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Standing On Their Own Feet: VGO Live At Symphony Hall

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[rehearsal photo courtesy Damian Thomas]

We’ve been ceaselessly promoting the VGO in the past month. Full disclosure: VGO founder Shota Nakama is technically an OSV member, as he has provided many translation services for us over the years. But he is much more than a translator. He’s a guitarist, an arranger, an organizer and producer.

So when the Video Game Orchestra put on their first no-strings-attached show (no Distant Worlds, no association with a convention, no “film and game music in the same concert”), we at OSV were all on board to see it succeed.

And this past weekend, that’s exactly what I saw.

Next week, we’ll have our interview with the four guest composers at the show (Noriyuki Iwadare, Hitoshi Sakimoto, Yoko Shimomura, Kinuyo Yamashita). But for now, after the jump, I’d like to give you my detailed report of the concert, as well as some strange and wonderful encounters I had with industry veterans and fans alike.

I arrived early on Sunday to witness the final rehearsal before show time, and meet with the guests and some of the performers. As I first learned in March of this year, the venue (Boston Symphony Hall) is an amazing piece of architecture with elegance and beauty all around it. I’d encourage anyone looking for a night of culture to check out virtually any event of the 2012-2013 season at this venue. The building alone makes it worthwhile.

Sitting on the second balcony, I, alongside two of my peers from RPGFan (Damian Thomas and Dennis Rubinshteyn), met with Noriyuki Iwadare and another wonderful individual. Iwadare was pleased to see that among the “press” were some of his most ardent fans: people who’d played Lunar and Grandia and who knew what True Love Story was even though it wasn’t ever released in the US. Iwadare’s friend, as it turned out, was Hiroko Miyaji. She is the wife of Takeshi Miyaji, a designer at Game Arts and creator of Grandia who passed away last year due to complications after a surgery for a brain tumor.

This fateful encounter with Miyaji-san’s widow set the tone of the entire evening for me. Speaking in very natural English, Miyaji-san told me that she is not sad. “He is with me; he is always with me, and we will celebrate his work together tonight.” She told me that with a sincere smile on her face. The strength of this woman was deeply moving. I suspect she didn’t want to make her presence public, as she was not an announced guest at the show; as such, I consider myself even more fortunate for having been able to meet her. And Iwadare’s Grandia medley was as fitting a tribute as any for the late visionary.

Before the full orchestra arrived, the “band” portion of the VGO settled in to do some sound checks. Now, I know some of you aren’t a fan of “rockestral” stylings (and personally I dislike the portmanteau; I’d prefer “orchestral rock”). But, this band was flat out amazing. Obviously, Shota was on guitar, and he was on his A game for the show. The bass player, Louis Ochoa, was as talented as he was lively. This guy has more personality in his eyebrows than most full bands have combined.

The band’s solo violinist, Chris Baum, had a cocksure air about him. But for good reason! Baum’s ability to push through incredibly fast melodic runs and even improvise on the spot were truly breathtaking. Speaking of breathtaking … Haruka Yabuno on keyboard and Noriko Terada on percussion … WOW! As talented as they are beautiful. During intermission I heard multiple groups of concert-goers arguing about which one was more beautiful. But, in all seriousness, what made them so appealing wasn’t just that they were attractive women. They were masters of their trade, and seeing them pour so much energy and emotion into the performance was a true delight.

And finally, on drums (the non-hand percussion, trap set variety) was Takuma Anzai. During the sound check, he struck me as … nothing special. But after the orchestra arrived, I saw what made him so awesome. His ability to work with orchestra conductor Yohei Sato made him an invaluable member of the band. He could keep time like a pro, with excellent fills, but he could also adjust tempo at the command of the conductor without sounding stilted or rigid. That takes a special kind of talent: one that is unique to “orchestral rock” cross-genre. This was absolutely necessary for many of the arrangements in the set. So, cheers to Anzai-san!

Speaking of the set list, let’s just get the whole thing out on paper. Or … web page.

The Set List:

01 Bombing Mission (Final Fantasy VII) – comp. Uematsu, arr. Nakama
02 Main Theme of Street Fighter (Street Fighter II) – comp. Shimomura, arr. Nakama
03 The End Begins (To Rock) (God of War) – comp. / arr. Marino
04 Wicked Child, Vampire Killer (Castlevania) – comp. Yamashita & Terashima, arr. Jackson & Nakama
05 Dearly Beloved ~ Hikari (Kingdom Hearts) – comp. Shimomura, arr. Nakama
06 Snake Eater (Metal Gear Solid 3) – comp. Hibino, arr. Nakama

INTERMISSION

07 Theme of Chrono Trigger (Chrono Trigger) – comp. Mitsuda, arr. Nakama & Kolar
08 Edge of the World, Battle, Farewell to Sue, Theme of Grandia (Grandia) – comp. / arr. Iwadare
09 Brand Logo ~ Title Back, Backborn Story, Trisection, Ovelia’s Worries, Sorrow (Liberation Army Version), A Moment’s Rest, Boss Battle (Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy XII) – comp. Sakimoto, arr. Saulesco
10 Prelude, Final Fantasy, Fighting, Aerith’s Theme, Chocobo’s Theme, One Winged Angel, Theme of Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy Reprise (Final Fantasy VII) – comp. Uematsu, arr. Nakama

ENCORE

11 Still Alive (Portal) – comp. Coulton, arr. Nakama

There’s a lot of stuff here that I knew I was excited about, and those things lived up to expectations perfectly. Other items were like, “okay, been there done that,” but in the moment of hearing them (again) they are still enthralling.

Let’s start with the two vocal numbers. The VGO had vocalist Ingrid Gerdes as their featured soloist for the night. She’s a sultry, blues/jazz performer who is also classically trained and anything but shy. Be sure to check out this interview with her from NPR in 2011. Thought I love Courtney Knott’s version of “Snake Eater,” I have to say that Ingrid did an equally stellar job with the Bond-esque piece, iconic to the MGS franchise. And this is a number that VGO has been doing for years, so they have it down so solid by now, it was like they didn’t have to try, and it still worked. Y’know, like that new Owl City / Carly Rae Jepsen song. It’s always a good time.

The surprise encore track was a little off-kilter. Early in the show, Shota admitted that while the focus of this concert was to celebrate JAPANESE GAME MUSIC, he did slip in that God of War track (also done by Video Games Live, as Marino allows pretty much anyone with a good group to play his self-arranged tribute). But a SECOND Western song; what is this garbage?! I kid, I kid. I actually really loved this choice, though some of my favorite Netizens (such as the_miker, jb, and Zane from Soundtrack Central, all of whom I met at the show) thought it was a bad choice. I think they were in the minority though, as Ingrid turned the encore into a sing-along. And she had great stage presence, and pretty much everyone who knew even some of the lyrics were singing along. As for me, I know the song by heart, so I was singing it with pride in my heart and imaginary cake in my belly.

Now … Final Fantasy VII … I’m not even going to bother talking about it. You know the drill: it’s good. And since it was a unique arrangement from Shota himself, it wasn’t exactly what you’d hear from Distant Worlds, but it had a lot of similarities (straying too far from the source material here isn’t exactly a great idea). Chrono Trigger, on the other hand, I could rave about for days. I’ll forever be partial to the arrangement on Game Music Concert The Best 5 (i.e. “Orchestral Game Concert 5″). But this orchestra plus band version, with Baum’s violin work, was magical. My only wish is that this arrangement had gone on even longer than it did. More solos, more call-and-response in different orchestral sections. I could’ve listened to it for hours.

Before I get to what I consider the main event (Grandia and Sakimoto medleys), I wish to discuss the two Shimomura pieces, as well as the Castlevania medley.

The Street Fighter II track was a big surprise for me. Mainly because I forgot that Shimomura, as “Pii” in her Alph Lyla days, composed pretty much all of the Street Fighter II themes (Isao Abe is credited for Sagat, the rest is Shimomura). So wait; if we’re going to do super-popular songs, why not throw Guile’s Theme in there? Better yet, why not merge Guile’s Theme with some other Shimomura compositions? After all … (and you knew this was coming) … GUILE’S THEME GOES WITH EVERYTHING. Anyway, silliness aside, the SF2 main theme was a great song for third-based harmonies between Shota on guitar and Chris on violin. Awesome!

And then the Kingdom Hearts piece … wherever I hear this, it’s never ever disappointing. I think my favorite KH medley, to date, was when the VGO performed “Passion” / “Sanctuary” (switching between English and Japanese vocals!) at Anime Boston 2010. But in this case, I think they made the right choice performing without vocals. “Dearly Beloved” sounded stunning; Shota made the choice not to have the lead-in “echo” on the melodic line, so they were just straight quarter notes. But the piano, the harp, and the full orchestra worked as 3 distinct entities to turn this piece to life. And then “Hikari” (which some of you know as “Simple and Clean”) brought the house down. A well-deserved standing ovation for the orchestra, band, choir, and of course for Shimomura herself.

Regarding the Castlevania medley, I was very happy to hear “Wicked Child.” Two reasons for this: one, I’ve heard “Vampire Killer” here and there and everywhere. Second, “Vampire Killer” was technically composed by Yamashita’s co-composer on the first game, Satoe Terashima. “Wicked Child,” however, is Yamashita’s baby, and it’s one of my favorite songs from the first game. Grossly underappreciated, in my opinion, even though it does find its way into subsequent Castlevania soundtracks. The VGO opened with Wicked Child and then transitioned to Vampire Killer. Both songs were great, but again, that catchy hook in “Wicked Child” is what I was waiting for.

Alright, now let’s get into the main event.

The four-part Grandia medley was so big, it was essentially treated as four separate performances. The band joined in for some parts, but at other times it was just the orchestra. The audience clapped between each movement, and even the choir was confused by the break as they came out on stage after the first movement, only to be left standing there without anything to sing until the Sakimoto Medley began.

But it’s easy to see how they’d get confused. The full medley is about 15 minutes long, so each movement feels like a full performance. “Edge of the World” started things off right: it was already an orchestral piece in the game, so there probably wasn’t a lot of work on Iwadare’s end to arrange this opening bit. It brought back so many memories for me, but the nostalgia-train was only getting started. Because the next song, simply entitled “Battle,” is what brought it all back in a brilliant flash of light and sound. That single-note ride on the xylophone’s upper octave in time with drummer Anzai and percussionist Terada, and the full orchestra belting out huge swells of sound, especially from the brass … yeah, this is one of Iwadare’s best themes, and it got the premium treatment on this special night.

The third section, one of Iwadare’s more emotional pieces, “Farewell To Sue,” brought a somber tone to the audience. For me, I was still reflecting on my conversation with Hiroko Miyaji. The song may as well have been “Farewell to Takeshi,” even though Mrs. Miyaji made it clear that, for her, she knew her husband was there with her.

But Iwadare did not end this beautiful tribute on a sad note. The VGO came out triumphant in the end with “Theme of Grandia,” the iconic opening music that was originally recorded by a full orchestra in 1996. Well, orchestra and a rock band, making it the perfect song for the VGO to perform. Iwadare’s new arrangement for the night’s performance helped accentuate the group’s talent without ever sacrificing what made the original song great. For me, this was the best performance of the night.

Almost tied with that best, a ridiculously close second, was the Sakimoto Medley, which they may as well have named the “Ivalice Medley.” It featured music from Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII, all composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto. For this one, Shota didn’t do the arrangement. No, instead it was our good friend from Sweden, David Saulesco! I had no idea he was going to be responsible for this arrangement until I saw the concert program a few hours before show time. Imagine my surprise! Here’s a guy who’s done some really interesting and influential indie game soundtracks, a guy who can work in the realms of “chiptunes” (hardware emulation, FM synths, etc), Euro-pop and orchestra with equal parts finesse and mastery. Very exciting!

However, I do have two complaints. One is very selfish, but I know I wasn’t alone in feeling this way: where was Vagrant Story? If they were going to stick with Square Enix / Ivalice titles, I guess that’s fine … I would’ve liked to hear some Valkyria Chronicles or maybe something zany like Radiant Silvergun, but if you’re going to do Ivalice, why not include VS? It’s a fantastic soundtrack with so many themes ripe for orchestration!!

The second complaint is in regards to a tragic musical error. I acknowledge that polyrhythm is not easy for a full orchestra. But when they started up Trisection (the standard battle theme from Final Fantasy Tactics), the string section nearly fell apart. It was the only noticeable mistake of the entire evening, but it really left me feeling like the orchestra should’ve taken more time to practice this, and less time rehearsing songs they already know by heart (like “Snake Eater”). I can’t be sure whom I ought to blame for the failing: the performers, the conductor, the percussion section, or maybe it was Saulesco who failed to properly build accents into the notation. I really am not interested in placing blame, however. I just want to hear that song perfected, and on October 7th, it was not perfected.

That aside, the rest of the medley was absolutely fantastic. The opening minutes made me feel like I was starting up a new game of FFT, and then the FFXII songs at the end were simply glorious (they made me feel all giddy in anticipation for the OST reprint and Piano Collection coming later this year!). I hope that Sakimoto was satisfied with this tribute to his work; for the most part, I was certainly satisfied. And it was a welcome reprieve from the “rockestral” experience, as this arrangement was all orchestra and choir, making for a truly “classical” experience!

Was this concert was worth the total 16 hours of traveling and hundreds of dollars spent on travel and lodging? Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But for this Pennsylvania native, while there are few reasons to travel long distances by car, a great concert is one of them. Had I had my way, this concert may have had a different setlist, sure. I may never see “the perfect show.” But this one offered many entirely new experiences, and they were absolutely worthwhile. To all you Bostonians, New Yorkers, New Englanders, and others nearby who knew about this concert and chose not to attend, know this: the concert was at about 80% capacity, so there would have been room for you, and I suspect you would have enjoyed it. And since I’m not feeling particularly classy right now, I’m just going to go ahead and say it: your loss, suckers!

When the VGO travels to MAGFest in January, in their “band” format, I am hoping to hear even more new and interesting arrangements. Will Shota and the rest of the crew live up to my expectations? We’ll find out then. For now, I’d say this group is forging a path all their own, one that is not imitated or emulated by other performing groups anywhere in the world. Keep going!

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