SALT LAKE CITY — In a war-torn Sarajevo, a lone cellist went to the town square that had been reduced to rubble, took out his cello and performed classical music as war raged around him.
This real-life act during the height of the Bosnian War in the early 1990s served as the inspiration for Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s mega-hit “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24),” according to TSO music director and lead guitarist Al Pitrelli.
“It wasn’t a Christmas song per se,” Pitrelli told the Deseret News. “It was a soundtrack about something that was (happening) on Christmas Eve during a very tumultuous time. (The song) hit the radio and it changed the world immediately, and that’s when (we said), ‘OK, we’re going to build something around this song, this emotion.’ And that was 22 years ago.”
TSO has since become a holiday staple, and the group is preparing to bring its blend of classical music, rock and pyrotechnics to Vivint Arena on Nov. 21. And while TSO has been presenting its elaborate shows for 22 years, their performances this year will take on new meaning in light of two recent tragedies that have hit the group. In April, founder Paul O’Neill passed away at age 61 from what appears to have been an unintentional prescription drug overdose. And in July, TSO's longtime bassist David Zablidowsky died in a highway accident in Florida. Pitrelli spoke about the past year, O’Neill and TSO’s upcoming Salt Lake concert in a recent interview.
Pitrelli was on board the moment his late friend told him about TSO. The story behind “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)” especially resonated with him as he had traveled to Yugoslavia in 1990 as a guitarist for Alice Cooper — a unique gig that prepared him for TSO in more ways than one.
“I had been in the town square that the song was kind of supposed to be about,” Pitrelli said. “I had been through the city; the outdoor arenas that I played were reduced to rubble in the war. So I got it. It’s bizarre how lives cross paths — I guess my relationship with Paul was just destined to be. There’s no doubt about it.”
Pitrelli added that working with Alice Cooper also introduced him to the theatrics behind rock music — a feat TSO delivers on the regular.
“When Alice would put on the straight jacket, he was no longer like a singer in a band, he was the character in the insane asylum,” Pitrelli said. “I found that fascinating. Because there would be some nights I’d be on the stage and I’d look over at him and it’s like, ‘This dude is not really with us.’”
TSO formed a few years later, and throughout the group’s two-decade history, Pitrelli has always admired O’Neill’s dedication to the music and energy of the band’s shows.
“(Our music) got everybody's attention because it was honest and it was real,” Pitrelli said. “Paul taught me all those years ago, ‘Don’t worry about money or commercial success or all that stuff — just pay attention to art and hopefully everything else will fall into place.’ I loved working with Paul so much.”
And while O’Neill’s death makes performing bittersweet, it also instills in TSO a desire to make each show count in an effort to carry on the founder’s legacy.
“On a professional note, we’re out there and we’re doing our job. It’s better than it was last year, it’s bigger than it was last year and last year was pretty good. So the trajectory is the same. I mean, on a personal level, oh gosh, every note that I play means a little bit more to me. 'Cause I’ll be playing a song and it’ll take me back to when we recorded it or when Paul would throw a pencil at me,” Pitrelli said with a laugh. “There’s a lot of history and a lot of memories that are running through my brain, but Paul taught me to compartmentalize things. I don’t want to bring anything on stage that isn’t going to make the show better. It’ll be on the side of the stage waiting for me when I leave the stage. But while I’m on that stage, every note that I play will be a tribute to my best friend and the man who created this.”
Pitrelli is looking forward to returning to the Beehive State with a bigger show in tow, noting that Salt Lake City was the first place TSO ever performed an afternoon show. He assures fans that the Vivint Arena show includes more lights, more pyro and more lasers.
“More is good,” he said. “If anybody ever walked out of an arena this year and said, 'Last year was better,’ it would break my heart. Because that means I did not do my job to the best of my ability and while I’m still breathing that’s not going to happen.”
If you go
What: Trans-Siberian Orchestra
When: Tuesday, Nov. 21, 4 and 8 p.m.
Where: Vivint Arena, 301 S. Temple
How much: $43-$74