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The Stuff of Legends: Zelda’s 25th Anniversary Symphony Impressions

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I can’t believe this concert has already come and gone. Announced at E3 back in June, it seemed like we’d all be waiting forever for the October 21, 2011 date of the North American performance of The Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony, but the evening has passed, leaving those in attendance with memories that will last a life time.

It was a perfect evening all around, from the festivities leading up to the show, the energetic atmosphere as fans mingled and shared their favorite Zelda memories with one another as lines snaked around the block, and on to the engaging and often emotional arrangements that had every member in the sold out crowd on their feet at the end of the show: it was a night to remember.

Find out what was played and why you should have been there after the jump.

First off, orchestral game music concerts. Being among a half dozen or so people sitting in the hall during the rehearsals early Friday afternoon, I was thinking to myself just how far game music concerts had come. I had seen the original Dear Friends and More Friends concerts in Los Angeles back in 2004 and 2005. I’d been to the premiere of Video Games Live at the Hollywood Bowl, and several subsequent performances along with PLAY! A Video Game Symphony and Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy. Reflecting on so many performances that I’d seen, I was happy that this night was dedicated solely to The Legend of Zelda. I couldn’t think of franchises other than Final Fantasy and Zelda that were so deserving, and I realized just how much more engaging and immersive these performances have been, especially with the decked out concert hall I was sitting in, lined with banners and adorned with ornate light fixtures and paneling, not too unlike how’d I’d imagine a castle in Hyrule.

About the venue, I had my doubts about the legendary Pantages Theater at first. I’d seen Wicked in the venue, and knew it was a venue for musical performances, but never for orchestral ones. My mind was set at ease, however, during the rehearsal as the sound was able to reach me and touch me, even when I was sitting underneath the balcony section. As mentioned, the venue was a perfect match visually, providing a stunning and immersive experience with regal banners covering the walls of the hall, but honestly, not much was needed to make the venue feel like a setting appropriate for a Zelda concert.

The Orchestra Nova was on hand for the performance, a San Diego-native orchestra making their way north for the show. The evening was put together by Jason Michael Paul Productions in conjunction with Nintendo, and of course, special guests were present, including Koji Kondo himself and Eiji Aonouma who admitted that Miyamoto should have been there in his stead, but took the opportunity to make a joke that maybe Miyamoto was getting too old for this kind of travel.

While inside before the show, I was already hearing that people outside were being turned away at the box office because the show was sold out. An impressive feat given the 2,700 seating capacity of the hall, and the fact that tickets had only been on sale for two months. While the performance was to begin at 8:00 PM, the line started at around 5:00 PM, and quickly snaked around the block. There were tons of people dressed up as Link, Zelda, and other characters, and I have to say that I’ve come to realize that women often make for the best Links. Once the line was let inside, they were treated to kiosks featuring Skyward Sword and Four Swords, a merchandise store selling commemorative T-shirts and three exclusive 25th anniversary posters, and of course people taking requests for their own ocarina performances and for photos with the best cosplayers. It was a very festive atmosphere that was a blast to be a part of, even if we were packed in like sardines.

But now we’ll get on to the music. Every attendee was given a glossy fold-out program, featuring bios on the conductor, the orchestra, Kondo, Aonuma, and Miyamoto. The entire set list was included along with comments on each piece that was performed (and often track breakdowns as well). Here’s what was played:

[Part 1]
01. Hyrule Castle Theme
02. Princess Zelda’s Theme
03. The Wind Waker Symphonic Movement
04. Ocarina Melody Suite
05. Boss Battle Medley
06. Kakariko Village – Twilight Princess Theme
07. The Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary Medley

[Part 2]
08. Ganondorf’s Theme
09. The Legend of Zelda: Selected Shorts Suite
10. Gerudo Valley
11. Hyrule Field from Ocarina of Time
12. Great Fairy’s Fountain Theme
13. Twilight Princess Symphonic Movement
14. The Legend of Zelda Main Theme Medley

[Encore]
15. Grandma’s Theme from Wind Waker [Piano Solo]
16. Skyward Sword Main Theme

While Aonuma introduced the show and spoke during various points in the show, the actual host was the conductor, Irish-born Eimear Noone. Her flowery language may have been a little over the top, but it added to the sense of wonder many fans were feeling throughout the performance, visiting, in her words, “The majestic castle of Hyrule” and “stopping for a break at the beautiful fairy fountain.”

In terms of the screen, which, from what I can gather, was not present at the Tokyo performance, it was used tastefully. The huge screen was placed behind the orchestra, allowing those watching to see the orchestra at all times, which was a good decision. It seems like at a lot of these shows, you end up watching the monitor and forgetting you’re listening to an orchestra, but this configuration allowed for the best of both worlds. Each performance had its own unique “screen saver” of sorts, creating a nice ambiance, and footage was often super-imposed over these screen savers, strangely with the use of borders so that you could see the edge of the screen saver in the background. Honestly, I could have done without the game visuals for most of the pieces, as I mentioned they tend to distract from the music, but for the two symphonic movement pieces, they were integral to the emotional impact of the arrangements.

The concert’s two opening pieces, “Hyrule Castle Theme” and “Princess Zelda’s Theme,” were short but sweet. They each probably came in under the three minute mark, but starting with “Hyrule Castle Theme” was perfect given the venue, sending chills down my spine during the chorus section, and I liked that both relied only on the aforementioned screen saver and didn’t try to distract with images from the games outright.

Next, the “Wind Waker Symphonic Movement” essentially told the entire story of the game through its music and use of visuals on the screen. Fans laughed, some cried (but mostly laughed with this one) as we were shown scenes and bits of conversation from the light-hearted title. There was a beautiful version of “Dragon Roost Island,” and the arrangement and presentation really made me remember just how great this game was over the course of the 10+ minutes of the piece.

The next piece was somewhat of an interactive segment in that they performed the various ocarina melodies from Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask using different parts of the orchestra as a sort of introduction to the orchestra for those in the audience who hadn’t attended an orchestral performance before. It was a lot of fun, and fans cheered as their favorite melody was performed. The stars of the night were the trombones on “Bolero of Fire,” the violin’s on “Epona’s Theme,” and the entire orchestra’s performance of “Lost Woods.”

The boss theme medley was a lot of fun because it visited some bosses that I’d completely forgotten about, bringing back a lot of memories. Games featured included Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, Wind Waker, and Spirit Tracks. This was followed by a slow and swelling version of “Kakariko Village” that was majestic although short in length.

One of the highlights of the evening was the 25th anniversary medley that closed out the first half of the show. It opened with gentle chugging in the percussion section that took us right into Spirit Tracks with its train-themed gameplay, which was a nice touch, before launching into many themes from across the franchise. There was a fantastic version of “Dragon Roost Island” from Wind Waker and “Dark World” from Link to the Past.

After a short intermission where fans once again swarmed the merchandise booth, buying everything in sight, we were treated to “Ganondorf’s Theme.” This performance introduced the only glitch of the evening, as the computer displaying the flame screen saver and super imposed footage from various Zelda titles experienced some lag for a brief moment. It quickly got a grasp on the video, however, and fans quickly forgot about the issue as a comical segment followed.

The “Selected Shorts Suite” was one of the highlights of the evening, acting almost as a dungeon theme medley. The original game’s two dungeon themes were featured (the second of which was fantastic), as well as the Link to the Past “Sanctuary Dungeon” which was one of my favorite moments of the night. The whimsical theme from the woods in Link to the Past was also featured before the get item jingle was introduced, getting a huge response from the fans.

Next up was a guitar-less “Gerudo Valley” that actually worked. Fans broke out with cheers when this one started up, and the screen featured footage of the storming of the fortress and the subsequent approval of Link by the tribe. The fluttering flute performance leading into the “Hyrule Field from Ocarina of Time” also had fans riled up as the orchestra went through all of the movements of the epic theme.

In what turned out to be the surprise hit of the evening, and my personal favorite of the show, “Great Fairy’s Fountain Theme” featured an amazing harp duet before the entire orchestral and choir joined the mix, which was absolutely beautiful and amazing. I’d never been a huge fan of the piece, but if I could hear it this way every time, I think it’d quickly become one of my favorites.

The “Twilight Princess Symphonic Movement” followed in the footsteps of the previous Wind Waker piece, taking fans through the game with music and visuals. The piece once again made me remember what a great game this was, and just how much I loved Midna as a character. It was also around ten minutes in length, and I was personally moved by the emotional ending segment.

The final piece of the evening was the main theme from the series. The arrangement was straight forward, by why mess with perfection? The puzzle resolution jingle was inserted, much to the delight of fans, and after it was over, everyone in the room immediately shot up for a standing ovation. It wasn’t long before the conductor came back to the stage to introduce Koji Kondo himself, who was obviously overwhelmed by the fan response, hiding on the corner of the stage before taking his seat at the piano to give us a lovely piano solo of “Grandma’s Theme” from Wind Waker. I was impressed with his performance, and his pick of such a sweet and gentle theme I think speaks to his nature.

After his departure, fans wanted even more, and the orchestra obliged. I’ve already commented on the epic and powerful main theme from Skyward Sword, and it was performed here along with footage from the game. The game looks beautiful, and the theme sounds to be one of the best pieces of music written for the entire series, and after experiencing a whole evening of Zelda music, that’s saying an awful lot.

Fans filed out of the hall. Some tried to get their hands on the Skyward Sword kiosks, others rushed the merchandise booth until they were sold out of nearly everything. Others who had purchased VIP tickets entered the meet and greet with the show’s producers, arrangers, and conductor.

In all, I think everyone left the show satisfied. We were all transported to the realm of Hyrule for a brief two hours, and I don’t think anyone in the room would question doing it all over again. I hope this show sends a strong message to Nintendo that the music in their games matters. The sold out crowd was enthusiastic, and I hope between the three performances of this leg of the Zelda Symphony, Nintendo gets the picture that they need to do more to promote the music that their audio team is creating.

For me, this concert is up there in my memories of the original Dear Friends, and that’s saying a lot. It felt fresh and new, and I’m greatly looking forward to what JMP Productions does with the 2012 tour next year. This was certainly not a night that I will ever forget, and I’m so glad to have had so many friends and acquaintances in the same room with me to share it with.

Let us know what you think of what was performed and whether or not you will attend the tour when it comes to a location near you in 2012.

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