Paul is so big on education,  taking a  year old kid and  telling them its ok to listen to put the cellphone down and listen to Chopin and ‘Moonlight Sonata,” he said. “Every day of your life you can learn something or create something. My dad, who was a political science professor, used to tell me I can teach a monkey this stuff, but its’ hard to give them something they can take with them and apply it. Great artists can make a statement that reaches people.”


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