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Report: Symphonic Fantasies

From the first game music performance to the elaborate globe-spanning concerts of recent years, video game music concerts have come a long way. The current shows are organized with more breadth and scope than ever before. Every concert organizer has an unique artistic vision: his own method of translating video games to a concert hall environment, arranging and re-imagining much-loved tunes, and engaging and pleasing game music fans (a devoted audience that often possesses a deep, lifelong relationship to the material). Unsurprisingly, these approaches vary widely. On the one hand, we have Video Games Live, a stage show which concentrates on interaction with concert attendees. On the other hand, there are classical tours like PLAY! and Distant Worlds, which present a professional, fully orchestral approach to the niche game music genre. In contrast to Video Games Live’s spectacle-based approach, concerts like Thomas Boecker’s 2008 Symphonic Shades focus on creating a deep musical experience, presenting music from video games as a true form of art.

This year, Boecker developed Symphonic Fantasies, a concert event that continues this trend of musical aspiration. The shows, hosted in Cologne and Oberhausen, featured a variety of innovative elements that promised to bring video game music concerts into a completely new dimension. But was Symphonic Fantasies truly novel and transcendent? The three-person GameMusic.net squad traveled to Cologne, for the purpose of putting these claims to the test! Honestly, it would’ve been difficult to ignore this spectacle, which featured four big composers of the eastern genre: Nobuo Uematsu, Yasunori Mitsuda, Hiroki Kikuta, and Yoko Shimomura. Having this many big Japanese names at one European concert is a rarity - it’s a record that probably won’t be beat for some time.

Main stars of Symphonic Fantasies: Hiroki Kikuta, Yoko Shimomura, Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda.Main stars of Symphonic Fantasies: Hiroki Kikuta, Yoko Shimomura, Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda.Main stars of Symphonic Fantasies: Hiroki Kikuta, Yoko Shimomura, Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda.

The unique quality of Boecker’s concerts stems from his unwavering desire to treat video game music with the utmost respect.  Ever since 2003, when Boecker presented his first Symphonic Game Music Concert, in Leipzig, in a Japanese gala-inspired format, the producer has continued to stage game music shows in innovative ways. Symphonic Fantasies further pushes the envelope - the show breaks with established concert conventions, and in doing so, propels video game music to a new level of artistic legitimacy. Unlike most of other video game music events, the organizers of Symphonic Fantasies show have refrained from placing big screens above the orchestra on stage. Normally, these screens are used to provide visuals from the featured games, and help accompany the soundtrack. By removing the screens, however, the audience is able to fully concentrate on the musical performance, with undivided attention. 

Symphonic Fantasies goes one step further, and breaks with the established concert structure, as well. Normally in these productions, the program features a series of short 3-4 minute pieces. But after consulting with conductor Arnie Roth and arranger Jonne Valtonen, Thomas Boecker came to the conclusion that splitting the music into suites would be an improvement. Among other things, such a change would make the game music concert experience more similar to that of a ‘real’ symphonic event. A suite, to be precise, is a musical form that lasts about 15-20 minutes and combines and mixes a variety arranged pieces in an unpredictable manner. Transitions between tracks are hardly noticeable (if at all) and various compositions and melodic themes are reprised throughout the suite. For the Cologne and Oberhausen shows, 4 suites were created - each piece representing the work of one of the aforementioned Japanese composers. Each piece is known as a ‘Symphonic Fantasy’, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to consider them Valtonen’s fantasies - the compositions are just that good. The amount of work that was put into orchestrating these pieces is certainly admirable, especially considering that most of them hadn’t ever been arranged before. 

For a video game music concert, Symphonic Fantasies was a pretty well-promoted event. Prior to the concert, the official event website continually offered updates on invited composers and musicians that would be making guest appearances. During the last months leading up to the show, a series of short videos on www.symphonicfantasies.com featured Arnie Roth gradually revealing most of the concert programme. Fans unable to attend in person had the ability to watch the entire concert live via the video webcast, or hear it through a live internet radio broadcast. However, none of these online streams fully captured what game music fans really experienced on September 12th , in the Cologne Philharmonie. 

Meet & greet in Cologne. Meet & greet in Cologne. Meet & greet in Cologne.

As the official SF website stated, there was a meet & greet session with the composers [thanks to KujaFFman for this video] preceding the concert, at 6:30 p.m. in the philharmonic lobby. Arriving on time turned out to be not the best idea - when we got there, there was already an enormous line of fans, with their soundtracks, games, and other exotic items (postcards, posters, even SNES consoles) in hand. All four composers, sitting at a long table, had already begun signing things. To speed up the autograph session, the organizers quickly set a limit of 2 items per person. Unfortunately, this rule didn’t improve matters much - about half of the line never got the opportunity to shake hands with Shimomura, Kikuta, Mitsuda or Uematsu. Frankly speaking, after such an intensive pre-show meeting, the composers appeared fatigued. 15 minutes before the concert began, they left the lobby. At 8:00 p.m, the concert hall doors were opened, and the audience filed in and began to take their seats. 

The grand interior of the Cologne Philharmonie amphitheatre is extremely impressive, and its staggered seating and well-designed corridors made for a pleasant experience within the venue. Additionally, the stage acoustics are perfectly balanced: those in the highest, most distant seats can hear the concert just as well as those directly in front of the orchestra. Interestingly, the concert hall is actually an underground room; the amphitheatre’s ceiling is simultaneously a public square in the nearby park. During concerts, the park area is closed and locked within gates, so no one can walk on the “ceiling” while the show goes on underground. We were informed that the sound of parkstrollers’ footsteps is annoying for concert attendees, and can disturb the reception of the music. Finally, when every seat was filled, the orchestra and choir walked onto the stage, the lights became dimmer, and WDR Radio news began to play through the speakers. The live concert broadcast required the performers to wait until the proper timeslot to begin the performance - so the audience got the chance to catch up on the latest stories, while waiting for the music to begin.

After the radio sports news informed us of the latest Bundesliga team results, the first notes of Jonne Valtonen’s “Fanfare Overture” – a fanfare composed for the particular occasion of opening Symphonic Fantasies - resounded throughout the concert hall. It should be noted that the piece has been available on YouTube since March: the concert organizers rightly decided to familiarize concert attendees with this brand new fanfare, so that major surprises could be reserved for the main show. Valtonen is essentially the epitome of the Western game music approach, so his piece was an interesting contrast to the Eastern stylings that comprised the rest of the concert.  “Fanfare Overture” skillfully merged melodic and cinematic musical elements, was full of charm and dynamics, and turned out to be an excellent introduction to the show. After this initial demonstration of the WDR Orchestra’s skill, Daniel Hartwich, the event host, appeared on the stage. He talked a bit about the concert, encouraged the audience to applaud for Yoko Shimomura, and announced the young pianist Benyamin Nuss, an invited musical guest that would soon showcase his talents within the Kingdom Hearts music block.

Concert hall just before the show.Concert hall just before the show.Concert hall just before the show.

The suite dedicated to Shimomura only featured her works from the Kingdom Hearts series. Fans already knew this - it had been announced long before the concert date. Consequently, audience members familiar with the “Drammatica” album, which featured orchestrated versions of Shimomura’s work,  were well-prepared for this portion of the show, as they knew more or less what to expect. In the Cologne performance, Valtonen was able to tease out all the key elements and characteristics of Shimomura’s musical creations. The first five minutes of the suite consisted of the melodies of “Sora”, “Hand in Hand,” and “Kairi,” placed in a continuously alternating sequence. In this way, Valtonen captures the feel of Disney’s adventure world. The suite then takes a new turn: by combining the melancholic “The Other Promise,” the festive “Happy Holidays!” and the ominous “A Fight to the Death” with a rhythm inspired by Gustav Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War” (from “The Planets” suite), Valtonen creates an original, dynamic work that artfully manipulates the listener’s emotions. The suite is made possible by “Dearly Beloved,” a piano melody that runs throughout the work, linking the various songs together in five different places. This piece is essential to the composition - the universal piano solo theme allows for smooth transitions between the pieces, and holds the suite together as a cohesive whole. While the piano was the predominant instrument in the suite, the rest of the orchestra proved important as well - other instruments did not solely provide accompaniment, but made their own marks and flourishes. Presenting Shimomura’s music as the first suite was a perfect choice, as it introduced the audience to the spirit of Eastern game music, and helped whet their appetites for the Japanese RPG tracks that dominated the rest of the program. 

Hiroki Kikuta’s invitation to Cologne was probably the most surprising of the pre-show announcements. He’s best known for scoring Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2), an early 90s game that was popular in Germany, but didn’t quite reach the same level of success elsewhere. Consequently, many European game music fans aren’t entirely familiar with Kikuta’s works. Regardless, concert organizers should be commended for their choice. Prizing talent over celebrity, they acted admirably in their decision to promote Kikuta, a brilliant composer, that could’ve - with a bit more luck - gained as much fame in Europe as Uematsu-san. Kikuta’s unique work on the Seiken Densetsu series helped distinguish the titles from the main Final Fantasy saga. The first Seiken Densetsu game was marketed as “Final Fantasy Adventure” in the USA - branded as a spin-off of the popular RPG series, even though it had been developed as an entirely separate saga. Kikuta’s excellent soundtracks for Seiken Densetsu 2 and 3 helped exemplify the differences between the two series, and this music was a major factor in the decision to present the games as an independent series. Kikuta’s powerful soundtrack helped bring game music - normally considered a background element - into the forefront. His work, along with the efforts of other talented composers, have led to lasting changes within the video game world.

The Symphonic Fantasies suite dedicated to Kikuta’s Secret of Mana score meshed well with Valtonen’s experimental approach. The WDR Radio Choir played the main role during the suite - not only did they provide haunting vocals, but the vocalists also produced an entire spectrum of special effects. In the opening track “Fear of the Heavens”, sounds of blowing wind or falling raindrops were created through the choir’s unconventional efforts. For example, they would rub their hands together, or smack their lips onto the microphone. The orchestra followed suit: by using their instruments in unusual ways, the musicians produced diverse noises like whale roars and sea waves. The rich atmospheric soundscape was created entirely live, with no pre-recorded effects - an impressive feat. The Secret of Mana suite reminded old school gamers of the colorful world of the SNES classic. Nostalgia easily set in, as players relived tracks like the carefree “Into the Thick of It” (played during exploration), the worrisome “Phantom and...a Rose...” (used in-game to signal a problem within a visited city), and the creepy “The Oracle” (which even today, brings back memories of fighting the villain Dark Litch.) The set of songs was completed by “Prophecy” and “Eternal Recurrence”, and with them, the Secret of Mana suite would unexpectedly become the most ambitious part of the evening.

The third “fantasy” of the Cologne concert would be surprising, as well. The suite was dedicated to the soundtracks of one of the most popular and polished series in the history of Japanese RPGs: Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. In the process of adapting Yasunori Mitsuda‘s music into an orchestral score, Valtonen enlisted the help of Roger Wanamo. Wanamo’s impact can be heard instantly, even in the first few seconds of the suite. Throughout the piece, up to 4-5 tracks were layered simultaneously, enabling transitions to be made between compositions smoothly - while the next piece begins, a few instruments can continue playing notes of the preceding piece. For example, the suite switches from “A Premonition” to “Scars of Time” at one point in the show - but while the rest of the orchestra plays the new track, the piano continues to play “A Premonition.” While we could clearly hear the melody of “Chrono Trigger Main Theme” later on in the suite, the strings section still referred to the supposedly-ended “Scars of Time”! First fiddler Juraj Cizmarovic played a key role in this process of linking pieces, and he showed off with his solo parts before and after the Chrono Cross battle theme, “Gale”. Despite the fact that the track disappointed me a bit with its overly slow tempo, the retention of its characteristic Celtic sound, the choir’s ending shouts, and Rony Barrak’s darbouka (a goblet shaped hand drum) accompaniment made the piece a top-rate arrangement.  The layering effect was most noticeable at the very end of the suite, when two main themes of the Chrono saga resounded simultaneously. In all, 11 Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross pieces were alternated ingeniously throughout the suite, with such skill that only Mitsuda, the composer, would have possibly been able to discern the exact track order. 

Finally, it was the moment everyone had been waiting for. The last “fantasy,” devoted to Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy series, presented quite a challenge for Valtonen. Uematsu composed the entire scores for the first 9 games of the series, and made contributions to later titles in the series. So, compressing this huge body of work into one 20 minute long suite was a daunting task. Valtonen chose to focus on the most well-known pieces, mostly from Final Fantasy VII, and centered the suite around the breaking of anticipated tracks during the least expected moments. This resulted in a special version of the “Chocobo Theme” entitled “Cologne de Chocobo,” which broke into the highly anticipated “One-Winged Angel” (a much-loved track, to the point that a Uematsu-themed concert without “One-Winged Angel“ is unheard of!). Later, the “Final Fantasy” theme is disrupted by “Chocobo,” as well. Those humorous gambits caused a laugh in the concert hall, but to be honest, apart from these two “disruptions”, the Final Fantasy musical segment was pretty traditional and safe. The only other surprising moments were the inclusion of Final Fantasy VI’s “Phantom Forest,” a lesser known track, and the choir appearance in “Fighting”. Most likely, Uematsu didn’t allow Valtonen to take great creative liberties with his music; so barring any experimental treatment, arrangements were presented in a classic lineup, reminiscent of the Distant Worlds – music from Final Fantasy tour. The Final Fantasy suite also included a series of  battle compositions, such as “Battle at the Big Bridge” and “Bombing Mission”. The deafening applause after this musical block proved that Uematsu fans were definitely satisfied with the suite’s setlist and traditional approach.

Nuss, Roth, Barrak and Valtonen's last onstage appearance.Nuss, Roth, Barrak and Valtonen's last onstage appearance.Nuss, Roth, Barrak and Valtonen's last onstage appearance.

After enthusiastic standing ovations and the decoration of the evening’s main artists (Valtonen, Nuss, Barrak and Roth), the concert host instigated the shout of “Zugabe! Zugabe!” and an encore  quickly began. The concert bonus turned out to be a typical medley of boss themes, sourced from every game honored during the entire Symphonic Fantasies event. First, “Destati” from Shimomura’s Kingdom Hearts was played, next was “Mediritian Dance” from Kikuta’s Secret of Mana, and then - stirring up some controversy –  was Mitsuda‘s “Lavos’ Theme,” from Chrono Trigger. After the concert, many fans expressed opposition to that choice, claiming that a better, more memorable theme - like “Dragon God” from Chrono Cross OST - should‘ve been chosen. Perhaps that’s true, but all these themes were merely a prelude to “One-Winged Angel”.  This time, the hit Final Fantasy song continued without interruption - at least, until Rony Barrak unexpectedly broke into a darbouka solo. Once again, the musicians toyed with the audience, making the surprised fans wait another couple of minutes before the Sephiroth theme began again. Interrupting “One-Winged Angel,” for the second time that evening, was a well-planned and funny event. With such an interruption, Valtonen played with the fans‘ sensibilities, satirizing those who expect unerring regularity and traditional presentations when it comes to Uematsu’s music. After the encore, Valtonen, Roth, Nuss, and Barrak once again appeared on stage. The Japanese composers, however, did not join them. They had made the conscious decision to avoid the spotlight, preferring that the fan applause be reserved for the musicians and artists: those who made “Symphonic Fantasies” a reality.

Full squad of GameMusic.net right after the concert.Full squad of GameMusic.net right after the concert.Full squad of GameMusic.net right after the concert.

Symphonic Fantasies is a significant turning point in the history of video game music concerts. It was a remarkable event that made great progress in breaking the boundaries between game music and traditional classical works. While the genre still doesn’t garner as much respect as it deserves, events like Symphonic Fantasies shatter misconceptions and contribute to game music‘s creative evolution. The power of Boecker’s concerts lies in his penchant for unconventional ideas. Unlike other producers, he’s not trying to create a concert tour based on repeating patterns and elements. Instead, audiences are attracted to his continuously changing repertoire and innovative show structure. A new German concert has already been announced for the upcoming year. Entitled Symphonic Legends (perhaps featuring arrangements of Legend of Zelda, Legend of Mana, etc.?), it is set to take place next September in Cologne. In the meantime, Symphonic Fantasies will most likely be released on CD or DVD. Stockholm and Cologne are legendary in the game music world for hosting excellent events - if recent shows are of any indication, these cities are a true guarantee of high quality. We definitely hope for more shows in the same vein. Such events truly prove that game music can hold its own, especially when performed by Europe’s top musicians in the most famous philharmonics. 

User comments

Symphonic Night

Truly an unforgettable and memorable evening. I still can't believe it's over ;_;
BTW The CD album is set to be released very soon as well as a DVD release is scheduled in January.

13:44:32 December 14, 2009

comment author: viaan

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