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Monday, July 13, 2009

Review of the PLAY! A VIDEO GAME SYMPHONY concert in Cary!

Last week this blog received a nice e-mail about Play! A Video Game Symphony. It's exactly what it sounds like: a full symphony orchestra playing a selection of music from a variety of video games. The accompanying press release had details about the concert's performance later on that weekend in Cary, North Carolina.

So on Saturday afternoon fellow blogger and gaming junky Matt Federico (who wore a t-shirt reading "I GAVE UP VIDEO GAMES and it was the worst 15 minutes of my life" for the occasion, and is a very cool guy even though he is dead wrong about daring to think that Fallout 3 is a bad game) and I high-tailed it to Cary and the Koka Booth Amphitheater there. There was even a very neat press pass waiting for me since I'm an established journalist by way of this blog! Kewl aye?

Well, that was still not as kewl as the actual Play! concert itself. The amphitheater was packed with a plethora of people eagerly awaiting the performance by the North Carolina Symphony and the Concert Singers of Cary Chamber Choir. At 8:30 p.m. guest conductor Andy Brick took to the podium and after a series of introductions, the concert was on! The first bit of music was by Nobuo Uematsu, the composer of the Final Fantasy games, and was written exclusively for the Play! concert series.

Then, with footage from the games accompanying the performance on a giant screen hanging above the orchestra, the show got started in earnest with Kojo Kondo's immortal music from the Super Marios Bros. series! We heard the classic theme, the underwater music, the theme often heard whenever Mario is underground, and the notes from the finished castle sequence. I recognized just about all of the Super Mario Bros. games when they were shown on the screen, including Super Mario Bros. 2 (the "black sheep" of the Super Mario games). And all the while, at conductor Brick's encouragement, the audience was often cheering and whooping and hollering with joy!

Next came the music from Battlefield 1942, which I have never played but I thought it had both a unique sound of its own and also, for me anyway, evoked imagery from Steven Spielberg's film 1941.

Next came music from the Silent Hill series, with guest accompaniment by acclaimed guitarist Carlos Alomar, who has played with John Lennon, David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen along with many others. I've also never played a Silent Hill game, but the music and the associated imagery on the screen is tempting me to give it a try sometime.

Then came an extended and very neat arrangement from the Castlevania series! Never before has the centuries-old tale of the Belmont family and its endless battle against Count Dracula looked and sounded so sweeping and epic. This was by far one of my favorite parts of the show.

The music from Square Enix and Disney's Kingdom Hearts series followed. Now, I for one think that the whole Kingdom Hearts concept is more than a little... strange. I mean, having Donald Duck fighting alongside Final Fantasy characters stretches credulity even for a video game. Nonetheless, I thought that Yoko Shimomura and Hikaru Utada's composition was beautiful. And in and of itself the Kingdom Hearts stuff was plenty enough reason why a concert like Play! has come into its own and found appreciation: because video game music has become as much of a form of art as soundtracks for movies and television shows.

The first half of the show wrapped up with a return to the work of Kojo Kondo, and a series that began in 1986 on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Of course, this was the music from The Legend of Zelda series. Flutes and other woodwinds tantalized us and then the strings kicked in as the universally recognized main Zelda theme began. Once again the audience got riled up into wild applause and even laughter, especially as the screen showed the unintentionally hilarious "I am Error" bit from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. The Underworld theme from the first game was particularly haunting, especially now as darkness had enveloped the amphitheater.

A short break followed, and then at 9:30 the concert began again with something that conductor Andy Brick had composed himself: the music from Sim City 4, which he described as having to be both monotonous and simultaneously not boring. I liked it a lot, and once again the crowd joined into the spirit of the show as the screen depicted a Sim town being wracked by tornadoes and monsters (hey, this is a Sim City game after all ;-)

Following this came the music of the Elder Scrolls games, and particularly The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, before which Brick enlightened us about how composer Jeremy Soule wrote some of this music following a near-fatal car crash he was in and how it moved him to compose something touching upon mortality and the preciousness of human life. I found this music to be dark, tragic and moving: without knowing anything else of the game, I thought that Soule accomplished what he set out to do.

Then came the music from Chrono Cross and Chrono Trigger, also two games that I have never played before (and having Matt along for the ride came in very handy 'cuz he has played many of these games before, so he could 'splain to me when I needed it :-). I found this music to be wild and dreamy.

And then it started to rain, and those on the ground went scurrying for cover. Matt and I found it beneath a hospitality shelter not far from where we'd been situated on the lawn. And maybe the rain in some way made the next bit of the show even more appropriate...

...'cuz now it was time for music from the Halo series.

The Carolina Symphony Orchestra and the Concert Singers of Cary Chamber Choir, performing the music from Halo: Combat Evolved and its sequels. That, my friends, was utterly majestic, especially as the choir began. The ancient beyond reckoning constructs of the massive Halos came into mind as the arena shook and our hearts beat in awe. Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori did some unbelievably powerful work with the Halo games, even the music from the trailer for Halo 3, which was also part of the arrangement. You could almost see a miles-wide Forerunner artifact opening beneath Raleigh, just from listening to the music like that.

Halo music in the rain. Just one more moment of experience that I will take with me for as long as I live :-)

Now it was time for something considerably more light-hearted: the music from the Sonic the Hedgehog games! Can you believe that I've never played a single game from this series in all its many years? That still didn't keep me (along with everyone else) from cheering and laughing and otherwise being thrilled by the driving and whimsical beat of Sonic as he did his... whatever :-P

The music of Warhammer Online came next, which can be described in one word more than any other: "brutal". I've never played Warhammer Online either, but I thought it fits well the motif and genre of the Warhammer Fantasy Battle tabletop game's mood: dark and fearsome. Hopefully the forthcoming Warhammer 40,000 Online will feature just as awesome music :-)

And then the orchestra started playing the music of World of Warcraft. Which I have also never played... but I am now feeling more than a little tempted to buy all of the CD soundtracks from this series. Matt's "narration" was very much appreciated 'cuz he told me which was the theme for the human capital city, what was the music for the Lich King's realm, etc. This was definitely one of the best parts of the show for me, and I found myself thinking that if Star Wars: The Old Republic has music even half as good, that it's going to be a heckuva MMO game. Nearly two days later and I still can't get the World of Warcraft music out of my head!

The Cary performance of Play! came to an end with a selection of music from the Final Fantasy games. Yeah, I haven't played these either, and I've never understood at all why these games can be called Final Fantasy when (a) they have no common continuity at all across the entire series and (b) the series hasn't ended yet and I think it's now up to Final Fantasy 47 at the moment. But again, I thought the music was quite nice.

I just wish that the Play! concert had included some music from the Gears of War games, 'cuz as the show was in Cary this is the hometown of Epic Games and Gears of War! Maybe next time? :-) I'd also thought afterward that it would have been unbelievably awesome if the music from the first Doom game had been thrown into the mix: can you imagine a full orchestra playing the theme from the very first level of Doom? Again, maybe in the future they can do this, 'cuz that alone would demand a concert ticket!

But those very minor quibbles aside (and hey, there's no way that every bit of classic video game music can make it into one concert) I thought that Play! A Video Game Symphony was a fantastic show, and one that I will give my heartiest recommendation for. The show is next coming to Salt Lake City, Utah in November. If you're out that way, you should do everything you can to attend! And I'll certainly be looking out for it the next time it performs anywhere around here :-)

EDIT 07/15/2009 9:40 a.m. EST: Matt Federico has also posted a review of this concert! Check out his write-up, which also includes a bit about the crazy drive we had on the way to Cary :-P


Brian (Nunchux) said...

They need to bring that along to my neck of the woods. Sounds like a great time! I am actually listening to the Wrath of the Lich King theme right now. I can tell you as a huge aficionado of movie/tv/ video game music that the WoW trilogy has amazing music. I have never played the game, but the music is ridiculously good! I definitely recommend picking up the albums.