Prologue - How To PLAY! Like A Pro
A month before the Philadelphia show, I scrounged up some money and bought tickets for myself and a friend. I had the whole month to research the tour, the concert in general, and what this specific show would hold.
I learned that the PLAY! Video Game Symphony was a series of orchestral concerts, the idea of which developed after the "Dear Friends" and "More Friends" concerts that Square Enix held in Los Angeles before E3 2004 and 2005, respectively. Conductor Arnie Roth had already debuted the show in Chicago by the time I had purchased my tickets. This first performance included special guests Angela Aki and Akira Yamaoka as performers, and a star-studded cast of VGM composers showed up for a post-show "meet and greet" (i.e. signings). I had hoped these wonderful folks (including Uematsu, Mitsuda, Koshiro, and plenty of others) would come to all the concerts; alas, no such luck for me.
A second concert was held in Stockholm, Sweden on June 14 as well. Uematsu also attended this concert, as did a number of European VGM composers. A week after I had purchased my tickets, a third concert took place in Detroit. Yoko Shimomura, Hitoshi Sakimoto, and Michael Salvatori all showed up. All these big names got me excited. They're what inspired me to purchase my tickets. Of course, if I had spent some more time researching before purchasing tickets instead of after, I would have learned that no one would be coming to the Philadelphia concert, save Arnie Roth himself.
Another thing I learned about this concert is that it was a "multimedia" presentation. While the live music was performed, giant screens would project footage from the games that inspired the classic music. This had been done previously at Square Enix's shows, and the fans seemed to appreciate it.
So, how do you "Play!" like a pro? Step one is to make sure you know what to expect when you go to a show. I had expected big names, but I was let down. Too bad for me.
Step two? Leave for the concert very early. If you estimate a two hour driving time, leave four hours before the concert starts, and bring a DS to keep you occupied when you get there way too early. I myself did not follow this rule (I wasn't playing like a pro), and when I arrived for the 8:30 PM show promptly at 8:32 PM, I found that the Mann Center had put cones around every single entrance to the parking lot that existed. After circling the area for ten minutes, I parked alongside a road, hoping not to get a ticket, and ran through wet grass toward the Center.
The third and final step is to enter the auditorium in such a way that you start on the side where your seats are. Of course, I did not do this, and it took another ten minutes before I was finally able to rest my feet.
Act I - Beauty
As I ran toward the building, I heard music. My friend tried to console me, telling me that it was probably just some filler music before the real concert got started. No, not really. Not only did we miss the "PLAY! Fanfare" (composed by Nobuo Uematsu simply for this tour, available for listening at the PLAY! website), but we also missed the opening theme from Final Fantasy VIII: Liberi Fatali. This was one of the few songs I truly wanted to hear live. I missed it. Satan invented the Mann Center's parking situation.
By the time I had reached the concert grounds and was looking at the orchestra, they had already started playing a Mario-based medley. This medley covered all of the basic themes you'd expect, and the video footage had the crowd laughing and cheering alonside the memorable themes. The arrangements reminded me of what I'd heard previously on the first Orchestral Game Concert CD and the Mario & Zelda Big Band Live CD. This was my first taste of live VGM performance, and I was loving it. Hearing VGM old and new (from the NES days up to Mario Sunshine on the GameCube) getting the royal treatment, in America no less! Truly, today was a blessed day.
The next song came as a surprise to me, as I thought the title had lost its popularity: Shenmue. Perhaps I had also forgotten just how beautiful the music was in this game. The medley contained, more or less, sections from songs originally found on Shenmue Orchestra Version, but that didn't dissuade me: I was in love. The songs have such subtlety, such depth, and such meaning. The tonal quality was perfect. Every time scenes from the game were shown, I was brought to a point of pure nostalgia. I only wished they had shown more game footage.
After this, a short piece was performed from Battlefield 1942. Maybe it's just my bias towards RPGs (and thus against non-RPGs), but this one bored me. It was typical, and it sounded much like generic film score music. I was glad when it was over.
As if any VGM concert could be done without Aeris' Theme from Final Fantasy VII. Of course, I had heard this exact arrangement on the "More Friends" album that was released a few months ago. The orchestra did a fantastic job performing this somber and mellow piece. However, something struck me as odd: where were the in-game cutscenes? They didn't show anything from FFVII, or from Advent Children for that matter. The "multimedia" aspect was lost.
While he may not have any RPGs named after him (yet), Sonic The Hedgehog is a classic videogame icon. However, Sonic's music has never been arranged for a full orchestra before. The result was certainly different from what you'd expect, but I absolutely adored it. The opening music and Marble Zone themes were played in succession, and then songs from more recent Sonic titles (such as Sonic Adventure) were played. This medley was a big surprise for me; I didn't expect to like it at all, yet it was probably my favorite non-RPG-related performance in the entire set. And, like the Mario medley, the classic in-game videos had the crowd reliving some of their favorite moments.
The crowd was blown away by the intense performance of the next medley, from Metal Gear Solid. I particularly remember the music softening, and then a rapid and intense build of volume and tempo: first from the choir, then the drums, and finally the brass. I was confused as to why only footage from Metal Gear Solid 4 was shown (perhaps to tease us), but this did not distract my ears. I am admittedly unfamiliar with the music from MGS (other than the time I'd spent playing it years ago), but I truly loved this one.
The first half of the set ended with a Kingdom Hearts medley. This was most definitely the single greatest disappointment of the night. The medley went like this: Hikari (Simple and Clean) orchestrated version, boring march theme, Passion (Sanctuary) orchestrated version. It was bad. The first part was probably the best, as the orchestra did well with it. The second part was just plain dull, I have no idea why they chose to perform it, unless a previous arragement existed and they were just being lazy. The final part would have been great, except the orchestra seemed to have a hard time keeping up with the syncopated rhythm of the melody. And, again, all of this was very similar to what was found originally recorded in the games. I would've liked to hear the opening piano "Dearly Beloved" mixed in, and maybe some Disney themes, or maybe some awesome battle music. None of that happened. Luckily, there was plenty of in-game footage to keep me distracted. It was the only Square Enix game to have images to go with the music.
So it ended on a sour note. Well, it half-ended on a sour note. And just for me, at that: the crowd loved the performance, if only because Kingdom Hearts is awesome and everybody knows it. As the lights went up and the performers left the stage to take a break, I decided to observe my crowd of videogame-loving peers.
Interlude - Taking It All In
I had to admit, it wasn't at all what I expected. I expected duplicates of me, except fatter. Pale white, mid-20s, glasses, and male (but with awkward effeminite hand gestures). Instead, the crowd turnout was a fairly well-rounded mix in terms of age, gender, and ethnicity. There were children in the row behind me, and an elderly couple to my left. Asians, Latinos, African Americans, and everything in-between attended the show. And I was shocked to see the number of females present. Either we nerds all convinced our girlfriends to come along for the ride, or else there really are more girl gamers these days.
Another quick note about the audience: the house was far from full. I don't know if this is because the Mann Center offered more seating than the other locations or not, but this show definitely was not sold out. I think the chairs were about 3/5 full, and the far back rows were entirely empty. It was a good turnout, but certainly not a "sold out" show.
After some failed attempts to reach co-staff member Damian Thomas on his cell phone, I took some time to process my impressions of the performers. First of all, Arnie Roth is amazing. He plays like a pro. Not only has he won Grammy awards, he's into videogames. Or, at least, videogame music. He was enthusiastic about the show, and the hit titles, and pretty much everything he had to talk about. He was also quite knowledgeable as to the content of the songs. The man knew what he was talking about when he spoke. I liked that, and the strangers I heard around me were saying much the same thing.
The members of the orchestra, on the other hand, I was unable to read. I had a feeling that they felt the way I expected them to feel: that this was a stupid concert for stupid fans of stupid games, and the only thing that will make this night a good one is when the show is finished and we can all get drunk and/or go to bed. When the camera panned across the chorus in the back, you could see some people staring blankly into space. However, some of the performers were exuberant when they performed. The first chair violinist and cellist were outstanding, and the harpist deserved a gold star. A female percussionist in the back also seemed rather enthusiastic about her work, and this pleased me.
The intermission couldn't have been longer than ten minutes, but it felt much longer than that. I was anxious to get back to the music: there were plenty of great games to cover before the night would end.
Act II - Glory
The second half of the program opened with Jeremy Soule's music from The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Why Oblivion wasn't a part of the show, I don't know. This medley was a nice transitional piece. It was very mild and mellow: not impressive, just nice.
Then came the exclusive feature for the Philadelphia show: music from the new FPS title "Prey," also written by Soule. I have yet to play the game, or even spend much time checking it out, so the movie scenes were beautiful to me. The main theme was a standard, epic sort of song. Midway through, a screechy tension theme was used to transition to a third part, which was another grandiose piece. Again, I can't emphasize how much I enjoyed watching the screen during this part. The music wasn't too impressive, though.
Next, Roth presented his own arrangement of the Chocobo Theme from Final Fantasy, entitled "Swing de Chocobo." If you haven't heard it, go to our review of the More Friends album and listen to the sample. This one is a real crowd-pleaser. Not only the crowd; Roth and the orchestra were having a fun time with it as well. However, the trumpet soloist was a little off, especially when he first began playing. He also could have used a better mic: the mute trumpet does have a hard time reaching the audience on its own power. I also noticed some slight tempo problems on this piece, so I'm glad I have the More Friends album to turn to rather than just remember this one performance. Also, no game footage. Square Enix was clearly holding out on us.
Yasunori Mitsuda, though he was not in attendance, had written his own arrangement of a Chrono Trigger & Chrono Cross medley. You could tell the fans were looking forward to this; I was too. A new arrangement of the Opassa Beach theme "Reminiscence" was used to begin the medley. The "Theme of Chrono Trigger" was played next, and the arrangement was almost identical to the performance on Orchestral Game Concert 5. Of course, it was awesome. After about two minutes of this wonderful theme, it was time for the Chrono Cross opening, "Time's Scar." The opening flute and guitar part was excellent, but when the guitar began to strum and the whole orchestra joined in, the tempo started to fall apart. It took awhile for the orchestra to get the feel of the rhythm; a little practice would have gone a long way. A newly arranged version of Frog's Theme came next, and then a quick ending fanfare brought the song a close. It was one of the better arrangements of the night. But, as we all began to suspect, Square Enix wasn't going to be providing any video footage (save for Kingdom Hearts). I was very annoyed that I didn't get to see any of my favorite Chrono characters as I listened to the spectacular music.
The next song, however, had amazing game footage. It had amazing everything. It was World of Warcraft. On all levels, this may have been the best performance of the evening. Musically, the performance was incredible. The orchestra and choir seemed very well prepared for it. One section of the song included a female vocal solo with harp accompaniment; it was perfect. After the solo, the full choir joined in. The music was very epic, somewhat reminiscent of music from the "Lord of the Rings" film score. A 30 second march-like battle section separated the long opening and the ending, which was another emotional swell of gorgeous music. I wish you could've been there to hear and see this part of the concert.
Akira Yamaoka's compositions for Silent Hill 2 were featured next. The featured instrument was guitar, and the first chair violinist also had some featured sections. Overall, I liked this short performance a lot. The video cues were done well also.
The last non-RPG song for the evening was from my all-time favorite FPS title: Halo. Marty O'Donnell's already-classic choral opening brought a sense of awe and wonder to the stage. As the female vocals were added, and the song began to build and transition into one of the faster Halo 2 battle themes, the video footage showed some great action scenes from the game. Almost everything was timed well; however, the fast 6/8 theme that everyone recognizes from Halo had some tempo issues. It seemed like Arnie Roth was trying to rush, but the percussion section refused to go with him, and everyone else in the orchestra couldn't decide who to follow. My friend commented to me at this point that it reminded him of playing in high school band; I laughed at this.
If there was a Mario medley, and a Sonic medley, of course there would be a Zelda medley. There was, and it was fantastic. The opening section was the opening melody from Ocarina of Time. This was glorious. After this, the orchestra quickly broke out into the main Zelda theme (the first of three times during the medley). The orchestra kept up well with Roth's tempo this time around. Also included in the medley were the opening dungeon music and "dark world" music from Link to the Past. The game footage allowed the audience to relish some of their favorite moments in videogame history. I was pleased.
As if you weren't expecting this, the finale was One-Winged Angel. The arrangement was identical to the Advent Children version, except there was no rock band to come alongside the orchestra. At this point, the choir really had to put their best foot forward; I'd say they did so well. It made me smile, watching elderly men and women blasting out the song that all VGM fans have to come recognize over the years.
Something I wasn't expecting was the encore performance for Blue Dragon. I knew it had been played at the premiere in Chicago, but the website originally claimed that the Blue Dragon performance would be exclusive to the Chicago event. Yet, here we were, getting a glimpse at the music and graphics of an Xbox 360 RPG that has yet to be released. It was certainly an interesting concept to use this piece as an epilogue. The music, composed by Uematsu, was very catchy and light-hearted. I suspect the compositions will be above average, but not fantastic. The game itself also looked silly and light-hearted. The FMV sequence showed an army of robots and a boy crashing in an airship. I heard many around me say that the main character, even though he was in CG format, reminded them of Akira Toriyama's artwork. Of course, those of us "in the know" could have told them that, as it was announced long ago that Toriyama would work with Uematsu and Sakaguchi on Blue Dragon.
With that, an "end credits" movie was played through the projector, and the audience stood up and quickly exited. As for me, I had an assignment to complete.
Epilogue - A Talk With Bob
Two years ago, the New York Times ran a preview article on the Dear Friends concert in Los Angeles. The content of the article showed a general ignorance toward videogames (particularly RPGs, which are inherently more sophisticated than Pac-Man or Pong). One particular quote, which managed to outrage many within the VGM circle, was this one from flutist Catherine Ransom Karoly:
After playing the music for the first time at a Saturday morning rehearsal, she said a few catchy passages did not outweigh her overall disappointment with it. "It's almost on the level of Muzak and pretty much completely without integrity," she said. "It's really, really cheesy."
The statement was enough to bring a wave of outrage, backlash and counter-backlash, on various VGM-related forums. I myself had been saddened that the musicians did not care much for the music they were performing, particularly if it was due to the usual bias that videogame music is inherently subpar.
I decided to seek out the performers of this particular concert and determine their opinion of the music, its content, and their reaction to the audience. I was fortunate to quickly locate the orchestra and choir members walking quickly through the light rain to their vehicles. As they passed me, I overheard one woman (a member of the choir) say to another that she thought the concert was "fun" and that she enjoyed being a part of it. Most of them were smiling as they went, and did not seem at all frustrated, depressed, or disillusioned with their job. This pleased me greatly.
I approached a man who seemed to be in his mid-30s and asked him to comment on the show. The man introduced himself as "Bob," the first trombonist for the Mann Festival Orchestra. He told me that, while he was not personally familiar with videogames or their music, he likened what he performed to a film score. I brought to his attention the NY Times quote from Ms. Karoly, and he said the statement was certainly biased and unprofessional. Bob explained to me that, whatever it is he performs, be it the "great classic works" or music from a videogame, the music can be performed well or it can be performed poorly. The performance counts just as much as the composition, so he believes that the music will be best if he and others gave it his all. As for the "multimedia" aspect of the concert, Bob again turned to the relationship of game and film. He said that, as he watched the crowd, it reminded him of when he and his family would sit down and watch a movie like "Gone With the Wind" and re-live the classic moments of the film. He recognized that the nostalgia factor was high in the sales for this show, but that this did not downgrade the integrity of the music or the performance. I thanked Bob for his time and went on my way.
The night had been a very enjoyable one, and certainly a triumph for videogame music in the United States. I only hope the rest of the performances go as well as, if not better than, this one.