The orchestra was formed in 1996 when heavy-metal producer Paul O'Neill joined with longtime collaborators Jon Oliva and Bob Kinkel to create a different kind of holiday recording. "Christmas Eve and Other Stories" sets carols against power chords in telling the tale of a young angel seeking "the one thing that best represents everything good that has been done in the name of this day."
"We never really planned on it becoming as big as it is," says Kinkel, now the troupe's musical director. "Our first show was in 1999 in Cleveland, which was one market that caught on to us early. The tickets sold out in two hours." Two additional shows sold out, so they added a half-dozen other cities for their first seasonal tour.
Three years later, they have two touring companies playing more than 70 shows in 57 cities and they often play to repeat customers. "Some people come every year," Kinkel says, "We always spend an hour after the show talking and signing autographs. Last night, there was everything from 3-year-old kids to grandparents."
The draw is a rock opera, a monumental '70s form started by The Who's "Tommy," which inspired multiple productions throughout the decade before running into "The Wall," Pink Floyd's epic paean to self-pity. TSO recognized the now-neglected genre as an ideal matrix for their vision since it accommodated poetry, spectacle and a wide variety of musical influences.
"The whole thing is a rock show, with lots of effects," says Kinkel. "We bring a pretty huge group onstage: two guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, an eight-piece string section (seven of whom are local players), eight singers and a narrator 22 performers in all. We combine classical and theatrical music, jazz and, of course, rock, along with a variety of different singers to create a much bigger emotional journey. It's paced like a movie that has highs and lows, love scenes and car chases."
For their Dec. 12 appearance at the Carpenter Center they will perform "Christmas Eve" in its entirety, followed by a second half drawn from their other seasonal productions, as well as from their first non-Xmas production, "Beethoven's Last Night
Every aspect of the show is meticulously planned, down to setting sound balances for all parts of the theater. The lighting effects are overseen by Bryan Hartley, drawing on his previous experience mounting shows for Kiss and Meat Loaf.
"We want to make sure that we have the production just right," Kinkel says. "Every year we try to up the level of the show; this year, for the first time, we will be using lasers."
Behind the technology is an intent that is both ambitious and idealistic, an attempt to convey a universal message of hope and reconciliation. One of the high points of the performance is a wild arrangement of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" set in then war-torn Sarajevo. Offstage the group quietly gives $1 of every ticket to charity, contributing more than a quarter of a million dollars last year.
According to Kinkel, the group was named after the Trans-Siberian Railroad because that continent-crossing line connects so many cultures otherwise isolated in a harsh but beautiful landscape. "Music does the same thing," he says. S
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra will perform at the Carpenter Center, 600 E. Grace St., Dec. 12 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $44.50-$55.50 and can be purchased at the box office (225-9000) or through Ticketmaster (262-8100).
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