September rolled around again and it was now time for me to begin my journey to Cologne once again, in what has become a new tradition to me over the last few years. A tradition that leaves me with more wonderful memories and heartfelt moments with each year that passes. Last year the German hot spot offered the world Symphonic Fantasies which celebrated 4 different franchises from game juggernaut Square Enix. The concert and its subsequent CD release was hailed worldwide as one of, if not the finest symphonic event ever dedicated to video games. With such praise and respect, the excitement when WDR announced they would be holding an event this year was astronomical. What would they be performing this year?
The answer turned out to be Nintendo. The kid inside me sprung into the air upon hearing this as the company and games that I grew up with would now be performed live by an orchestra, some games for the very first time. I loaded up my music player with Super Mario Bros, Super Metroid and Fabio’s After Dark poem CD, which was for reasons that may never be spoken of.
So join me as I travel back to one of the most beautiful cities in Europe for another unforgettable event!
The title of this article may sound a bit cheesy, but to me it was as if something above truly wanted me to go to this event. Due to some unfortunate events, my trip down to Cologne seemed to be an impossible journey to embark upon. However due to some very kind-hearted friends and family along with a bit of luck, I managed to get myself on the flight, fittingly, since Nintendo literally means “leave luck to the heavens”.
Symphonic Legends took place from one of the homes of the WDR Rundfunkorchester, the Cologne Philharmonic Hall which held last year’s Symphonic Fantasies concert as well. For those who have never been there, it is an absolutely beautiful venue, a circle with wooden interior and soft red colored seats giving the hall some natural soothing lighting. The acoustics resonated marvelously around the 2,000 seats of the lucky goers that have had the chance to attend any shows in this building and with the way the hall is structured, there truly isn’t a bad seat in the house. This year the WDR was accompanied by State Choir Latvija and the conductor was Swedish Niklas Willén. At 8PM September 23rd, the event finally started in what would be one of the most emotionally touching nights of my life.
We started the night with the original fanfare by Jonne Valtonen titled “Fanfare For The Common 8-Bit Hero”. Valtonen has been a student of classical music for some time now and as I mentioned in my Fantasies review, I find his compositions for these concerts to be every bit as exciting as the arrangements presented. This year was no different and the man deserves tremendous amount of respect for his ability to not only introduce the orchestra, but also introduce the spirit and general tone of the music through his own music. At this point I wouldn’t mind hearing a full project all based on original compositions by Valtonen. The fanfare had a strong heroic motif and a feeling of dawn, as if the music welcomed us all back to a new day full of new adventures as we, the audience, would experience all new music like the hero would experience new adventures. It was very effective and a wonderful piece in itself.
The first Nintendo game to be performed was what was announced as Starwing & Lylat Wars, the European titles for Starfox and Starfox 64 respectively in what was called “Space Suite”. The Latvija Choir stood up as they prepared to go on a trip to space along with the WDR. This piece was arranged by Shiro Hamaguchi who is famous for his many excellent Final Fantasy arrangements and anime music compositions. The track mainly revolved around the “Opening Theme” from Star Fox 64 and “Corneria” from Starfox and let it be said that they really went to town on “Corneria”. The choir would softly sing the melody before suddenly going into a battle themed take by the orchestra that was probably the most underrated moment of the entire concert as it was truly fantastic. The next suite was Super Mario Bros, a bit of a surprise as many expected this to go second to last.
There are several things to note about the “Retro Suite”. First of, it was absolutely incredible from start to finish, with the opening being the beautiful “Dire, Dire Docks” layered with the original “Water Theme” before going into “Athletic” from Super Mario Bros 3 which made use of rubber duckies. It would be interrupted by the “Castle Theme” before exploding into the “Main Theme” of Super Mario Bros. which was accompanied by Yoshi’s signature bongo footstep rhythm. We also got the Super Mario 64 layered with a trumpet lead from New Super Mario Bros.. An absolutely amazing collection of the most famous video game songs in history. When mentioning layering of tracks, it may not come as a surprise that this was arranged by Roger Wanamo who was responsible for the Chrono Trigger\Cross layering sections from Fantasies. Willén would be absolutely groovin’ on his podium during this song, using his whole body to conduct the orchestra and at times even be near horizontal as he leaned back holding onto his railing to dance his way around. I saw him in a way as an extension of the listeners as we all somewhat “conduct” in our seats and jive our hands and body along the sounds, Willén in his performance could be seen as an exaggeration of this and it definitely got us all very drawn in and smiling. Willén would add a lot of energy throughout the night.
The 2 next pieces would prove to probably be the most controversial of the night. F-Zero and Metroid. In F-Zero, we got the return of the amazing percussionist Rony Barrak, who would lead us into F-Zero with a darbuka solo. His solo was very efficient in getting across the idea of heart pounding, time and nerves going at rapid speeds before the race, while the suite itself consisted of “Mute City” and “Big Blue”. The problem here was that Barrak was mixed too high in the hall and it was a bit hard to hear the orchestra. Shiro Hamaguchi once again appeared as the arranger. Mixing aside as that is something that can fixed in post production, I felt that this track was a bit short and could have used another song to keep it more even, as the 2 songs were arranged a bit similar to each other. What was there was fantastic, but with an extra minute or so, it could have been my favorite of the night. Metroid would prove to be the track that had the most split reaction. Metroid is a dear series to me, as its mystique and mood is near unprecedented in the video game world. As controversial as the arrangement was, I’ll probably be just as controversial by saying that I absolutely loved this piece. Arranged by Torsten Rasch who internationally is probably most known for his Mein Herz Brennt – A Song Cycle Based on the Music of Rammstein project, this song was not what you would call a straightforward arrangement. Rather it was somewhat of a inspiration piece where in addition to trademark Metroid music, you also got original parts that took from all things that inspired Metroid from Star Wars cues, claustrophobic horror and a great sense of mystery and intensity. It is a perfect portrayal of what Metroid deep down is as a game, but fans might be coming in wanting more straightforward recognition of familiar tunes. The music lover in me however was smiling ear to ear after this piece was done in the midst of confused applause.
Donkey Kong Country is a masterpiece that sometimes is forgotten in the vast library of Nintendo soundtracks. David Wise composed a wonderful score full of exceptional melodies with driving percussion and a wide range of ambiance to backdrop the ever-changing jungle Donkey Kong ventures through. One song I most fondly remembered from this game is the piece chosen for the event, “Aquatic Ambiance”. Here we saw the return of Cologne’s own Benyamin Nuss who was greeted to heavy applause. In a stunningly beautiful arrangement by none other than Masashi Hamauzu. This piece contained some of the most beautiful interplay between the piano and violin that I have ever had the pleasure to hear at a concert in my entire life. The result is a deeply moving and emotionally provoking piece where Nuss’s mastery on piano harmonizes perfectly with Cizmarovic and the string players which back them up to elevate the melody. It became, in the end, my favorite part of the concert and from talking to people in the lobby to gather some fan feedback after the event, it seemed many felt the same.
“Space Suite” saw the return of Mario in a suite dedicated to the music for Super Mario Galaxy. Some may question why Mario Galaxy was just not included in the other Mario suite of the evening, but it is stylistically so different from other Mario soundtracks and Wanamo arranged this with his signature layering and properly tells the story of Mario as he goes on his galactic adventure. From the dramatic sounds of “Bowser’s Fleet” to the heartwarming chorus of “Gusty Garden”, this piece gave me plenty tears of joy and I dare say it sounds better performed by the WDR than it ever did from the stellar Mario Galaxy Orchestra. Absolutely amazing hearing the music of Mario Galaxy live and Wanamo nailed every second of this arrangement. After this, the intermission came and the buzz was great as fans filled the entrance hall buying merchandise and talked how wonderful the night had already been. The greatest moment was yet to come however.
While I shed my joyful tears for the Super Mario material, Legend of Zelda would have an even greater effect on the audience around me. As the name was mentioned by the announcer, two young girls in front of me got their handkerchiefs up and dried their tears. The mere mention of this game was enough for them to be emotional and sure enough as I gazed around the hall, more and more had their hands over their mouths and tears rolling over them. “Symphonic Poem” was something beyond what had really been done for a video game concert before, a 35 minute medley telling the legend that is Zelda purely through symphonic music. This was done in 5 parts, “Hyrulian Child”, “Dark Lord”, “Princess of Destiny”, “Battlefield”, and “Hero of Time”. We go from Link being a young child centering around the “Main Theme” and “Kokiri Forest” in a youthful and playful mood before dwindling into the sinister and chilling “Dark Lord” part with focus on the themes of Ganondorf. From the original “Underground BGM” to “Ganondorf Battle”, the atmosphere of this track is something else with sounds simulating crawling creatures, screams and evil laughter. It’s certainly the most creepy arrangement of Zelda music you will ever encounter. “Princess of Destiny” offers the softest part of the poem as we shift our focus on Zelda and her connection with Link. The strings offer an amazing take on “Zelda’s Lullaby” with a somewhat somber mood to it, as if they would want to remind you that in all that beauty there’s still a lot of danger surrounding her, only to be emphasized by the appearance of the “Spirits Theme” with more wonderful work from Latjiva choir. Danger would really be the word for the next part of the poem which is “Battlefield”. Fan favorite “Dark World” made its triumphant entrance here and with it came Rony Barrak back to the stage thumping us on a glorious epic ride. His rhythmic really helped portray it in a almost militaristic battle geared take and the mixing this time was spot on. A violin solo by Cizmarovic takes us to the end of the battle and the poem came to a close how it started, with the “Main Theme” taking center stage climaxing with the orchestra and choir giving it full force.
When this piece was done, a standing ovation that lasted over 5 minutes took place, and it was well deserving of it. It was one of those moments where everyone in the room knew that they had taken part in something quite historic; never had game music been arranged and performed so amazingly. It was a moment and event that can never be replicated nor can be emulated, it could only be seen and experienced at Symphonic Legends and those who did know that it will be a memory that lasts them for their entire life. Valtonen proved not only that he is an amazing composer and arranger here, but also that he is a magnificent storyteller as well. After the ovation we were greeted to an encore with Benyamin Nuss and Barrak entering the stage yet again and would give us what is in my opinion the best music from Zelda, the “Wind Waker Theme” which would surprisingly flow into Metroid Prime 3’s “Ending Theme”. While no arranger or name was announced for this suite, I’m guessing it was a collab between Wanamo and Valtonen as it had both their signatures, the layering and combinations of Wanamo along the power and grip of Valtonen. It would take us through melodies of all the games features throughout the concert, before ending with Super Mario Bros “Thank you Mario” with the choir singing Nintendo to send us home with absolute magic to remember.
It’s very hard for me to properly convey with words what this concert meant to me. It was a lifelong dream to see all the games I grew up with performed live by an orchestra, and that dream was exceeded as this particular orchestra is truly the best at what they do. The team is not just another set of promoters and arrangers; they are now almost like a family who knows exactly what they are doing. You have a producer with full knowledge and passion for video game music, a resident team of arrangers with exceptional talents and young creative takes and an orchestra that respects and embraces the source material. The question if they can outdo themselves is by now redundant, they clearly will again and again and fans know this as they travel from all corners of the world to attend these shows in the beautiful city of Cologne. The highlight of the night goes to Benyamin Nuss and Juraj Cizmarovic for their marvelous interaction. A thing of note is also the professionalism of the team, especially in young Nuss’s case. Before the event, during the intermission and after the concert, he along with Valtonen and Barrak would sit to sign autographs and greet all who came over for hours and never once let go of their smiles and appreciation. It really helped build a lot of respect and it’s also quite heartwarming to see that even as people, these guys are as good as they are musically on stage.
In many ways, this event was my favorite of the ones I have attended, it combined what I loved about Symphonic Shades with its diversity in style along the prestige and importance that Symphonic Fantasies offered. Most importantly, they dared to be a bit different and gave us exclusive takes on so many familiar songs, takes that will never fade in our memories due to being so different. To say it was legendary would be cheesy and unoriginal, but I will say that it was a dream come true and a true gift to my life that I could be in attendance, one that I will always cherish and remember.Tags: Donkey Kong Country, F-Zero, Koji Kondo, Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Nintendo, Orchestra, Pikmin, Reports, Starfox, Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Galaxy, Symphonic Legends