Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s ‘Ghosts’ tour a familiar lights- and lasers-filled Christmas extravaganza

The group, affectionately known as TSO, returns to Allstate Arena with “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve — The Best of TSO and More.”

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Trans-Siberian Orchestra performs in concert in 2021. They bring their Christmas tour to the Allstate Arena in December for two shows.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra performs in concert in 2021. They bring their Christmas tour to the Allstate Arena in December for two shows.

Bob Carey

The holiday season is upon us, with observances in many forms. Festivities may include family and community dinners, a Hanukkah menorah, a Kwanzaa kinara, visits to Christkindlmarket in Daley plaza, or even a Festivus pole.

If, however, nothing completes your own joyous celebration better than dazzling lights and lasers, pyrotechnics, and Christmas carols delivered with thundering guitars, chances are you’re a fan of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The group, affectionately known as TSO, returns to the Allstate Arena on Dec. 21 with “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve — The Best of TSO and More.”

TSO began in 1996 as the brainchild of the late composer/producer Paul O’Neill, whose idea was to create a project that would push the boundaries of symphonic rock. The vision drew upon the theatricality of progressive rock bands like Pink Floyd and conceptual storytelling from rock operas like the Who’s “Tommy.” Broadway composers including Andrew Lloyd Webber and classical pieces like Carl Orff’s bombastic “O Fortuna” provided further inspiration. O’Neill enlisted members of the heavy metal band Savatage, including guitarist and TSO musical director Al Pitrelli.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

When: 3 and 8 p.m. Dec. 21

Where: Allstate Arena, 6920 N. Mannheim, Rosemont

Tickets: $49.50+

Info: ticketmaster.com

“Paul grew up in New York City seeing all styles of music at Madison Square Garden,” says Pitrelli, describing how touring acts would up the ante with elaborate productions when performing at the prestigious venue. “He said, ‘If ever given the opportunity, I’m going to put more into a show than anybody on God’s Earth has ever seen,’” says Pitrelli. TSO’s family-friendly spectacle has since been described as Christmas meets the Fourth of July.

Savatage’s “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” from the 1995 album “Dead Winter Dead” became TSO’s blueprint and remains an enduring touchstone. The song adapts familiar carols “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells.” O’Neill’s composition was inspired by Bosnian cellist Vedran Smailović, who performed during 1992’s siege of Sarajevo atop the rubble of his hometown in protest of civilian deaths due to a Serbian mortar round.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra guitarist/musical director Al Pitrelli says “people have embraced TSO as part of their holiday traditions.”

Trans-Siberian Orchestra guitarist/musical director Al Pitrelli says “people have embraced TSO as part of their holiday traditions.”

Courtesy of Trans-Siberian Orchestra

The song also marked Pitrelli’s first recording session with O’Neill and Savatage.

“Paul put the faders up, and I said, ‘What’s with the Christmas song, dude?’,” says Pitrelli. “He said, ‘It’s not really a Christmas song.’ He told the story so vividly that the hair on my arms stood up. I said, ‘Roll back and press record right now.’ That experience solidified our relationship on a personal level and musical level.”

Not long afterward, Savatage was touring Europe when the group learned it had an unexpected hit.

“We got a message on the road saying that ‘Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24’ was the No. 1 requested song in America,” says Pitrelli. “You know you’ve got a hit on your hands when they’re even playing it on talk radio.” O’Neill soon announced plans to write an entire album and story including the song. The project’s identity as Trans-Siberian Orchestra followed.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Christmas concert is awash in pyrotechnics, lights, lasers and plenty of thundering guitars. 

Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Christmas concert is awash in pyrotechnics, lights, lasers and plenty of thundering guitars.

Bob Carey

This year’s TSO tour (which features 101 shows) centers upon “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve,” which began as a 1999 television special including songs from TSO’s first two albums, “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” and “The Christmas Attic.” The storyline involves a prodigal child who longs for home on Christmas Eve and learns that it’s never too late to reconcile with loved ones. The expanded concert program, which includes holiday staples like “A Mad Russian’s Christmas” and “Wizards in Winter,” was first presented in 2015 and ran seasonally through 2018. The show has evolved, but Pitrelli emphasizes the importance of maintaining its core.

“When I was a kid, I had ’Miracle on 34th Street’ and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ” says Pitrelli. “People have embraced TSO as part of their holiday traditions. They want to hear the songs and fall in love with the story and characters again. Keeping those traditions intact is a huge responsibility. The beginning of the show is always different, and we’ll play songs we’ve never performed during the second set.” TSO is also developing 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 to TSO, and home to many longtime fans whom Pitrelli fondly calls his “repeat offenders.”

“There were seven cities on our first itinerary 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 eagerly anticipates his return.

“I love standing downstage center for the solo in ‘O Holy Night’ and staring up at that wooden ceiling,” says Pitrelli. “And after the second show at the Allstate, get me my Lou Malnati’s pizza! Once a year, that’s my guilty pleasure.”

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