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Trans-Siberian Orchestra brings Beethoven to life

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Guitarist Al Pitrelli's built quite an impressive rock resume over his career, performing and recording with such artists as Alice Cooper, Megadeth, Asia, Savatage and Michael Bolton.

But it's Pitrelli's latest gig, as guitarist and one of the musical supervisors of Paul O'Neill's Trans-Siberian Orchestra, that has him excited about getting up every morning.

"When I walk into a venue on the night of a show and see the stage set up, it's like I'm a 14-year-old kid all over again," Pitelli said as TSO prepared for its "Beethoven's Last Night" tour stop at the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center on Friday. "I get the same rush, and my blood pressure races just like it did when I was a kid getting ready to go to an Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd concert."

The New-York-born Pitrelli was raised on Southern rock, but it was his brash insistence that he be given a shot at recording with Bolton that eventually landed him the gig with O'Neill and TSO.

"A lot of people don't realize that back in '84 and '85 when he was first getting started, Michael Bolton was a headbanger, like a Sammy Hagar," Pitrelli said. "I went out of my way to track him down and ask for a job. One of the guys that I ran into at that time was Paul O'Neill, and we ended up becoming good friends. Paulie was working with Aerosmith at the time, and he told me 'One day we're going to work together.'

"Ten years later he called and said he needed me to work with him on Savatage's 'Christmas Eve in Sarajevo 12/24' and that song just lit up the airwaves. I knew right then the guy was onto something. The stars all aligned, and that was actually the birth of TSO."

O'Neill, Pitrelli and the other singers, musicians and technicians who are part of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra have turned the act into one of the most popular -- and unique -- in the world. Not bad for a franchise that combines theatrics with elements of classical and heavy metal music.

"When Paulie first came to me with his idea, my reaction was, 'What's wrong with you?'" Petrelli said. "This was 1995; heavy metal was dead, grunge was all the rage and rap had taken over the music industry. I told the guy 'I'll walk through fire for you and play guitar for you on anything you want,' but I knew there wasn't any money to be made. I figured I'd get maybe a thousand bucks and a couple of cheeseburgers out of the deal.

"That was 10 million records ago. Kind of goes to show you that part of Paulie's genius is not listening to people who don't know what they're talking about."

O'Neill's Trans-Siberian Orchestra has sold more than 10 million copies of the ensemble's rock operas "Christmas Eve & Other Stories," "The Christmas Attic," "Beethoven's Last Night," "The Long Christmas Eve" and "Night Castle." TSO has sold even more concert tickets over its 14 years, finishing 2010 with the seventh-highest grossing tour of the year.

Pollstar magazine declared TSO the No. 20 act among the top tours of the last decade.

"Our winter tour has become an annual part of people's holiday seasons," Pitrelli said of TSO's wildly popular Christmas-themed music, which typically recharts each year in the months around the holidays. "We all appreciate that, but there is so much great music in all the stuff we do.

"I love the fact that we'll have several generations of fans at our shows. And there are musical elements for all kinds of audiences.

There have been some really classical people who've snubbed their noses at us, but that's a disservice to the music we create. My comment to people like that is 'Come to the show, listen to what we do, and then if you loathed it, you're entitled to your opinion.' Most of the criticism, though, comes from people who haven't actually listened to us or seen a show. We pay respects to the great masters of music."

TSO will do that in Tallahassee Friday when they bring "Beethoven's Last Night" to life. Fans will get a mix of works by Beethoven and Mozart, as well as elements of rock opera that make the Trans-Siberian Orchestra the ultimate musical experience.

Tickets for the show are still available at the Tallahassee Civic Center box office, at Ticketmaster outlets or online at ticketmaster.com.