BANGOR, Maine — Trans-Siberian Orchestra guitarist and songwriter Al Pitrelli looks the part of the rocker, with the earring, black T-shirt, tattoos, jeans and baseball cap.
And the native New Yorker, an integral part of the 19-year-old progressive/symphonic rock band, delights in using that look to nail anyone who makes the mistake of underestimating him to the wall.
“Every time I go to instruct a string section with a local symphony, I come in with my baseball hat on backwards and some ugly MMA hoody on,” Pitrelli said while relaxing in the easy chair of his hotel lobby Monday afternoon. “They’re looking at me like, ‘Really, dude?’ and I’m like, ‘Really. I want more pizzicato on this part and second viola, no, no, no, I want the legato with that’ … I live for this s—-.”
Like fellow founding band members Paul O’Neill, Jon Oliva and Robert Kinkel, he lives for the music, as well. It’s made for a good living, as TSO has become a Christmas tradition with iconic hit singles like “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” and sold more than 8 million albums and 9 million concert tickets worldwide, ranking them with both Billboard Magazine and Pollstar as one of the top 10 ticket-selling bands of this century’s first decade.
Woe to the musician who discounts the 49-year-old, who attended Berklee College of Music in Boston and was Alice Cooper’s guitarist and music director for three years.
“If they look down their nose at you, it’s our responsibility to teach them that rock and roll’s an art form that should be respected, because if you think you’re better than us, then you’re really, really mistaken,” said Pitrelli.
Pitrelli and the rest of the concert cast, including a scaled-down orchestra, another dozen musicians, a narrator and seven to 12 singers, will bring TSO’s multisensory “Beethoven’s Last Night” to Bangor’s Waterfront Pavilion Wednesday night for an 8 p.m. show. The performance combines a story about the devil’s attempt to barter for Ludwig van Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony on the last night of the composer’s life with an elaborate live show including lights, lasers, pyrotechnics and fog machines
Simply put, Trans-Siberian Orchestra is the result of O’Neill’s vision.
“I think that would be understating it, actually,” said Pitrelli. “Paul’s had a vision of something like this probably since the early 1970s.”
And much like a child, it’s grown into an adult, a very successful adult.
“The only comparison I can make to other people is having a child. When the baby’s born, you’re like, ‘Holy [crap], what do we do now, and how do I protect this from falling apart because it’s so beautiful and pure?’” Pitrelli said. “And part of my entire life and soul — part of me — is in this.”
Perhaps that’s why Pitrelli, who admits there’s a “Hannibal Lecter side” of him, enjoys surprising fellow musicians with his unexpected depth of musical knowledge, and vigorously defends the fusion of all types of music.
“Give me any Juilliard or Eastman Academy or North Texas State graduate and I dare you to go head-to-head with me and what I do,” Pitrelli said. “I would never compete with you on your level, but don’t think mine is a lesser form.
“If you strip it down to the basic art of what we do and what TSO represents, it’s not about the hairspray and the special effects, it’s the passion behind the notes,” he said.
What TSO does is create a unique blend of orchestral, classical and symphonic musical elements into rock and roll and heavy metal.
“We talk about the dichotomies, the contradictions and the dynamics of music and all those other things — that’s where Paul O’Neill and the TSO gets its depth of composition from,” said Pitrelli, who also was a part of the groups Savatage, Asia and Megadeth. “It’s an endless supply.
“The same 12 notes that Chopin used, so did Black Sabbath. We didn’t grow up just listening to the Ramones and say, ‘We’re going to be a band.’ We listened to everything, like Yes, King Crimson, Genesis and Pink Floyd.”
Pitrelli has been playing a guitar, or at least trying to, since the age of 2.
“It was after watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. My grandfather had an old acoustic guitar sitting next the fireplace and just kind of strummed it,” he recalled. “My mother wanted someone to teach me how to hold it and play it so the sounds I was making were better. I actually started reading music before the King’s English.”
It’s that classically trained, classically experienced approach that the core members of TSO share.
“Paul is so well-versed in everything. I mean, he’s such a musicologist. He’s like an audiophile when it comes to that stuff. He knows about as much as you can know about different styles of music as anyone I’ve met,” Pitrelli said.
Pitrelli, who calls himself a “Pythagorean geek when it comes to the mathematics of music,” is particularly well-versed in jazz and blues. He strikes a balance between knowledge and ability.
“John brings everything in between. If Paul is over here and I’m over there, Olivia is the bridge that brings everything together,” Pitrelli said. “And what’s odd is sometimes it’ll be John over there and me over here and Paul is the bridge. I think the only standard is I’m always on one of the opposite ends.”
Pitrelli doesn’t throw around words like brilliant or genius often because he said he feels they have been overused to the point of becoming cliches, but he makes an exception for his bandmates.
“John Oliva is absolutely brilliant and a genius. He can sit down and let his hands fall on the piano and it’ll sound like a great song,” he said.
And Paul O’Neill?
“The greatest gift a record producer has is knowing when to hit the stop button. That’s what Paul does,” he said. “He’ll know when we hit the right note at the right time and when the vocals are absolutely perfect. It’ll drive us crazy getting there, but when he says we’re done, you know it’s the best it’s ever going to be.”
Wednesday night, fans in Bangor will get to see the best Beethoven’s Last Night will ever be.