Play! A Videogame Symphony

Well, I’ve just been to the last night of the concert here in Singapore, and it was monumental enough for me to BLOG ABOUT IT. ZOMG.

So the evening started with my sister and I taking a taxi down to the Esplanade. There was a frantic dash to get our tickets after which we discovered that my watch wasactually too fast and we were on time after all. I spent some time getting my programme and saying hello to everyone who was there – amazingly enough I did NOT know half the audience members, only about 15 or so. I guess everyone went for the June 15 one.

There was a surprising amount of families and couples in attendance – could it be that this video game music was more popular than I thought?

After a while the bell sounded and we were ushered into the concert hall itself. Some things of note :

The conductor looked very…conductor-ish. No, I mean it, he really looked the part, long black coattails, distinguished beard, short ponytail and all.

Above the orchestra were three large screens that alternated between images of the musicians playing and images from the games. This was an addition that I found quite incredible – it allowed the music and images to blend together for even more dramatic tension…a music video of sorts. Music videos in a concert hall! Who’da thunk it? Now that’s post-modern art for you!

And the choir! Until that day I had never really appreciated how much some of the pieces needed a real-live choir to bring out their full power. Dancing Mad and One-Winged Angel in particular – they sounded so much better with the backing of a full chorus.

Now I’ll go into a song-by song breakdown :

Opening Fanfare – Simple, pleasant enough arrangement. It was suitably old-school in nature, conjuring images of SNES Final Fantasies and older games. But I didn’t really appreciate the main melody featuring the same riff from the Summer Lands in Secret of Mana – perhaps it was intended as a tribute, but I felt Uematsu (the composer) could have done better without recycling TOO much old stuff.

The conductor then spoke a few words, introducing the event and upcoming pieces, and then we moved on to :

Super Mario Brothers Suite. Of course, we have to start off with the best! This was a different arrangement that the one played at Passion a few months earlier, and I have to say I liked this one a lot more. For one, it ended on the castle fanfare theme instead of the Game Over screen, and secondly, it actually had a whole part from the Super Mario World theme in it as well! No SMB2 (a personal favorite of mine, especially the Subcon theme!) but great all around. The screens above served as a kind of historical tribute to the series, with images all the way back from SMB1 to Super Mario Sunshine being shown (and getting some laughs from the audience)

I really liked the way the images would change as the music went through it’s phases – first the good ole’ SMB1 stage music we all know and love so well, then the underwater theme, then the dungeon theme. Simply fantastic!

Sedge Tree, from Shenmue. This piece sounded oddly like Flower, the Shenmue 1 opening theme. Perhaps it was a mistranslation or I got my facts wrong (I didn’t play much of Shenmue when I still had a DC.) The piece itself was quite incredible though. The original composition relies a lot on the acoustics and vocals in order to create , but the orchestra managed to imbue it with a full-bodied sound while retaining the inherent delicacy of the piece, which was quite an achievement. The screens managed to tell the story of the game very well, and the images of the girl and flying hawks complemented the music beautifully.

The composer himself was in the audience, the esteemed and he stood up to take a bow and wave to the fans. He was quite a personality! (as you’ll see later in my account)

Lost Odyssey – Not one of the strongest pieces. The grand, opulent and sweeping nature of it (Uematsu is always good with this kind of stuff) worked well, but it failed to leave a lasting impression I know next to nothing about the game it was from. The visuals were actually kind of boring – standard fantasy warfare, until the hero turned up. He had some interesting martial arts moves but looked like a strange Persian-Chinese crossbreed. Again, satisfying enough, but nothing to write home about.

Sonic the Hedgehog – Another classic! It started off with the oh-so-familiar Green Hill Zone and moved into Marble Zone (an interesting choice, seeing as the second stage music isn’t that well-remembered generally) I didn’t recognize most of the later melodies, but the music was still great throughout. I would have much preferred an inclusion of Final Zone from Sonic 1 (one of my fave Sonic pieces) but too bad…

Images were pretty good this time too, lots from the latest Sonic on PS3/Xbox. Even though I still don’t really agree with the addition of Silver the Hedgehog to the franchise (c’mon, guys! Shadow was cool, but this is really pushing it!) I have to admit the screens not only looked good but complemented the music well.

Metal Gear Solid – Legend of the Snake. I was really impressed with this arrangement. I was chatting with Andy about this piece later, and he commented that it wasn’t as grand as he thought it would be. Not to slight Rika Muranaka’s original version, but I thought this one was far better. It went off the beaten path and had a more solemn, subdued majesty to it.

A good choice, considering that the accompanying visuals were mainly from Metal Gear 3 and the trailer for 4, showing Snake at both his beginning and end. The graphics and music combined to tell a story of another side of the secret agent we know – a man who despite being bowed down from the weight of years has one last mission to do.

I think hands-down the best version of the Legend of the Snake has to be Reuben Kee’s piano arrangement (and if you don’t have it, you ought to get it NOW) but this was a close second.

Blue Dragon – Another piece that I felt didn’t really stand out too much. It’s no secret that I am not a big fan of Uematsu’s comtemporary work, and this probably explains why. It’s not that it was a BAD piece per se (the concert itself ranged from good to utterly spectacular) it was just that it didn’t really leave a lasting impression of any sort. I don’t doubt the game’s pedigree (Uematsu for music, Toriyama for art? A match made in RPG heaven!) but the piece was standard enough “main theme” fare, nothing too out of the ordinary. The visuals weren’t too bad – the game’s opening I think (I can’t verify since I don’t own an Xbox 360) but not spectacular.

Kingdom Hearts suite – I don’t like Kingdom Hearts. Never did, probably never will. So it’s a testament to just how good this piece was that I could feel real emotion stirring within my breast – generally when I don’t have an experience with a game to link the music to, it doesn’t quite conjure the same effect, but this piece was possibly the exception to the rule.

Generally incredibly executed, the best part being how they managed to interwork the Kingdom Hearts main riff (just a few simple notes) into the structure of the song and the interposing melodies. The screens above were great this time too, even if most of them consisted of “Sora has a pitched battle with a random gay man.”

Dancing Mad from FF6 – I was quite literally jumping for joy with this. One of my favorite pieces from one of my all-time favorite games (12 years and counting folks!), played by a full orchestra, pipe organ and choir and all! I almost fell out of my chair!

It was phenomenal. I really think an orchestra is needed to showcase the full beauty of the song…everything, from the vocals to pipe organ solo to the fusion of the winds and brass section, was incredible. It was like a dream come true. All the images of the old game came back – how you fought against all odds to recover from a world shattered by madness, each character telling you their reason for existence, and then the final, grueling battle against Kefka, ascending each level of his madness to fight the last battle in the sky. It blew my mind.

That was a fitting end to the first half, and I left for a toilet break and general rest. When we returned, the conductor informed us that he had a special surprise for us tonight – Mitsuyoshi-san himself would be playing for us!

So the man sits down to play at a nearby piano, but not before greeting us with a rousing “Hello Singapore!” His song of choice? Let’s Go Away from Daytona USA, complete with vocals! By this, I mean that Mitsuyoshi-san performed the whole song himself, vocals, piano playing and even the little ditty in the song. What a guy. He plays like Jerry Lee Lewis (minus the jumping on the keys) sings AND composes? Did I mention he’s a hit with the crowd as well?

The performance ending with him brandishing a stuffed Sonic, and after pretending to throw it at the conductor, he let it fly into the crowd. I guess that’s why you pay to sit in the front row. ^_^

The Elder Scrolls, Oblivion – Ok, honesty time again – I haven’t played any Morrowind game and neither do have the desire to. It’s not that they are bad games, it’s just that my taste doesn’t run to most mainstream American RPGs, especially those that use FPS systems. That might account for why I wasn’t terribly impressed with this piece. It was one of those grand, sweeping scores that the USA seems to love so much, with the same lush visuals on the screens above. Good, but not great.

Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross suite – Another amazing performance. Once again, like the Legend of the Snake earlier on, the orchestra choose to forego the standard arrangement and go for something more subtly powerful. Their rendition of Toki no Kizuato showed this clearly enough – more emphasis on the violins than usual, resulting in a more hauntingly beautiful arrangement.

And then! Halfway through the piece, as the music shifted beautifully from one part to the next, the strident sounds of familiar notes could be heard. Then it hit me – parting the veil of years, through the ages…It was Frog’s theme! Barely for half a minute was it played, but the sounds of his heroism and courage still resounded clearly in my ears and heart. One of the moments of the evening.

World of Warcraft – This was another piece in which the images and the music were really well interwoven. The first part was mainly movies from Warcraft 3, and the latter was the trailer from World of Warcraft. Blizzard always makes good movies, and this time their technical excellence, married to the music, was a tour de force of power.

The return of Arthas, prodigal son turned murderer, awakening of the Lich King from his prison of ice – The music lent the moments even more majesty than they had in the games – never has such a simple motion as the Tauren scattering sand into the air had such power. Of the Western-composed music that day, this one was surely the best.

Halo Suite – Another not-so-strong piece. The music itself was good (although I will be the first to admit that music is not one of the things pops into my mind when I think of Halo) but once again it was pretty standard “main theme” fare. One thing that certainly didn’t help was that the screens for once failed to complement the music that well. Halo certainly doesn’t lack for epic moments, but somehow they managed to pick the wrong scenes. And the sudden jumping from Halo 1 to Halo 2 was really jarring, graphics-wise – especially since Halo 2 is so much better animated than 1.

Castlevania – Another of my favorites for the day. The only real complaints I had with this was the fact that the videos overhead still had the “Konami” watermark at the upper right hand corner – for goodness sake, this is an INTERNATIONALLY-ACCLAIMED concert, surely you could get the original videos from Konami? Instead of just using trailers?

I was disappointed that there was nothing from Symphony of the Night (which had awesome pieces, all suitable for orchestral playing – Dance of Illusions, Dracula’s Castle, the Lost Prince, Bloodlines…I could go on!)

But the final boss theme, the fight against Dracula – that is where they really cut loose. The day had been previously characterised by subtle overtones instead of all-out power. No more. I was treated to the power of a orchestra in full swing, when the brass section really belted out the sounds. Impressive stuff.

I would have preferred a reprise of Vampire Killer (which they played earlier in this arrangement) but with the added emphasis on the newer games (the screens were showing Curse of Darkness and Lament of Innocence) I guess more than once would have been musically out of place. The videos were excellent besides the watermark issue, though, and the synchronization of images and music was top-notch, especially in the final parts of the piece.

Legend of Zelda – Quite possibly the best of the day. This was one of the best uses of the overhead screens – the piece started with a single flutist playing, and on screen he was accompanied by Link with the Ocarina of Time. Slowly the music transitioned into the familiar main theme of Zelda, and I was transported back through the years…on screen, the images shifted from the 8-bit days to the newer Zeldas (no Twilight Princess though)

The main theme was played three times during the arrangement, which I felt was only fitting – it’s the most recognizable element of Zelda, and they worked it in really well. I also was happy they included the Castle theme from Legend of Zelda 2 – it’s one of my favorite pieces that is frequently overlooked in arrangements.

One more mention of the screens – I particular liked how Link would walk down one screen in 8-bit (The Legend of Zelda) and come out of the top of the next in 16-bit (Legend of Zelda – A Link to the Past) It was the small touches like this, and the superb music, that really won the day for me. It there video game music that can span the ages, bridge the gap between contemporary and classic, and resound in the hearts of everyone, it surely has to be Zelda.

One-Winged Angel – A fitting end for the evening, with one of the most famous end boss themes. It may not be on my personal list, but this was definitely not a bad choice.
This was another of the pieces that really showcased the power of the choir. The original PS version was pretty good, but a synthesized recording can’t compare to the real thing.

But the piece itself. It was powerful, it was grand, it sounded great. What else is there to say? Also, I am running out of suitably gushy things to say about how good the whole thing was and don’t want to sound boring. But it was really very good.

After the deafening applause, the conductor and orchestra got up to take their bows, and even the choir started clapping! The conductor exited with a smile on his face, andtIt seemed that that was the end of the evening.

But wait! The applause showed no signs of dying down, and after the audience had clapped lond and long, the conductor appeared with guests in tow – Mitsuyoshi-san again, and the other was none other than Yuzo Koshiro himself! After the applause died down the announcement was made that they would be playing the Super Shinobi as the encore piece. I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t one of Koshiro’s other pieces (I would have gone crazy if it was Actraiser or Bare Knuckle!) but this was good enough as it were.

The Revenge of Shinobi suite – Another good one. Yuzo Koshiro never disappoints, whatever medium he is using, and this rendition really showed . It had some screens of the original game above in all their old-school, classical 8-bit glory. The video that they used had pretty amazing gameplay – I saw the guy beat Neo Zeed with nary a scratch! Must have been a Super Play of some sort.

The violins did great work here at the end, as the final notes died down the scene closed on Joe Musashi and his love gazing out into the pixellated sunset. I couldn’t think of a more fitting ending to a night of video game music.

More bows, more applause, and then it was exeunt, stage left…or not? I’ve honestly never seen a Singaporean audience so appreciative! At least half of the audience (yours truly included) stood up to clap, and didn’t stop for at least 2 minutes (I wasn’t counting, but it was a long time) I think the most amazing thing was that my sister stood up as well! She’s not very demonstrative by nature during performances, so that little act spoke volumes for how great the music was that night.

Technically speaking, classical concerts aren’t supposed to have that many encores, and the conductor was looking kind of tired. But as the applause continued, he came back, looked straight into the audience and made a “one more” sign with his hand. It was One-Winged Angel again, and this time the choir really sang their hearts out. Maybe it was all the clapping from before, but I felt their second performance was a lot better than the first – and the first wasn’t any slouch either.

The crowd positively erupted in applause after that, and I remember thinking that the orchestra members looked kind of bemused and surprised – they were probably thinking “We don’t get that kind of applause for our OTHER concerts!” People began to file out slowly, and I left as well.

I inquired politely at the counter outside if I could possibly get any autographs, but I was told that since this was a Serious Internationally-Acclaimed Concert with Full Choir and Pipe Organ, I wouldn’t be able to. Actually the answer was just no.

I then looked around for possible CD buying opportunities. I wanted the Stockholm performance if possible, but there was only the More Friends Final Fantasy concert for sale. After a cursory glance over it I decided not to purchase it and left for home. I wanted to stay a little longer to chat with my friends, but I had a rehearsal the next day. Ah, the life of a musician is never easy it seems.

Whew, I think I’ve run out of superlatives in the writing of this article! Since I’m on topic, though, I thought I would contrast this and Passion! which I saw a few months earlier.

I’ve got to say in the final scheme of things, Play! was the better performance. I enjoyed Passion immensely though. Some facts :

– Firstly, given the size of the performance (6 people to a full orchestra) it had a more intimate, family atmosphere. Yasunori Mitsuda was in attendance, and actually introduced his instrument personally, as well as sat down to play Toki no Kizuato with the rest of the crew. That was a personal touch that Play! didn’t have.

– The violinist was also friendly and accomodating – it turned that he was the brainchild behind the whole project and had probably played most of the games that the music was from. He gave incerdible performances that night, and you could really feel his enjoyment.

– I felt the non-Japanese members of the audience (except the drummer) underperformed a bit. Technically there were excellent, but there wasn’t as much love for the music. The pianist’s performance of the Shadow of the Colossus piece stood out as the best example of this.

– I enjoyed the non-game classical pieces of the night as well, but I agree with a friend of mine that we really didn’t need Disney in it. Even though they played those well, classical Disney isn’t exactly a rarity anymore.

– That being said, they had their own show-stoppers of the day, including :

– Final Battle from Secret of Mana (encore) Interesting piece to use as an encore. It has a lot of silent sadness to it, not so much the grand majesty one would except of a final boss theme. Considering the original music has so much synthesized sound in it, it’s amazing how well they adapted it for orchestral play. Truly original.

– Toki no Kizuato. Although the Play! version was more polished, I felt this one had more heart in it. It was one of the songs that the orchestra really came together on. I think having Mitsuda sitting there and actually playing his own composition (with an authentic Greek classical instrument no less) really tied things together.

– SBM. There is something in this music that just brings out the best in everyone. Maybe it was the red hats they all wore before starting to play, maybe the audience reception, but it was really great.

– Danse Macabre. It may have been one of the more common classical pieces, but that didn’t stop the violinist from shining during it. One of the more inspired performances of the night, given the amount of energy and enthusiasm displayed.

– Did I mention that the female violinist was really good-looking? No? Then I’ll mention it here. She was.

I managed to get autographs for this performance (thanks Rika!) and they are hidden safely away in my drawer right now.

And that’s it for this post! I hope you enjoyed reading some of my ramblings, and maybe I’ll see you back here on those infrequent occasions I update this little space of the web.

Game Music Forever!

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