Niagara Gazette

December 28, 2009

LIFESTYLE: TSO brings holiday magic back to Buffalo

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The Trans-Siberian Orchestra might have a name that implies chilly conditions, but the musical group has been red hot as of late.

The group’s latest album, “Night Castle,” debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard chart upon its Oct. 27 release and is set to go platinum by the end of this year. The group’s annual holiday tour, meanwhile, has continued to sell out on both sides of the continent and is set to perform two shows Wednesday in Buffalo.

Bob Kinkel, the Williamsville native who co-produced “Night Castle,” had a hard time finding the right words to describe TSO’s success.

“We’re just ecstatic,” said Kinkel, who’s been a TSO composer and keyboardist since the group’s inception in 1996. “You never expect anything. You hope that people will like what you do. All you can do is put it out there and see what happens.”

The only happening since the group was formed has been fan adulation. After graduating from Williamsville South High School, Kinkel went to Hamilton College near Utica for pre-med. He took so many music electives, though, that he fulfilled a music major by his junior year, and he then went on to Columbia University to study physics and obtain a master’s degree.

While at Columbia, he worked as a technician at a New York City music studio. While he’d always enjoyed the technical side of making music, it was there that Kinkel said he unearthed his true passion for production.

“I’d been buying synthesizers and equipment since I was about 12,” he said.

Someone at the music studio introduced Kinkel to Paul O’Neill, who wanted Kinkel to help him on a record O’Neill was making for his band Savatage. Kinkel went on to play keyboard for Savatage into the 1990s while also working on some musicals with O’Neill. One of those, “Christmas Eve in Sarajevo 12/24),” went on to become TSO’s first single once the decision was made to shift toward a more classical sound.

TSO has gone on to make six records, including five studio albums that each have gone at least gold. While only three of those six CDs have had a Christmas theme, it’s holiday-inspired music that has been the band’s forte to date. The band tours annually around the holidays, with more than 5 million people attending the $20 million production during its 2008 run.

“Our music comes from everywhere. Christmas just sort of came upon us,” Kinkel said. “It’s great, though. There are so many people who have made it their holiday tradition.”

TSO has grown so large that it had to split into two groups to hit every desirous market in the United States. Kinkel performs with and serves as musical director of the East Coast group, with fellow Savatage expatriate Jeff Plate serving as the drummer.

“It’s blossomed into this huge Christmas and holiday touring event,” said Plate, who’s served as TSO’s recording drummer since the band’s inception. “We have an incredible group of musicians on stage.”

While “Night Castle” strays from the Christmas theme, its operatic and classical tendencies have struck a chord with fans, who also made it the most-downloaded album upon its release. Kinkel is pleased with the 26 songs on the two-disc set — some of which are reworked Savatage tracks — but looks to continue striving for improvement in the future.

“I love all the stuff we’ve done,” he said. “Every song you write is like a child. You put them out into the world and try to give them what they need to support them.”

TSO has also served to support an interest in classical music — at least beyond what one hears in movies and old Looney Tunes cartoons. That, Kinkel said, is just as rewarding.

“Everyone knows the top 200 classical times, but then (with TSO) you find out what the music is and the harmony is and how it all fits together,” he said. “There’s so many people who say, ‘You know, I never really listened to classical music before, but I’ve started listening to Beethoven because of your music.’

“However you get your introduction ... it’s nice to feel you’re a part of that whole thing.”

The demand for TSO has grown to the point that the band will embark upon its first non-holiday tour in the spring. That tour will include TSO’s first venture into Europe, Kinkel said. The group is also looking at another TV special (following 2001’s “The Lost Christmas Eve,” which has also become a top-selling DVD), and a possible motion picture venture.

“It’s amazing how this thing has grown and it still grows at an incredible rate every yea,” said Plate, who also drums with the metal band Machines of Grace. “O’Neill had a vision for this thing, and he created it. It’s quite remarkable, for sure.”

Before the events of the next year unfold, though, this tour needs to wrap up. With a show in Hamilton, Ontario, coming Tuesday prior to Wednesday’s Buffalo show and the tour’s final few shows in the following week, Kinkel doesn’t figure to have a lot of time back home to reminisce. Still, he looks forward to the homecoming show.

“It’s a pretty tiring tour, but it’s invigorating, as well,” he said. “You see a lot of old friends. You look out in the audience, and you see someone you haven’t seen in years. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

Contact Paul Laneat 693-1000, ext. 116.



IF YOU GO

• WHAT: Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert

• WHEN: 3 and 8 p.m. Dec. 30

• WHERE: HSBC Arena, Buffalo

• MORE INFORMATION: Visit hsbcarena.com