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The Renewal of Eminence: ‘A Night in Fantasia 2009’ Report

November 5, 2009 | | 4 Comments Share thison Facebook The Renewal of Eminence: ‘A Night in Fantasia 2009’ Reporton Twitter

[Editor’s Note: We have a new name on the site today, and that’s Wes Chung from Australia. He was fortunately able to attend the recent A Night in Fantasia 2009 concert held by Eminence, and has a very lengthy (but ‘goody’) report of the show. Join us in welcoming him to the team, and enjoy his write-up!]

Just over a month ago, the aptly-named Eminence Symphony Orchestra returned to the stage in their hometown of Sydney, Australia, for a one-night-only performance of prominent anime and video game music. Having taken a two-year hiatus to work on studio projects such as Soul Calibur IV and the Blizzard arrangement album Echoes of War, the brainchild of concertmaster Hiroaki Yura had fans in a mild state of frenzy with anticipation. An unprecedented campaign, including radio giveaways and TV coverage, preceded one of the largest and most ambitious orchestral game and anime concerts ever, let alone little old Sydneytown.

So did Eminence live up to their name and deliver a performance worthy of their pioneering career? Read on to find out…

Sometimes it seems Eminence has always been a few steps ahead of the competition, even when there wasn’t much competition around. While gamer-orientated orchestras continued to hammer home well-known themes, Eminence was equally likely to perform music from games we’d probably never play, simply because they considered it worthy. At the same time, in the fast-growing field of orchestral game concerts, Eminence has flown a little under the radar: their name gives no indication of their inclination, whereas other groups such as Play! A Video Game Symphony and Video Games Live don’t exactly leave much to guesswork. For a few years, Eminence was Australia’s hidden gem – but, rightfully so, that wasn’t to last.

Their very first event, A Night in Fantasia (ANIF) 2003, featured not only iconic Final Fantasy themes but also rare vocal renditions of Studio Ghibli themes. A year later they hosted Nobuo Uematsu for ANIF ’04; in contrast, ANIF ’06 saw Youmi Kimura singing the theme song for Spirited Away. Between these large-scale offerings, Eminence also performed as an ensemble, with composers such as Yasunori Mitsuda joining them on stage for a more intimate experience. ANIF ’07 was so big, it needed to be split in two: a ‘Symphonic Games Edition’ and an ‘Anime Edition’. No less than seven composers attended the  Sydney SGE, and all were present at the meet-and-greet, which lasted several very patient hours. The flawless execution, music selection and well-deserved standing ovation made me feel that ANIF ’07: SGE is the holy grail of video game music events; licensing issues keeping the album from release only adds to the mystique. ANIF ’07: AE focused on Yuki Kajiura’s oeuvre as an ensemble, even having a Q&A with the audience. But without a full orchestra, opportunities to play some of her more expansive music from Xenosaga III and .hack//sign were missed. ANIF ’07: AE ended Eminence’s annual cycle on a bit of a low note.

The stakes for ANIF ’09 were much higher than previous years. The venue was the prestigious but reputably problematic Sydney Entertainment Centre – significantly larger and more expensive than previous locations. The guest list featured masters from both sides of the Pacific as Eminence continued their theme of ‘East meets West’ initiated with Echoes of War. Most significantly, the standard for an ANIF event has continued to rise ever since the 2003 debut. Surely a two-year break and the fact that this would be one-performance-only meant we could expect something twice as good as anything before.

With even more guests than ever, a return to the full orchestra and choir, and a famous location, Eminence hit the ground running…

… But then stumbled with a significantly late start. We could hear AIKA’s unmistakable voice from behind closed doors by the time the performance was due to start. The show began at least half-an-hour late, but the delay was hardly a game-breaker: the Sydney Entertainment Centre has hosted some of the world’s biggest acts. My last time there I saw Metallica. Eminence were big-time stars now, and if they had to be a little late to get things right, so be it. Browsing through the beautiful (and free!) booklet helped build the buzz even more, as we perused the playlist, speculated on encores and bought our posters for the inevitable post-show signing session.

The line-up contained more surprises than we expected, given how many composers and featured-games were on the poster (medleys where no title was provided):

PART 1

  1. ‘Soviet March’, Red Alert 3 (composer: James Hannigan; arranger:Kazuhiko Sawaguchi
  2. Castle in the Sky, Laputa (c: Joe Hisaishi; a: Wataru Hokoyama)
  3. My Neighbor Totoro (c: Joe Hisaishi; a: Wataru Hokoyama)
  4. Princess Mononoke (c: Joe Hisaishi; a: Wataru Hokoyama)
  5. Darksiders (Cris Velasco)
  6. God of War (Cris Velasco)
  7. ‘Decisive Souls’, Soul Calibur Suite: Resonance of Souls and Swords (c: Junichi Nakatsuru;a: Shiro Hamaguchi)
  8. Astro Boy (c: Tatsuo Takai; a: Shiro Hamaguchi)
  9. A concerto from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (c: Satoru Kousaki; a: Shiro Hamaguchi)
  10. ‘A Song of Storm and Fire’, Tsubasa Chronicles (c: Yuki Kajiura; a: Kazuhiko Sawaguchi)
  11. ‘The Unsung War’, Ace Combat V (c: Keiki Kobayashi; a: Wataru Hokoyama)

PART 2

  1. Death Note (c: Yoshihisa Hirano; Kazuhiko Sawaguchi)
  2. AFRIKA (Wataru Hokoyama)
  3. ‘Radical Dreamers’, Chrono Cross (c: Yasunori Mitsuda; a: Hayato Matsuo)
  4. Dragon Ages: Origins (Inon Zur, feat. Aubrey Ashburn)
  5. Prince of Persia (Inon Zur)
  6. Shadow of the Colossus (Kow Otani, feat. AIKA Tsuneoka)
  7. ‘Tonari Ni’, The [email protected] (c: Go Shiina; a: Kazuhiko Sawaguchi, feat. Chiaki ‘Azusa’ Takahashi)
  8. Gears of War 2 (c: Steve Jablonsky; a: Wataru Hokoyama)

And on the official poster but not the programme (coughencorecough), Metal Gear Solid and Steamboy.

When the doors did open, it was clear this ANIF was a whole new spectacle. Usually, an Eminence event takes place in a well-lit music hall with an air of reserved theatre to it, such as Sydney Town Hall:


[Photograph: ANIF 2007:SGE, Eminence Online gallery]

A Night in Fantasia 2009 felt entirely more like a rock concert:

The dazzling array of spotlights and fog combined with the dark ambience of a vast auditorium emphasized Eminence’s ‘leveling up’ since we’d seen them last. Now they’d worked with Blizzard and Namco, performed in the United States and Japan; now they were so much more than local talented musicians playing covers of their favourite game music. The prodigies had come home to show off all their new tricks, and repeatedly worked their magic to remind the audience why Eminence is unique even now as they continue to challenge themselves and the genre they helped define.

The opening piece, “Soviet March” from Red Alert 3, was appropriately driven and powerful. Set to the introduction of the game, which played in perfect time on the giant screen, this Wagnerian theme boomed through the hall, somewhat easing my fears that the less-than-stellar acoustics of the Sydney Entertainment Centre might mute the music. One minor point of contention: the choir took a little while to warm up. But after a few lines, the Russian singing became much clearer and more evocative. By the time the thunder subsided and Eminence’s veteran conductor Phillip Chu lowered his baton, I felt that renascent surge of glee: another ANIF had begun.

Studio Ghibli music, composed by Joe Hisaishi, is a long-time favourite for Eminence, featuring in just about every one of their concerts. I wasn’t that excited for the next three medleys: I’d heard Eminence perform music from Laputa, My Neighbour Totoro and Princess Mononoke several times before. What I hadn’t heard was what would prove to be one of the strengths of the night: amazing arrangements of memorable Ghibli themes. Old became new at Wataru Hokoyama’s masterful touch. Of particular note was the Mononoke medley: it easily cleared 5 minutes, meshing themes I’ve never heard live before, such as “Demon God” and “Kodama.” The taiko drums were incredible; Eminence first attempted Hisaishi’s “War Drums” at ANIF ’05 but fell slightly short of the original. After the concert, I hunted down Joe Hisaishi’s own arrangement for Mononoke’s live performance and found this new medley just as impressive. It is sure to be a highlight of the forthcoming album.

Leading away from familiar anime ground, two pieces introduced by Cris Velasco brought the audience into the brutal realm of endless enemies, stylized fatalities and really big swords: Darksiders and God of War 2. Darksiders wasn’t even out yet, so the music had to stand on its own merits without any sort of association of gaming delight. This is, however, no new task for Eminence, and their tendency to make me actually want to play a game based on their interpretation of the music (I bought Katamari Damashii the day after they played it at ANIF ’06) kicked in yet again. At times I found the gameplay video a little distracting, but that’s when I just closed my eyes and let the music do its thing. I did prefer Darksiders over God of War 2, but both rocked all sorts of epic socks, or at least leather boots saturated in blood.

Speaking of the screen, the wrong game played once or twice – a minor issue but certainly one worth mentioning, as any mistake during an otherwise bravura offering will stand out. The most criticized element of the night, the MC’s nervousness and use of cue-cards, was hard to ignore but hardly the reason we were there. In the past, the same MC had warmed the audience with a great blend of authority and friendliness. On the Eminence forums, both he and Hiro very kindly explained some of the rougher details about ANIF ’09, with the MC even apologising. Yes, I think he could have done a better job, but that humility and direct communication with the fans, despite their now undeniable success, is part of why Eminence isn’t just another orchestra playing crowd-pleasers. The music reflects their emotional investment, their love for what they do; it has heart.

Soul Calibur IV composer, Junichi Nakatsuru, was not on the guest list; he just happened to be in the area to hear Eminence perform his work… for the second time: he was one of the guests at ANIF ’07:SGE. I wasn’t too hopeful for the Calibur piece: I was a little wary of a repeat performance of the credits theme, “Path of Destiny.” Although brilliantly played, it is a little stretched out, as credit rolls tend to be. Had I known then what I know now, via repeat listenings to Soul Calibur Suite: The Resonance of Souls and Swords, I wouldn’t have worried at all. Of the three tracks on this mini-album by Eminence, “Decisive Souls” is the showstopper, combining “Light and Darkness” (the introduction theme used in variation for all the Calibur games), “Phantasmagoria” from Soul Calibur IV and “Duelists” (Mitsurugi’s theme from Soul Calibur I) into a single grand act on the stage of history. Shiro Hamaguchi’s arrangement was both subtle in its transitions and clear in its thematic definition. My only issue with it was the ending, which replaced the traditional elongated single-note resonance of “Light and Darkness” with a four-note flourish a little too redolent of John Williams’ blockbusters.

There were a few game-concert-staples missing from the night’s programme that I secretly applauded. One of them was Super Mario Brothers. Great the first time, a welcome guest the second or third, sort-of-samey the fifth and onwards. And here Eminence worked a stroke of genius: they played Astro Boy, in all its optimistic, joyful nostalgia. The soon-to-be released movie didn’t enter my mind as a factor: I was a kid again, watching Astro tear up tanks and shoot bullets from (giggle, giggle) his butt. I do wonder if younger audience members might have been a bit bored, since there’s only so much you can do with a short cartoon/anime theme, but for me it was confirmation of Eminence’s originality and innovation.

The anime series The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is ironically anything but melancholic, often quite frenetic and manic. I was intrigued to see how Eminence would approach it. I didn’t recognise the music despite having seen the first season of the show a few times, but the unfamiliarity wasn’t a hindrance. The piece, primarily a piano arrangement, expertly conveyed a ponderous and heartfelt pace.

In direct contrast, Yuki Kajiura’s “Song of Storm and Fire” was every bit as tempestuous as its name. First performed by Eminence at their ensemble Passion concert, “Song of Storm and Fire” rose to an epic status with Kazuhiko Sawaguchi’s full orchestral and choir arrangement. The original has Kajiura mainstay Eri Itoh on vocals, but Eminence has its own front man, its own leading voice: Hiroaki Yura and his ever-crisp violin. I sort of wish Yuki Kajiura could have been there to revel in this spectacular version.

Concluding part 1 was the piece I actually wanted to hear the most, and in a line-up like this, that’s a big call. I first heard Keiki Kobayashi’s “The Unsung War” from Ace Combat V at ANIF ’05, where it was easily the surprise hit. I’d never played Ace Combat and only knew Namco for fighting games and the Tales series. Eminence’s first performance of “The Unsung War” blew me away, but when I heard the soundtrack later, I realized Eminence hadn’t even used the choir’s lyrics – also the case for “Tenrai I” (Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children) and “Destati” (Kingdom Hearts II) at ANIF ’07. I expected a proper and full version of “The Unsung War” this time, and got better: Hokoyama somehow improved on the masterpiece, removing any traces of repetition from the original. At this point, “The Unsung War”‘s apotheosis was the high point of ANIF ’09. I didn’t dare imagine it could get any better.

The intermission ran a little too long. Between the show starting late and a longer-than-normal intermission, I knew something had to give. I put this to the back of my mind, though, as part 2 commenced.

I’ve never seen Death Note aside than the movies, and only because they star Takeshi ‘Chairman’ Kaga of Iron Chef. Despite this, I’ve certainly heard a lot about it. The music selected was gothic in the proper sense of the word, with a deep, foreboding chanting that always lends ‘holy’ music a distinctly ‘unholy’ edge. But after a relatively similar piece before the break, I wasn’t that enthused. I look forward to listening to it by itself, because comparing it to “The Unsung War” was just unfair of me, but inevitable.

It would be an understatement to say I was overwhelmed by the arrangement talent of Wataru Hokoyama. I pride myself on knowing my game composers and this soft-spoken, koala-loving fellow, based in Los Angeles, seems to have come from nowhere. Having polished and reshaped the work of others, now it was his time to shine, conducting a medley of his own award-winning AFRIKA music. My curiosity regarding this ‘newcomer’ saw me preview this soundtrack weeks before the night, and I knew we were in for something quite un-African. Although the quality never flagged in either composition or performance, the AFRIKA medley was moments of truly awesome peaks jutting out from foothills you might hear in Jurassic Park or other adventure movie soundtracks. The overall effect lulled me into flights of fancy as I got lost in the game footage. This is less a criticism than an acknowledgment of how videogame music (VGM) might differ from a movie soundtrack (BGM): game music is traditionally quite a few themes, defining each character and event. AFRIKA’s music was fluid, complex and perfect for the imagery of wildebeests and lions… but possibly not as memorable as certain game or anime themes.

The creator of some of the most enduring game themes, Yasunori Mitsuda, flew in for just one night, just for the concert. This bond between the composers of the music and those who play it is something for which Eminence is renowned. What followed was the biggest surprise of the night for me: not my favourite Chrono Cross theme. I believe Eminence mastered “Time’s Scar,” between their Mitsuda-accompanied ‘Passion’ version and the full orchestral encore of ANIF ’07. It only stood to reason that they’d toy with it, maybe giving us something not unlike the very clever Symphonic Fantasies arrangement. But this was a night of renewal, and Hayato Matsuo’s interpretation of “Radical Dreamers” shed new light on a theme originally created for a little-known Super Nintendo game of the same name. Adding more layers and more sounds to what is already a great song shouldn’t improve things quite as much as they did. And while we did not get “Time’s Scar,” I am certain I heard traces of it woven throughout the arrangement. I cannot wait to hear this one again.

Inon Zur and Aubrey Ashburn were two names I didn’t know before ANIF ’09, much to my shame. Too often do I immediately think Japanese when I speak of VGM, relegating the Western composers to wannabe Hollywood status (one I shall not name churns out soundtrack after soundtrack for big-name games, and they all sound the same to me). Thanks to Eminence’s bold move, this has changed. Unknowingly, I’d been listening to Inon and Aubrey quite a lot through Warhammer 40k Dawn of War: Soulstorm. The Dragon Age: Origins’ song was, in a word, haunting. The contrast of Aubrey’s ethereal elegy with the savage scenes from the forthcoming RPG piqued my interest in yet another game I had no intention of trying. The Prince of Persia medley was less enticing (I think the original PoP was the best) but still romantic and grand, flowing with all the rope-swinging and cliff-hanging of a thousand and one Arabian heights.

My sentiments towards Shadow of the Colossus’ music are similar to my attitude regarding Hisaishi’s Ghibli music: familiar genius. I’ve heard a fair bit of it live and wasn’t thrilled to learn of its inclusion in ANIF ’09, which was supposed to break new ground. At the time, I thought Otani’s Echoes of War arrangement, “Children of the Worldstone” would have been a better choice. Again, I was wonderfully wrong: this new expression of Shadow of the Colossus was nothing short of evolution. At first, it didn’t even vaguely resemble the grandiose “The Opened Way” or “Counter-Attack” (both played at ANIF ’07), instead working through pastoral themes of world exploration. Just as that tempted towards blandness, AIKA’s powerful voice added unforeseen strength to the movement, reinventing more familiar themes with raw vigour. Otani shredding the piano, AIKA driving the melody: this was Shadow of the Colossus as never heard before, and it remains my most anticipated album piece… even more than “The Unsung War.”

When ANIF ’09 was first announced, names like Diablo III and Ace Combat V were mentioned as likely pieces. No one questioned either, but this weird The [email protected] thing was baffling. I did a little research, heard some of the J-poppy tunes from the game and let my confusion grow. A symphonic orchestra doing an idol song? Well, if anyone would, it’d be Eminence, and [email protected] composer Go Shiina has done excellent things with Tekken: Dark Resurrection and Tales of Legendia. As the date neared, the name of the singer was released, and… I was still in the dark. I asked some friends in Japan, but they hadn’t heard of her either. Then there was a breakthrough – her character’s name. Azusa. I found the song “Tonari ni” and knew exactly how good it’d be in Eminence’s hands.

There is no doubt that Chiaki Takahashi stole the show. Contrary to certain promotion, she is unfortunately not that well-known in Japan, neither as a voice actress nor a singer. ANIF ’09 was her be-home-before-midnight ball, and she took the lead with a charming energy that showed she knew just how fortunate she was. Far ‘bigger’ stars than her in Japan have not and will not get such an opportunity: an audience of thousands, a full orchestra and choir backing her. ‘Chiaking’ tried out her English, twirled in her dress and asked the audience if they liked it – a rhetorical question of the best kind.

Although she won the crowd over before even starting her song, Chiaki’s “Tonari ni” was, quite literally, the performance of a lifetime, blowing the official game version out of the water, over the trees and off my mp3 player. “Tonari ni” became “Beside Me” halfway through, and for a moment I wondered if my Japanese had suddenly miraculously improved. Chiaki’s shift into English lost neither vocal prowess nor passion. I think everyone fell a little in love with the Cinderella in the spotlight there and then. With any justice, Chiaki’s future will reflect her talent, because she is definitely gifted with a voice that rivals most seiyuu (voice actors/actresses) and quite a few J-pop idols. Although this performance won’t be on the album, Hiro has mentioned the companion DVD will not disappoint…

The final composer to be celebrated, Hollywood veteran Steven Jablonsky (of Sims 3 fame?), had to make a last-minute withdrawal but recorded a video message in apology. I found his absence a little ironic, since his currently well-known Transformers theme was inexplicably playing over the loudspeakers before the show and during intermission. His featured piece, Gears of War 2, was good. That’s unfortunately the word for it, and not just because it followed Chiaki Takahashi and Go Shiina. Fans of the game might have been far more into it than I; from a purely musical perspective, I have to admit I was a little disinterested. Something in the swollen, militaristic bombast was lacking – at the risk of repeating myself, I’d say it was heart. It was music for war without a face, and in that capacity it was perfectly fine.

At the close of the concert proper, Eminence had delivered some of the finest music in anime and games from some of the finest composers and artists in the world…

And that’s without playing a single Final Fantasy piece. Not one.

There’s nothing like an Eminence encore. In ’04, it was two Final Fantasy VIII battle themes and yOu knoW whAt. ’05 gave us “One Winged Angel” again, this version earning more than 3 million hits on YouTube, beating out even the Black Mages’ definitive Advent Children version from the 2006 ‘Voices’ concert. As if that wasn’t enough, ANIF ’05’s encore also had Kanno Yoko’s “Dance of Curse.” ’06 was Katamari Damashii, and ’07 gave us (Sydney) a slightly modified “OWA” and a perfect “Time’s Scar.” Working on the strength of the series’ popularity, ANIF ’09 closed with Metal Gear Solid, complete with the orchestra donning headbands. Hearing this straight after Gears of War 2 afforded me a great example of music for a war that does have a face, and the various themes embody Snake’s struggle: visceral, sympathetic and intense.

MGS was a fitting conclusion, but I have a feeling the late start and the Entertainment Centre’s closing time robbed the audience of at least one encore piece. Hiro even alluded to “Time’s Scar” during the Mitusda MC segment. On the other hand, “Steamboy” is on the poster and that wasn’t played either. Metal Gear Solid was also officially advertised as a set list piece, so… one last surprise for the night would have been nice. I think it was only this omission that kept this ‘Fantasia’ slightly below the standing-ovation level of ANIF ’07:SGE.

The after-show meet-and-greet, an Eminence specialty since 2006, was unfortunately rushed. We were told by SEC staff to limit our signings to two composers; if this ‘rule’ was broken, it was by the vivacious guests – Mitsuda’s surprise at my Japanese copy of Xenosaga Episode I was worth the price of admission alone.

A late start and a few hitches couldn’t take away from this triumphant return: ANIF ’09 was Eminence’s most technically brilliant, diverse and ambitious concert to date. It was almost surreal, watching them conquer a venue associated with international stars. But why shouldn’t they be there? A world-class orchestra, always willing to take that extra step between anime/games and classical music, deserves no less.

[Special thanks to Evan Stubbs of TinDrumFire Photography for graciously permitting use of his stunning photography.]

Eminence is now taking pre-orders for the live album of this event, and I really can’t think of a reason why any fan of anime, video game or just plain exemplary music wouldn’t grab a copy.

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