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Interview with WDR Radio Orchestra Manager Winfried Fechner Part 1 (March 2010)

Winfried Fechner

Winfried Fechner has been the manager of the WDR Radio Orchestra Cologne for five years. The orchestra is well-known for performing a wide range of music in radio broadcasts and concert performances. In recent years, Fechner has established a collaboration with video game music producer Thomas Böcker. This has resulted in the orchestra's involvement in several impressive productions, namely the studio recording drammatica and the live concerts Symphonic Shades and Symphonic Fantasies.

In an exclusive interview, Fechner reflects upon his time at the WDR Radio Orchestra. He discusses his memories of its video game concerts and gives his explanations for their enormous commercial and critical success. Finally, he exclusively reveals the concept of the orchestra's upcoming video game concert Symphonic Legends.

Interview Credits

Interview Subject: Winfried Fechner
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Thomas Boecker

Chris: Thank you for exclusively talking to us today, Mr Fechner. For people who might not know you yet, could you please introduce yourself?

Winfried Fechner: My name is Winfried Fechner. I have been the manager of the WDR Radio Orchestra Cologne for five years now. At the WDR Radio Orchestra, being the manager basically means being the intendant; next to organizing rehearsals and scheduling in general, I am responsible for creating new programs and hiring artists.

As for my educational background, I graduated in German language and literature studies, action-research, and musicology. I studied pipe organ, piano, and conducting. Additionally, I worked many years as a theatre actor and partly as a dramatic adviser at the opera. I have been at the Westdeutscher Rundfunk Cologne for 25 years — initially as an editor for serious music and later I was responsible for the huge field of culture in general.

WDR Radio Orchestra

Chris: Looking back, what would you describe as the personal highlights of your career?

Winfried Fechner: One highlight in those years has been the reproduction of operettas from Paul Abraham. I was lucky enough to find the scores that were, for a long time, considered to be lost. The second highlight was my first concert with video game music, Symphonic Shades. I was surprised by that music genre — one I did not know much about before, and one that is so fascinating through its beauty.

Chris: The WDR Radio Orchestra started performing video game music in 2008. Where did the idea came from originally?

Winfried Fechner: A conductor, who is also a friend of mine, contacted me saying: "You are doing so many crazy things with the WDR Radio Orchestra. I have an idea for you: Check out video game music". He told me the name of Thomas Böcker, and he gave his telephone number to me. A little bit later, I met Thomas Böcker and he told me about the field of video game music. That was the start of our co-operation.

Chris: Shortly after the meeting, you attended the Fifth Symphonic Game Music Concert in Leipzig.

Winfried Fechner: Yes, and because of that concert I made the decision to bring video game music to the WDR Radio Orchestra. What I experienced in Leipzig was something that I thought was exceptional The concert audience consisted mainly of quite young people. I was sitting there like a grandfather between children. It was an exciting and musically wonderful experience. I was also very impressed by the enthusiasm towards the attending composers.

Chris: ...only a little later Symphonic Shades was announced.

Winfried Fechner: Indeed. Symphonic Shades. The first concert took place in the Klaus-Von-Bismarck-Saal at the WDR Funkhaus. This is where the WDR Radio Orchestra presents a lot of its concerts, and this is where Yoko Shimomura's album drammatica was recorded too. At the time of the planning of Symphonic Shades, there were no dates available at the Cologne Philharmonic Hall.

When we announced the concert in 2007, it was sold out within just a few days. It came to me as a total surprise! And so many people kept calling that they want a ticket. Therefore we decided to offer a repeat performance the same day, at 11 PM! Everybody who attended that evening will agree that there was not one single empty seat.

Symphonic Shades

Chris: Is it correct that the success of Symphonic Shades convinced you to continue with video game music concerts?

Winfried Fechner: Absolutely. This is why we came up with the idea of Symphonic Fantasies and this year Symphonic Legends. All events are ones which I am planning together with Thomas Böcker one year in advance. Please let me add here that I think we succeeded for several reasons. Firstly, it was the first time that the WDR Radio Orchestra worked on such a big concert with video game music — something that was a new genre for most of the orchestra members. They played with so much passion. And there was an audience — and this is the other reason for the success — that was listening with such a dedication and responding to the music with so much energy that the musicians felt very encouraged.

I would like to add a third thought. Another reason for the success were the exceptionally beautiful and musically high-class arrangements by Jonne Valtonen.

Chris: What are the special qualities of the WDR Radio Orchestra that make their performances of video game music so unique?

Winfried Fechner: The WDR Radio Orchestra is mastering a special way of performing music. Something that is so important with popular music, with entertaining music. The musicians immediately react to tempo speed-ups, tempo reductions, crescendi, decrescendi — getting louder and quieter; that's something a normal orchestra does not master with such perfection. In addition to that, there is what I describe as 'sound ecstasy'. The orchestra musicians have a strong passion for 'sound ecstasy' — they are living the sound, living the music so to speak. No wonder they told me after our video game music concerts: We want to continue doing such events, the sound is absolutely beautiful. Pure 'sound ecstasy'.

Chris: Symphonic Fantasies had almost two weeks of rehearsals. This is quite unusual.

Winfried Fechner: It is probably important to mention that rehearsal means something special at the WDR. At the WDR, we are rehearsing the music, and we are also recording the music for radio broadcast purposes. Therefore every piece has to be performed both in parts and as a whole many times, so that it does not have any mistakes in the recordings. Orchestra musicians need a lot of concentration, time, and power to create such a flawless recording. However, of course, such a working style has a very positive effect on the quality of the actual concert performance later. It is this perfect sound that I insist on for my audience.

Kingdom Hearts

Chris: Symphonic Fantasies was different to other video game music concerts arrangement-wise, featuring long suites of up to 17 minutes...

Winfried Fechner: For Symphonic Shades, Jonne Valtonen created arrangements closer to the original music. Not that he simply did 1:1 arrangements; in fact he added a lot of very creative ideas — unbelievably many creative, beautiful ideas. However, he stayed close to the original structure of the pieces, and so we mainly got 3-5 minute arrangements. Now for Symphonic Fantasies he went a step further. He worked as an arranger and composer, he consolidated short pieces of original music into one suite, and he composed his own transitions in a very unique style. In my opinion, one should call the resultant works symphonic poems. Jonne Valtonen created symphonic poems for Symphonic Fantasies.

That step was a significant step in the development of video game music. Not that the melodies were only played piece by piece, but they were combined and layered in order to open a musical dialogue. I was very much looking forward to the response of the audience that did not know such a kind of music before. I was interested to see how people would react. The result: The audience members listened extremely intensively, and at the end, the enthusiasm was at least on one level with Symphonic Shades.

Chris: Could you please tell us what you favorite piece was at Symphonic Fantasies?

Winfried Fechner: Actually I liked two pieces very much. Kingdom Hearts because it was successful in presenting a video game as a piano concerto. It was performed by a classically trained pianist, Benyamin Nuss, who is so much into video game music that he put all his skills and effort into the concert and this year even canceled another assignment in Berlin to be available for Symphonic Legends instead.

The second piece was Secret of Mana. Jonne Valtonen used sounds that one would probably expect from radio plays. Like the rustling of paper, or the clicking of the tongues in the choir. It sounded like gurgling and rain drops. What Jonne Valtonen is doing here is a blend of musically attracting elements from the original music, and almost experimental music. I have to say, I was curious to see how the audience would react on that. And I have to admit that I admire the audience, an audience that understood everything right at the first listen and got excited about it. I will tell you — I would love to have such an audience for many other concerts that I am doing.

Chris: The concerts are both artistically and commercially successful. After all, 60% of the tickets were sold within a week for Symphonic Legends...

Winfried Fechner: Yes, after one month we were almost at 80% and, at the time of this interview, it is basically sold out. We convinced the fans so much that the announcement of a concert title is enough to make them wanting to attend. This is an immense trust that makes me very happy. For me it means that the WDR Radio Orchestra is now a synonym for high quality. The fans know that our video game music concerts are going to be very special events which are different from others.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Chris: Unquestionably, our readers are keen on knowing what Symphonic Legends has to offer. Can you please reveal this year's concept exclusively to the readers of SEMO?

Winfried Fechner: Symphonic Legends - music from Nintendo. This is the concert title. Fans immediately know now what it is all about: The concert is dedicated to the Japanese company Nintendo.

We will perform music from franchise classics such as Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, Metroid, F-Zero, and The Legend of Zelda. And we are announcing more titles during the next few months through media outlets such as SEMO and at our official website. We are very excited about the fantastic opportunity; it is the first time ever that Nintendo grants permission for an event of this scope. It is a great, great honor to us.

This is the first part in a two part interview with Winfried Fechner. The second part of the interview features information about the arrangers of Symphonic Legends, details about the concert in 2011, and news regarding the Symphonic Fantasies CD album. Symphonic Legends will occur at the Cologne Philharmonic Hall on September 23, 2010. Thank you to Thomas Boecker for organising this interview and Winfried Fechner for his participation.