Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Night at the Symphony: Play!

This Friday I found myself sitting in Bagel Sphere, waiting for my bagel and thumbing through the Eugene Weekly, when I chanced upon this subtly patronizing article by a Mr. Brett Campbell about an upcoming concert at the Hult Center: Play! A Video Game Symphony. As I watched the author simultaneously bemoan modern orchestras for selling out (by playing "crass" things like, say, video game music) and for being out of touch (by mostly performing things that were written centuries ago), I quickly realized that I was missing the point: there was a video game symphony on Saturday, at decent prices! Putting Mr. Campbell's hapless hypocrisy aside for a moment, I rang up my friends Alex and Bau and made plans for a night of not-quite classical music with the Eugene Symphony and Choir.

The cheap tickets were fifteen dollars, but even though we showed at the box office up several hours before show time, they were all sold out, and we had to upgrade to twenty eight dollar seats. Not being used to symphony prices, I have no idea if that's a lot, but it sure felt like it, all things considered.

After a wine-and-steak-fueled pre-party, we rolled back to the Hult Center an hour and a half before the show to observe the festivities in place. As expected, the nerds were out in force: many people of all ages had arrived in costume, and the winner of the evening's costume contest was to be awarded (among other goodies) a Nintendo Wii. Apart from the obligatory horde of Marios and Luigis, there was some really impressive cos-play action from people who had obviously heard about the show more than a day in advance. Alongside an epic Cloud Strife costume and a comically odd Ape Escape pairing, there were a few young Links and (for some reason) a Sailor Moon mixed into the bunch. For our part, we wore the clothes we'd been wearing all weekend, a state of affairs that clearly elevated us to a whole new level of class.

With an hour to go, most of the people were either waiting in line to play Mario Kart, or waiting to be interviewed by the bewildered local news cameras. Not especially eager to do either, we devoted our attentions instead to chicken wings and a pitcher of High Life across the street, where we somehow managed to get Jessie's Girl stuck in our heads.

The concert organizers desperately wanted us to buy their super-special ten dollar souvenir programs in the lobby, but we opted for the free ones because to hell with that. With a turnout like that, Play! doesn't need to rely on swag sales to get by.

The conductor for the evening was Andy Brick, a nice fellow with a substantial background in game music. In fact, one of his own compositions (from the SimCity 4 soundtrack) was listed on the program, but for whatever reason it was passed over. Perhaps he felt self-conscious about it? One doesn't exactly play SimCity for its fabulous music.

Exposition complete! Let's get on with this review!

This was our first time at the symphony, and it was fairly obvious that this was true for many of the attendees present. Brick surely knew this, and acknowledged it by giving the audience permission from the start to cheer whenever they wanted to, since they were probably going to anyway. The mob took this advice to heart, and obtrusively applauded at least six times during the performance of the Mario music. It wasn't the music they generally reacted to: each round of applause was generally associated with the appearance of new game play footage on the giant screens above the orchestra's heads. A word to my fellow concert-goers: I know the conductor said it was OK, but some of us came to hear music.

That said, Mario (music by Koji Kondo) was an excellent choice to start things off. The main theme of Super Mario Bros. is probably the single most famous piece of game music ever composed, and never fails to capture the attention of gamers with the first few bars. It's a real tribute to the composer that the effect of hearing this music is virtually the same in 8-bit MIDI and full-scale orchestration: it's really, really fun. The story of game music begins for all practical purposes with Kondo's work, and it's a treat to see it in action.

The next piece came straight from Battlefield (music by Joel Eriksson), and was primarily notable for being completely forgettable. You really can't follow the Mushroom Kingdom with World War II, and if you're going to try, it had better sound more interesting than the background music of a generic History Channel documentary.

Things got much more interesting for the second set, when one of the bassists laid his instrument down and took up the electric guitar to play some melodies from Silent Hill (music by Akira Yamaoka). Silent Hill is a horror series, and in light of the rather disturbing visuals and the presence of small children in the audience, the giant screens didn't show any video. This was just as well, as the audience would only have cheered each time something vaguely interesting happened on screen, and it was nice to just enjoy the music for a while.

Up until this point, the choir had been waiting patiently for something to do, perhaps thinking silently about how exactly their careers had brought them to this particular repertoire. The conductor finally called upon their services for Castlevania (music by Michiru Yamane and others), for some creepy medieval harmonies. The medley was easily one of the early highlights of the show, and I was especially pleased to see the electric guitar used tastefully, without descending into gratuitous metal nonsense (as so often happens).

The final set of the first half began with Kingdom Hearts (music by Yoko Shimomura) and a medley centered on Passion (known as Sanctuary in the U.S.), the main theme from Kingdom Hearts II. This was a good choice, as it is by far the better of the two main themes; it was also interesting to hear the erstwhile pop tune sans-vocals. I am a very big fan of Kingdom Hearts, but the music has never been the primary reason why. Still, it was very pretty, and I wouldn't ask for more than that.

The set closed with selections from The Legend of Zelda, another classic Nintendo game with music by Koji Kondo. The potential was ripe for an epic conclusion, but the result was instead a better-than-average medley interspersed with more inappropriate cheering from the gallery. The nerd in me winced a little to see a conventional flute intro where an ocarina would certainly have been more appropriate, but maybe it's hard to get a hold of a concert-caliber ocarina on short notice? More could definitely have been done to capture a broader section of the series' rich melodic tradition, but time is of the essence, and soon it was time for the band to take a break.

We lost sight of Bau in the crowd during intermission, so Alex and I took a step outside for a breather. I chatted for a little bit about World of Warcraft with a girl while her non-gamer boyfriend stood by, looking vaguely perplexed. Then a man in a kilt and his friend "Joliet" Jake Blues came out for a cigarette, and I wondered if they had realized just what exactly the theme of the costume contest was.

Speaking of the contest, back in the theater two somebody-or-others introduced us to the five finalists, who were now to be selected via the most appropriate method, given the nature of the crowd: loud cheering. Justice was served, and the first prize went to the little kid in the Link costume, while the guy dressed as Cloud Strife with way too much time on his hands looked vaguely, but graciously, disappointed.

The orchestra leaped back into the swing of things with the main theme from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, after the conductor pointed out that the composer, Jeremy Soule, was seated among us in the audience. He evidently had much better seats than we had, so we couldn't quite find him, but the spotlight did, and there was much rejoicing. Soule is known as "the John Williams of video game music," and the Oblivion theme is as strong a piece of evidence as one could hope for to make that case, with that special brand of cinematic grandeur that could be called, yes, Williams-esque. Having only a passing familiarity with Oblivion (I bought it for twenty dollars about a year ago, part of a double-pack with Bioshock), I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this part of the show.

The most lovely performance of the night was a medley of themes from Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross (music by Yasunori Mitsuda), with a solo piano introduction that won me over completely with its grace. Trigger's main theme is a true classic of the genre, and one of the best works from a truly outstanding collection of great music released on Squaresoft games. Nobuo Uematsu deservedly gets most of the credit for that, but Mitsuda is clearly no slouch. It's this style of romantic, adventurous music that remains one of the sentimental favorites for many video game fans as the genre continues to move into the mainstream.

Up next came the theme from Halo (music by Martin O'Donnell), which was big, grandiose, and entirely unnecessary from my perspective, although the frat boys present loved it. Let's move on...

The Sonic the Hedgehog medley (music by Masato Nakamura) missed a golden opportunity to bust out the electric guitar once again, but was otherwise a welcome return to some lighter fare; the second half of the show was turning out to be much more serious than the first. Many of us fell in love with video game music way back when we were huddled around our Super Nintendo or Genesis, and as much as we love to see our beloved medium take such bold steps forward, it's good to remember where we come from, and how much fun we had while we were there.

Having said that, the theme from Shadow of the Colossus (music by Ko Otani) could have driven me to tears. Colossus is one of those cult games that few have heard of and fewer have played, and I regrettable count myself among the uninitiated. This regret was painfully acute as I heard the score reproduced on stage. The crowd evidently agreed with me, as they listened quietly throughout almost the entire piece (unless of course they were just too unfamiliar with the work to hoot for it).

The final piece on the program was from World of Warcraft (music by Jason Hayes and others), which I anticipated coolly; though I'd logged hundreds of hours on the game in my time, I had not actually listened to very much of it, preferring to turn down the volume and listen to rock instead. I was pleasantly surprised, and it worked well as a closing piece, but it still failed to make a deep impression on me, or my friends.

After the conductor left the stage, a few patrons began to leave their seats, for reasons I could hardly venture to guess. Anyone who glanced at the program would have immediately noted the distinct lack of works by Nobuo Uematsu, a living legend in the industry: the only contribution of his thus far had been a brief fanfare at the introduction, composed especially for the Play! concerts. Justice demanded an encore, and it was obvious what that encore would be. Sure enough, Brick returned to the stage shortly to lead the orchestra and choir through One-Winged Angel, the epic battle music from Final Fantasy VII. Choosing precisely which Uematsu masterpiece to play must have been agonizing for the organizers, since any choice was bound to disappoint a few fans, but Angel was probably the inevitable choice: it's one of the most dramatic, original, and immediately crowd-pleasing pieces of game music in history, and its madly rhapsodic structure positively glows with genius. It's also a bit scary, and if any of the people who left early were families with small children, they may have made the right choice after all.

It wasn't exactly a classical music show, if by "classical" we're talking about a part of our culture that hasn't been thoroughly de-legitimized as a childish waste of time. If you think the entire process was somehow sullied by the presence of a crowd which was largely there to be pandered to, you might have a point: most of those present, myself included, had never been to a symphony, and most of those would likely not be returning to hear Brahms any time soon. This is highly unfortunate, but apart from getting people to love Brahms, there's really nothing that can be done about it.

But I don't believe time spent listening to beautiful music is time wasted. The works of many game composers belong in the classical repertoire, and I look forward to the day when the great works first heard by dedicated gamers can be performed without special attention being drawn to their original context. Good music stands on its own as worth hearing, and I hope many others will take the opportunity to hear it themselves.

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