Video Games Unplugged: Symphony of Legends :: Report by Simon Elchlepp
It's true what they say in those 'most liveable cities of the world' reports: Melbourne is an awesome place to live. Still, one of the few things that I've been missing since I moved here some years ago is the occasional game music concert. The last such performance in Melbourne was the Eminence Symphony Orchestra's A Night in Fantasia 2007: Symphonic Games Edition, and that was before my time down under. All that was left for me then was to look over enviously to Sydney, forever Melbourne's arc rival, home base of Eminence, and the location of their star-studded A Night in Fantasia 2009 extravaganza. And of course, there was the fact that when the Distant Worlds world tour decided to grace Australia, they chose the little-known Sydney Opera House (only fractionally more iconic than Melbourne's own Hamer Hall) as their performing venue.
But that drought was finally about to end: the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra would hold its first game music concert on April 12, 2012. Even better, this event would also be an original concert production, featuring some world first performances that sounded truly intriguing, among them Bioshock 2 and Secret of Mana (more info on the concert in this interview with the Melboune Symphony Orchestra's Andrew Pogson here). With the involvement of Eminence as co-producers of the show and with Eminence's Phillip Chu at the baton, things certainly looked promising.
The concert was held in Plenary Hall, which is part of Melbourne's Convention and Exhibition Centre, a massive building along Melbourne's inner-city riverside whose architecture the Lonely Planet Guide to Melbourne calls 'brutalist'. That term describes the barren charm of its concrete street front pretty well. On a short stroll along the waterfront before the concert, I realise that the centre actually has a second and much prettier entrance, leading right into the foyer where concert goers are gathering. The excitement among the mostly young (as in 'under 30') crowd is palpable, and the queue in front of the merchandise store quickly grows in length. Walking into the concert hall and taking my seat, I take a look around. With its massive wood panels and seats in all shades of green, the 1500-seat amphitheatre-style venue feels a bit like a 70s flashback. The hall fills steadily and in the end, it looks like about 90-95% of tickets have been sold. A bit frustrated with the lack of a printed concert programme, I instead inspect the stage set up (the orchestra with a sizeable percussion section under one huge screen and framed on the sides by two smaller screens) and listen to my seat neighbours chatting (two teenage girls next to me discuss the popularity of Assassin's Creed vs. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim).
Finally, the lights go down and Scott Kurtz (with Baroque hairpiece) and Kris Straub creators of Penny Arcade show Blamimations and many other funny web projects come on stage. To the amusement of the audience, they launch into an introduction for a concert that would cover everything 'from Bach to Brahms' (Kris) before geek extraordinaire Wil Wheaton appears on stage and explains to an unbelieving Scott and Kris that this concert is all about video game music. It's a nice way to poke fun at the idea that game music only consists of bleeps and blops. But then again, do you need to explain to an audience that paid up 140 ASD for a ticket that the music they'll be listening to is 'worthy' of being performed by an orchestra? This introductory chat between Wil, Scott and Kris still feels a bit stilted, but later on they settle into their routines and prove to be funny and affable hosts who regularly have the audience in laughter during their well-scripted appearances.
Then it's off into the first piece of the night and the first world performance premiere: Halo: Combat Evolved's main theme. Not a huge Halo fan myself, it takes me a bit longer to realise than the rest of the audience, who starts cheering seconds after the game's outer-space cutscenes appear on the video screens. Opening with the series' trademark solemn Gregorian chants, the piece is a great showcase for the Concordis Chamber Choir and soloist Jillian Aversa, who appears on stage for some brief alto interjections. Soon, the music segues into busy battle action, all underscored fittingly with a montage of cutscenes and in-game footage on the screens. Here as throughout the evening, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra shows itself up to the task, performing with precision and aplomb. The acoustics inside the Plenary Hall aren't astounding and are certainly not the last word in finely detailed orchestral sound this hall simply wasn't built as a classical music venue. But this shortcoming is quite minor and the sounds coming from the stage definitely aren't lacking in power.
In his interview with SEMO, the MSO's assistant artistic administrator Andrew Pogson had mentioned that Video Games Unplugged would include the world premiere of music from an unreleased game that he couldn't talk about yet. In the evening's first major surprise, that game turned out to be Gravity Rush, scored by none other than Kohei Tanaka! It's a suite of tracks from the game's soundtrack, and while I haven't given the album a listen yet, that will have to change ASAP. Gravity Rush's suite opens with boisterous, sweeping strains from the full orchestra, before segueing into a tender mid-section, only to return to the opening's exuberant, stirring mood. Richly symphonic, excellently orchestrated and reminiscent of Joe Hisaishi's Studio Ghibli scores in the best possible sense, Gravity Rush is one of the concert's highlights. It also demonstrates that Video Games Unplugged is happy to feature some less obvious musical choices that are just as strong and probably fresher than some of the old warhorses of the live game music scene. Another plus is the fact that the video clips shown on the screens are not just more or less randomly compiled bits and pieces, but are actually edited to tell a story (in this case of how the game's gravity-defying protagonist saves a little boy).
Next up is a trio of compositions from Blizzard titles, World of Warcraft ("A Tenous Pact"), Starcraft II ("The Hyperion Overture"), and the much-anticipated Diablo III ("Legacy of Terror"). Thankfully Wil, Scott and Kris announce not just from which game the upcoming composition is, but also the piece's name, which makes my life a lot easier. Instead of the hoped-for brand new arrangements, what the MSO performs are the arrangements created for Eminence's Echoes of War: The Music of Blizzard Entertainment. That's not a bad deal either, as these arrangements haven't been performed live before, and the MSO's amassed orchestral forces certainly perform these colourful pieces with the necessary sheen, even though there's the occasional imprecision in the opening brass marcato rhythms of "A Tenous Pact". "A Tenous Pact" also marks one of the few occasions when the video seems slightly out of sync with the transitions within the piece. And while that I'm aware the Echoes of War arrangement doesn't include bells, it's odd to see cutscene footage of tolling bells, but not hear them. Similarly, while "The Hyperion Overture" is a rousing piece of music that mostly merges excellently with the visuals onscreen, seeing Starcraft II protagonist Jim Raynor pining for his lost love while proud march rhythms play in the background is a bit jarring.
Before "Legacy of Terror", Wil welcomes Hiroaki Yura, founder and concertmaster of the Eminence Symphony Orchestra, to the stage. Hiroaki shares some insight into the recording process of the music for Diablo III, including the fact that the orchestra had no idea what they were about to play, and that most of the orchestra members realised what was happening once they performed Tristram's theme! As on Echoes of War, "Legacy of Terror" is one of the more martial pieces, with plenty of occasion for the brass and choir to make a mark, and as with the other Blizzard pieces, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the Concordis Chamber Choir successfully bring the music's bombast to live. Still, despite all the skill on display, by the end of "Legacy of Terror" I feel the music's almost constant grandiosity has worn itself out a bit. Maybe it's the fact there's not a huge amount of melody or depth to the compositions' pretty similar sounding fantasy and sci-fi pomposity, which dominates these tracks and overshadows their quieter moments. At least for me, putting all three compositions together in one block creates a samey, if still entertaining listening experience.
Shadow of the Colossus was a brilliant game, but it wasn't for everyone for example Kris, who confesses to be afraid of colossi, heights, swords and horses, while the portly Scott says he's a colossus himself, so slaughtering them in the game didn't make him feel very comfortable. "Counterattack ~Battle With the Colossus~", despite its action-oriented nature, is more melodic than the Blizzard pieces and makes for a nice change of pace. At just over two minutes though, the piece doesn't have much time to make an impact and can't compete with the A Night in Fantasia 2009 suite from the game in terms of memorability and stylistic creativity.
After this slight lull, the concert fully comes back to life with "Pairbond" and "Eleanor's Lullabye" from BioShock II. This game and Secret of Mana were the two titles I was looking forward to the most. And although it would have been fun to see the orchestra tackle those fierce dissonances that the BioShock games are famous for, the focus on more emotional material from BioShock II was more than welcome after the onslaught of adrenaline-driven compositions we had sat through. The performed arrangements sounds pretty much like what's heard on the soundtrack releases and the two pieces aren't combined into a suite, but performed as separate short cues. But all that doesn't matter why would you want to fiddle around with perfection anyway? The orchestral truly shines in their delicate performance of these heart-rending compositions, finding the right balance between restraint and emotional commitment. It might be only a good four minutes of music, but since that translats to four minutes of goosebumps for me, I have no reason to complain. This would have been absolute bliss, had not somebody in the audience decided that it was a good idea to bring a toddler with them, which spoils the last few seconds of "Eleanor's Lullabye"...
We go back into more testosterone-laden material with "Atlantis of the Sands" and "Nate's Theme 3.0" from Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. This was the first Uncharted soundtrack that I had actively enjoyed, and it's a pleasure to hear the two pieces' swashbuckling strains performed with verve by the orchestra. The hand percussion and ethnic woodwind are well-integrated into the ensemble's live sound, and particularly the vivid rendition of Nate's heroic theme stays with me for a while after the concert has finished.
Introducing the next piece, Scott and Kris earn some laughs for the announcement that the MSO would score a whole playthrough of God of War II minus the gory bits, since there were kids in the audience (indeed, as "Eleanor's Lullabye" proved). After that playthrough is over in about 2.5 seconds, the orchestra and choir launch into a fierce rendition of "The Isle of Creation". While I enjoyed the God of War soundtracks, I wasn't hugely enthusiastic of them and so this impressive performance catches me by surprise. This is the most intense and raw piece so far, with its primal power and majesty conveyed to astonishing effect, particularly due to the electrifying presence of the orchestra's brass section and the choir. While the arrangement is again very similar to the one on the soundtrack album, simply hearing the piece performed in the immediacy of a live concert increases its impact tenfold. This is music that mainly requires forceful playing and rhythmic precision to shine, and the orchestra and choir bring these qualities in abundance.
Speaking of such music... When Scott announces that the next piece will be from Final Fantasy VII, the audience starts cheering, probably well aware of what's about to come. Yep, it's "One-Winged Angel". Given that by now, this composition is to live game music what "Stairway to Heaven" is to classic rock great work, a tad overplayed new performances of "One-Winged Angel" are up against quite a bit of competition. This particular rendition falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. With no surprises arrangement-wise, the start of the performance suffers from a lack of intensity, particularly in the build up to the first choir entrance. Fortunately, the performance finds its footing later on and finishes on an appropriately grand note. Still, compared to "Isle of Creation", "One-Winged Angel" sounds too tame to really impress.
It's off into the intermission, during which I try to make sense of all my notes that I took frantically in the dark. A very insistent gong urges us back inside, and what better way to get back into the swing of things than with "Baba Yetu" from Civilization IV. After that composition's Grammy Award win, it's probably no outrageous claim to say this this piece will become as much a mainstay of live game music concerts as "One-Winged Angel". The male soloist's voice isn't as deep and resonant as that of the soundtrack album's Stanford Talisman, but otherwise this is a fine performance that recreates the original well enough. This goes for both orchestra and choir, as the members of the Concordis Chamber Choir perform the celebratory choir vocals with joy and precision. This is an amazing piece that wins you over easily in any well-performed rendition, and the Video Games Unplugged performance has the added bonus of a well-edited video running along with the music, charting mankind's history from the days of the cavemen to the conquest of space. Together with the uplifting music, it actually makes for quite a moving moment. As throughout the rest of the concert, the audience reacts with enthusiasm and claps generously after the piece has finished.
The moment that I've been looking forward to the most finally comes when Wil mentions that we'll now hear music from one of the oldest games on the program. I heroically suppress a fanboy squeal when Wil announces the pieces to be performed "Angels Fear" from Secret of Mana and "Meridian Child" from its Japan-only sequel. The beautiful opening of "Angel's Fear", given to the harp in this world premiere arrangement, launches a lovely performance of this wondrous, if painfully short piece. Notably, these new arrangements eschew the experimental nature of Symphonic Fantasies' interpretation of this music. Instead, these arrangements stay pretty close to the originals, carefully beefing up their soundscape and making use of the orchestral and choral forces at hand. In the case of "Angel's Fear", the result is an enchanting performance that communicates all of the original's grace, charm and whimsy. "Meridian Child" starts out similarly promising with a touching rendition of its wistful opening. But once the driving snare drum rhythms kick in, they dominate the overall sound too much either because of the hall's acoustics or the sound mix and they unduly overshadow the optimistic string melodies that give the composition its feel of strident heroism.
One of the concert's most anticipated items was The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and of course it could only be the series' main theme in its "Dragonborn" incarnation. After Scott and Kris introduce this segment with a new and hilarious Blimimations episode on the video screens, Wil informs us that the Concordis Chamber Choir will be joined by additional forces for the next piece: the Scotch College Chamber Choir and members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Choir. And boy, do those extra voices pay off. For this piece, all you want is rhythmic precision and a choir that's LOUD, and these guys pass that test with flying choir. This was another goosebump moment for me: seeing game footage of fights against giant dragons while hearing the choir belting out its Viking war cries with stunning volume truly brought home the majesty of the world of Skyrim. As much as I didn't like the soundtrack album's four-hour slogfest, portions of it are absolutely worth revisiting in the context of a concert, and I'm sure "Dragonborn" will soon become a regular on the programs of live game music events.
Speaking of high-profile game music that I never quite got into, next up is Assassin's Creed II with "Ezio's Family" and "Venice Rooftops". Having listened to that score ages ago, I don't remember either piece particularly well. But once more, I'm surprised by how much like what I hear, at least in the case of "Ezio's Family". The concert's programmers wisely chose yet another piece that, while relatively simple, sounds several times better when performed live than on album. And indeed, the composition's serene beauty is enchanting all the way through, with Jillian Aversa returning on stage to deliver the ethereal lead vocals. The track's electric and acoustic guitar parts are reasonably well inserted into the concert's sound mix. Unfortunately, that careful balance between rock and orchestral elements is lost on "Venice Rooftops", where the percussion this time it's the drum kit drowns out the rest of the musical forces. That robs the piece of most of its impact, as the building choir lines leading to the piece's climax hardly register at all. And while the album version's drum rhythms were quite invigorating, in the Plenary Hall's acoustics the same rhythms carry considerably less punch than on record and sound boxy and hollow. Ultimately, "Venice Rooftops" is the evening's only real disappointment.
And then it's time for the grand finale: SoulCalibur V. But there was more in store than just a performance of pieces from that game. First of all, Wil welcomes Junichi Nakatsuru, lead composer of the first five SoulCalibur titles (let's not forget SoulCalibur: Broken Destiny) and co-composer on SoulCalibur V, on stage. This unannounced appearance is an amazing surprise and, although Nakatsuru-san only speaks a couple of sentences in English to the audience, it's great to see that the concert organisers had cared enough to fly him in for the occasion. In another world premiere, next up is a medley of Nakatsuru-san's compositions for all six SoulCalibur titles, compiled into one coherent suite and accompanied by footage from all six games. Needless to say, this is a fantastic trip through the ages the Dreamcast footage of SoulCalibur would have evoked nostalgic feelings in more than a few audience members. The suite is well-arranged and presents the music of the SoulCalibur universe in all its symphonic glory, a flurry of orchestral colours that promises the concert will end on an appropriately high note.
This is followed by another suite, this time of some of Tomoki Miyoshi's cutscence tracks for SoulCalibur V. Once more, the richly detailed music flows well, but what is just as interesting is that the arrangement is accompanied by a montage of cutscenes that tells the game's narrative in a more or less coherent way, adding meaning to the music. From the beginning with its dissonant, frightening choir and string jabs that show how game protagonists Patroklos and Phyrra Alexandra are driven apart ("Returning Doom"), to Patroklos's first meeting with angelic Elysium, underscored by the moving strains of "Home is Faraway" (that oboe solo couldn't be any prettier if it tried), finally leading into a tumultuous finale that leaves the fate of the two Alexandra children hanging in the air: it's terrific entertainment.
Before we get closure though, we are introduced to what should be one of the concert's most fascinating moments: the finale of a live professional SoulCalibur V tournament, held on stage and presented on the video screens, while the orchestra will perform the fighting music, adapting the arrangement on the spot depending on what the fighters are doing. Or at least that's the plan, but what I can hear from my seat sounds quite different. After the two finalists have picked their characters and launch into battle, the orchestra begins to perform what simply sounds like a straight rendition of "Blood Thirst Concerto - Raphael's Theme" as heard on the soundtrack album. Then again, it's tricky to tell, as the orchestra and piano soloist Jem Harding have to compete with the game's music and sound effects that can still be heard, if at lower volume than the orchestra. All in all, the whole concept behind the tournament, while spectacular on paper, feels flawed in execution. Even so, seeing two masters of the game duking it out in the finale of a nationwide tournament is quite a thrill, and the winner gets his prize from the hands of Nakatsuru-san himself. Ultimately, the whole thing feels more like an curious interlude, rather than the successful realisation of a very ambitious idea.
To finish the SoulCalibur chapter of the concert and the event itself, Jillian Aversa returns to the stage and everybody who was aware of Jillian's involvement in both the SoulCalibur V soundtrack and Video Games Unplugged probably knew what would come next: "Breeze at Dawn", the game's soaring end ballad, a magnificent piece and one of my personal favourites of 2012's game music so far. There could hardly be a better piece to close this concert, but its performance is hampered by one significant drawback. Likely due to a technical flaw, Jillian's soulful vocals that should float majestically over the piece's orchestral textures are way too quiet during the piece's beginning and end, barely audible against the soft orchestra and choir. It's a crucial piece of the puzzle that's missing and unfortunately it stops the concert from finishing with a stunner. Admittedly, the elevating nature and beauty of the composition remain largely intact (and we get to see the conclusion of Patroklos and Phyrra's story), so these complaints are not an indication that this was a poor ending. It's just that this could have been amazing instead of just good.
But no matter, all in all this was a great concert, so the applause after the music subsides is long and warm. And of course, there's the hope of getting an encore... And indeed we do: the main themes of Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3, presented in Eminence's arrangement from A Night in Fantasia 2007: Symphonic Games Edition, which back then also closed the Melbourne event. This time, the live drum kit fits snugly into the overall sound and imbues this arrangement with a lot more swing and drive than the rather limpid Metal Gear Solid arrangement heard on last year's The Greatest Video Game Music. The choir tends to overshadow Harry Gregson-Williams' by now iconic melody at the soaring end of the piece, but that's a small blemish on what is otherwise a fun and energetic close to the concert.
So what's the overall verdict after I leave the concert hall quite content? Despite the many performance premieres, arrangement-wise the concert offered few surprises. Most of these premieres presented the compositions in very similar or the same shape as on the (already orchestrated) soundtrack albums, with Secret of Mana being the obvious exception. What we got then in the end was a very fine performance of carefully selected pieces from an admirable range of games. Inclusions like the Gravity Rush suite and lesser-known tracks like God of War II's "Isle of Creation" showed that the event organisers had put a lot of thought into the concert program, happy to include less obvious but equally worthy material. All included pieces were strong compositions in and of themselves and so, at least on the artistic side, the only quibble I have is that programming all three Blizzard pieces in one block was a bit unfortunate. Instead, the concert's problems were located on the technical side, with a percussion sound that was too domineering, a mix that sadly undersold Jillian Aversa's performance, and a SoulCalibur V live tournament that felt more like an interruption than the climax of the event. But in total, this was easily a successful concert showcasing some excellent music, and hopefully it's going to be the first of more game music concerts by the MSO.
Special thanks to Lucas Dawson Photography for supplying the images.