PLAY! A Video Game Symphony
North America has recently seen a few incidents that are new to this continent but commonplace in Japan: concerts devoted to the music of video games. Soundtrack Otaku in the West were largely an underground D.I.Y movement, but with the introduction of the Internet that changed, and the number of fans is increasing daily.
Growing up in the Golden Age of videogames as I did, lots of games had only the bare bleeps and buzzes to keep the action moving. As this has changed, soundtracks have begun to get more sophisticated, namely with new arrangements or even remixes of some very recognizable and classic pieces. I took them all for granted growing up. Sure some stood out, like the Final Fantasies, Marios and Zeldas, which would welcome you to their latest incantation with their familiar tunes. But it wasn’t until much later that I began to pay attention to and enjoy the soundtracks of the games I was playing.
Flash forward to today, and I’m off to PLAY! A Video Game Symphony, which is a concert of video game music with a live orchestra. There’s a light but enthusiastic crowd armed with more DS’s than I saw at E3. The concert begins, and the roster is heavy on the Final Fantasy pieces, but considering the track record its soundtracks have had, this isn’t surprising. Plus, Nobuo Uematsu is a master of the genre. As it happens he’s in the audience tonight, along with Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, who has written a ton of music for Sega, from Shenmue to Virtua Fighter and seemingly every title in between.
What’s interesting at PLAY is what works and what doesn’t. Halo’s theme comes across as confused and muddled, yet something obscure like a piece from Silent Hill surprises as to just how good it sounds. Shenmue’s theme soars, as does a delightful extended arrangement of Super Mario Bros. Others go completely over my head, as I’ve not played World of Warcraft, Kingdom Hearts and Battlefield 1942, making me unfamiliar with their music. Of course, the mix of elegant and excruciating could’ve just been the orchestra’s delivery.
Which brings us to Takenobu himself taking to the stage to play a classic from the Daytona series. He brings down the house with a powerful cry of “Daytooooooooooonnnnnnnaaaaaaaa” in perfect pitch, and his staying power drives the crowd to their feet while Takenobu tosses three plush Sonic toys at us. Makes me feel like I’m back at E3. When Takenobu leaves the stage, we hear Metal Gear Solid, Castlevania and a stunning arrangement of Zelda.
During the show we also see Rony Barrak, who is incredible on the Darbouka (a Middle Eastern Tabla). If he is ever in your neck of the woods, check him out; what he can do with his hands is amazing. I leave the concert puzzled at just what Nobuo Uematsu was doing here, though. He sat in the audience calmly, eventually signing a few things for fans. I would have thought he would conduct a few pieces or played one himself. However, even without him on stage, the number of standing ovations and the two encores that follow serve as proof that a good time was had by all.
It’ll be interesting to see if PLAY remains a serious endeavor or a just a series of one-offs. There is definitely an audience out there, but counting on your local orchestra/symphony to add video games to its repertoire remains to be seen. Film themes probably took longer to be accepted than video game themes will, simply because the road is now paved. However, the presentation still needs to be a little stronger, with more footage of games and less of the orchestra itself. After all, this is a multimedia-inspired concert.
— Phillip Vollmer
PLAY! A Videogame Symphony
PLAY! A Video Game Symphony