Amidst the rows of ears that paid to hear I sat. Before the stage upon which an ocean of stringed wood and smelted brass stood ready I waited. Three sentinels strung from the ceiling stood ready, light pouring from their cycloptic faces to the screens above us.
I expected nothing. What could they do that had not been done? What note could they produce to improve the original? But perhaps something special might happen tonight, a twinkling moment that would make this worthy of its claim. Thus carrying a faint hope, I paid ear to the tuning of the orchestra, and awaited our maestro.
I was wrong.
Liberi Fatali was done as I had never heard it before. Similar is so many ways, yet with a power I had never heard it carry. No twinkling moment would I find here, for the concert was a radiant beacon unto itself. I was moved next to tears, as thunder poured from the drums, lightning from the bass, conjuring images of the great duel that Squall and Seifer had fought in my younger eyes.
So much more was to come, all of it magnificent.
Now that the pretense is out of the way...
I had to take that moment merely to express how rich this experience was. For a non-fan of game music, it might mean nothing more than few soundtracks strung together. For me, it was a night I'll always remember.
Play! was conducted by Arnie Roth, music director of the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra from Illinois, who has performed with such artists as Charlotte Church, Andrea Bocelli, and the ubiquitous Three Tenors of operatic fame. A charming gentleman on the stage, he opened the show with the brief melody of the Play! symphony, and then proceeded to introduce our special guests, including the world-famous Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu, and Sega's very talented Takenobu Mitsuyoshi.
From there, it was time to begin the show. As I mentioned in my preamble, the first piece was Liberi Fatali, one of the most moving compositions from the game Final Fantasy VIII. This was Liberi Fatali as I remember it being in the game, but taken to new heights with the live orchestra. It was filled with more soul, more intensity, more vigor, and while not any sort of departure from the original, was a faithful update and majestically powerful piece: a sure sign of good things ahead.
After Liberi Fatali had come to its humming close, our conductor announced a very special Play! remix of something I had been expecting, but wasn't sure would turn out well: Super Mario Bros. This composition took us through the many moods of Mario, from the regular above-ground stages, to deep into the underworld, and then even as far as Bowser's maddening descent before returning us to the sun. It cleared all my doubts, and has made me a promised buyer of the Play! CD.
We heard thereafter from Takenobu Mitsuyoshi's Shenmue compositions, showcasing the game on the three screens suspended above the stage. Being a Shenmue fan (and I know not many of you reading this are), I was taken back to the first time I played the game. It was a full suite, showcasing not just the introduction from the original title, but a number of other melodies from within the game itself--a heartwarming moment for fans like myself.
From there we went into a number of different works, including the primary orchestrations from Metal Gear Solid accompanied by footage from both Snake Eater and the upcoming Guns of the Patriots. The American compositions I tended to relate to less, as most of my library contains Japanese RPGs. Nonetheless, compositions from Halo and Halo 2 were a symphonic treat, as well as a suite from the game Prey, composed by special guest Jeremy Soule, who film fans will know for his work on the Harry Potter movies, and gaming fans will recognize from Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and Guild Wars.
Before the intermission, we heard a number of pieces which seemed to blur in my head. The first was Swing De Chocobo, which to me was a fantastic rendition of Brass De Chocobo from Final Fantasy X. Peppy, and although a little out of place being a swing song, very enjoyable.
Then Kingdom Hearts 2's Passion came forth, and sad to say, I found it unremarkable. This is perhaps due to my overexposure to the game. The orchestra handled it quite well, and I'm sure KH2 fans were enthralled. I, for one, didn't remember much of the order of things at this point, and it mostly passed me by. A shame too, because I know how beautiful the song is, yet I am utterly sick of it.
Now we come to the one piece I really wanted them to throw out the window. It didn't belong, and even the footage on screen did it no favors. Laura's Theme, from Silent Hill. It was exciting, riveting, and yet utterly unnecessary. I could have done without hearing it, so peppy and juxtaposed to both the atmosphere of the concert itself, and the somber visuals playing overhead: definitely not a highlight of this otherwise magnificent performance.
Passing by this, we got to hear a wonderful Castlevania suite, including synthesized organ notes that fans of the series were sure to appreciate. It blended the traditional Castlevania theme with pieces from Symphony of the Night's Dracula battle and then onwards to more familiar themes. It was an excellent insertion, and one of the most memorable pieces of the night. For this piece, we saw footage from both Portrait of Ruin for the DS and Curse of Darkness for the PS2.
Now, there were some excellent surprises, but before I get to those, I'd like to comment on the rest of the show. Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, both games scored by the venerable Yasunori Mitsuda were given the five star treatment. It began with the lulling melodies of Garden of the Gods from Chrono Cross, then picked up into the song Chrono Trigger, moving straight to Frog's Theme, and then rocketing forth with Time's Scar. By the end of this suite, I was beside myself with glee, never thinking I would hear these songs played live.
We also heard from Sonic The Hedgehog, which was by no means bad, but nothing stellar. It was probably one of the weaker pieces of the night, but still a good example of how even 16-bit sound can be utterly transformed by an orchestra. Granted, a lot of the footage they showed was from Sonic Adventure and up, but most of the music itself was taken from the Genesis days.
As things drew to a close, Arnie Roth and the orchestra put on a magnificent performance of The Legend of Zelda, scoring the themes of the Light World, the traditional Zelda overworld, and then of course, darker notes associated with Ganon. I'm not entirely sure, but I do believe I heard Ocarina of Time's Kokiri Village played at one point as well.
Then it was time for the finale. To some it may seem cliché, for this piece was expected. What symphony of video game music could be done without it? It's one of the best known pieces of video game orchestration in history: Nobuo Uematsu's One Winged Angel.
Nothing was changed. Not a beat, not a single string. It was perfect. From chorus to violinists, from conductor to pianist, from percussion to the brass, it was wonderful. One could almost feel as though it were the final battle with Sephiroth. Final Fantasy VII came alive in this last piece, and I was overwhelmed.
I promised to talk about the special treats, didn't I? Well here they are.
Rony Barrak, a fantastic percussionist from Lebanon was a guest performer. His talent with the bongo and other more exotic percussion instruments is incredible. He is, by all appearances, a true artist, engaged in his music right down to the expressions on his face. His strongest contribution was to the Chrono Trigger/Cross suite, which wouldn't have had nearly the same wonderful effect without him. Many thanks go to Mr. Barrak for making the night that much more entertaining.
Now, some of you may remember Daytona USA for being a fantastic racing game on the Saturn and in the arcades. Coin-op arcades all over North America still feature the game, along with its theme song. It has to be one of the cheesiest, most absurdly rendered pieces of music in video game history. Guess what? We got to hear it live, by the original composer. That's right, Takenobu Mitsuyoshi got up on stage, took a piano solo, and sang Let's Go Away.
If you don't quite remember the theme, it starts with "DOOT DE DOOT DE DOOT DOOT DOOO DOOO~ DAAAAAYTONAAA! LET'S GO AWAY! DAAAYTONAAA!".
Even the orchestra was in fits of laughter. Oh they tried to hide it, but the minute you heard the violinists snorting, you knew even they hadn't been expecting the sheer amount of cheese. A big hand goes to Takenobu for his contribution to the night. It was made that much more memorable thanks to him.
Then, finally, there was the encore. After One Winged Angel had played and it was time to go, the standing ovation the orchestra received prompted Arnie Roth to come back out and give us one last suite: Music from the yet-unreleased Mistwalker RPG, Blue Dragon. Wonderful music accompanied some rather incredible visuals from the game's FMV introduction. I haven't been excited by Blue Dragon up until now, but at the very least now, I'm going to be buying a soundtrack.
The show came to a close and we filed out. It's one of the most memorable nights of my life, and I am amazed just how well Arnie Roth and our local Toronto orchestra musicians and choir singers rendered some of the industry's classic melodies. I hope Play! comes back one day, because I definitely want more.