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Anime Boston 2010: Video Game Orchestra Demonstrates Endurance and Versatility

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I had some misunderstandings about Shota Nakama’s relatively new group, the “Video Game Orchestra” based in Boston. First of all, I thought this was a student group entirely out of Berklee. I figured some of these kids were getting credit for being part of the group.

Again, misunderstanding.

The Video Game Orchestra does have students. Undergrad students from Berklee, grad students from Boston Conservatory, and more. There are also older, professional musicians in the group as well. It’s a vibrant mix of extremely talented, motivated, and energetic musicians. I cannot emphasize that last description, “energetic,” enough.

You know, Boston had two major conventions in as many weekends. First, at the end of March, there was PAX East. Then, over “Easter Weekend,” we had Anime Boston. VGO performed at both, with different set lists and varying capacities.

At PAX East, it was mostly “chamber-sized.” There was the core chamber group, the even smaller string quartet, and the rock band setup. Each of these groups performed at Anime Boston, but Anime Boston got a lot more than that, including: a 40+ piece orchestra, a 20+ choir, a man who made wood block as popular as cow bell, and…

wait for it!…

Nobuo Uematsu.

I personally attended the VGO concert on Friday, April 2nd, at Anime Boston. And I loved what I heard. Let me tell you more about it, after the jump.

I’m not going to report this concert song-for-song, or in the order I heard pieces played. My memory isn’t that good, and I didn’t take notes. I was too overwhelmed by the experience. So I’ll just talk about the performances I remembered.

But before I get to the music, I have to talk about the performers themselves. Shota Nakama, himself an OSV contributor (usually in the form of translations) leads the group, though he stands in the back, guitar at the ready. He acts as the Master of Ceremonies, and he has a great sense of humor. He also regularly invites audience participation. For example, before performing a Sonic the Hedgehog medley, he had the audience sing “SE – GA!” And the sold-out theater happily obliged. There was even some unsolicited audience participation, like when the entire crowd stood at attention and saluted during the end of the Metal Gear Solid 3 medley.

There were many solos worked into the performances. The first-chair violinist, the female pianist (Kana Dehara), the star sax and clarinet players (who also arranged some music), and the two singers of the evening made incredible stand-out performances. In some cases, their outfit helped. Shota gave the performers a choice for outfits: they could wear the official VGO t-shirt, or they could cosplay. The clarinet player, Niki, was Princess Peach. Princess Daisy (Rosie Samter) was also in the group as a violist, and one of the choir members wore a Mario hat. Being able to make professional-sounding music while yet retaining a vibrant and lighthearted mood is a great way to connect with the audience.

(And it was a huge audience. I don’t have any hard numbers, but I believe they seated well over 3000 people that evening.)

Alright, on to the music.

Mario, Mario, Mario! There was a lot of Mario Bros music that night. First up was the main theme to Mario Galaxy, which was excellent. Among all the Mario games out there, that one (and perhaps Sunshine) are the two with music that I have the least exposure to. But I was pleased with this arrangement. Afterwards, they did the Super Mario Bros medley which sounded oddly similar to the 1991 arrangement heard on the first Game Music Concert ~ The Best Selection CD (also known as “Orchestral Game Concert”). Good stuff, but I’ve heard this piece performed many times by orchestral groups. (I was later informed by Shota that, indeed, everyone does use the old OGC arrangement, but they did make some changes for the 1-2 dungeon music.)

The best Mario track of the night, in my opinion, was that arranged by the saxophonist Zac Zinger and clarinet player Niki Mariskanish (who cosplayed as Peach that evening). They created an arranged medley of music from Yoshi’s Island which turned out to be fantastic. This one wasn’t full orchestra, it was the “chamber group” (which cuts the size of the group a little under half and focuses on wind and string). But it was simply a fun, memorable arrangement.


If you’re going to hit Nintendo’s mascot, it’s only fair to get the other. Sonic the Hedgehog 2, however, is rarely the source material. Most people go for the first Sonic, or some newfangled Sonic game for Dreamcast. Having an arranged medley from Sonic 2 was really a special treat, something I’ve definitely never heard an orchestra do before. Loved it, loved it, loved it.

As a tribute to Uematsu, Anime Boston’s special guest, VGO performed two Blue Dragon pieces. First, as the orchestra, they did “Waterside,” a beautiful instrumental theme. The pianist did a great job here. The other track was “Eternity,” the rock vocal track. A member of the choir, named Luis Armand, did the singing. And while he couldn’t stand up to Ian Gillian of Deep Purple (the original vocalist for the piece), he did hold his own with the rock band setup. In the words of Darth Vader: “IMPRESSIVE!”

One of my favorite performances of the night, if only because it demonstrated camaraderie (something sadly lacking in certain segments of the game industry), was the Myst series medley. This piece was “donated” (Shota’s words) by Jack Wall and the whole of Video Games Live. VGL and VGO are very similar organizations, in that they both do full orchestra and rock band setups. Of course, VGO generally stays (or has stayed) local to Boston, whereas VGL goes on tour. Anyway, my point is that the guys of VGL (Tommy, Jack, et al) had enough respect and love for a fellow game music enthusiast (and, some might say, “competitor”) that they let them have an arrangement for free. I’m really into that. On a personal note, I think the world is big enough for all the current groups trying to perform game and anime music, whether it be new recordings or “covering” old pieces. Eminence, VGL, VGO, Play!, Thomas Boecker’s functions at the WDR Radio Orchestra; all of this, I’m interested in and I think there’s room for all of them and more. VGL demonstrated that they held the same opinion as me by allowing VGO to use their arrangement. As for the piece itself, the opening minute of music from the original Myst (composed by Robyn Miller) was my favorite part. That said, the vocal-heavy stuff from Jack Wall was great too. It was nice hearing the choir get some attention.

Speaking of… there’s a track from God of War II that is featured in Guitar Hero III. They performed that song with the full orchestra, choir, and rock band. That made you want to bang your head. This arrangement was donated by the original composer, Gerard Marino. VGO tweaked the arrangement to fit the size and scope of their orchestra.

Before I get to the climactic end-performance music, I want to talk about the performance that set my heart back in place. You know, I’ve been following game music for over a decade now. I’m deeply in love with some of the music I’ve heard, but as a writer it is all too common that I will lose sight of why I ever got started. You get into a rut. I was feeling that rut during the 8 hour drive to Boston. But it all melted away during a three part medley of music from Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. Allow me to explain.


Part one was all Chrono Trigger. What a great medley this one was. Using the chamber group (again, about 15 musicians), we heard a lot of fantastic melodies. The opening minutes captured some of the most memorable pieces from the early parts of the game. First was the title screen music “A Premonition,” then Guardia’s “Millenial Fair” music, then “Yearnings of the Wind.” This all sounded great. My only complaint is that the sheet music arrangement missed some of the syncopation of the Millennial Fair melody. The up/down descent of the second half of the main melody (in eight measures) was arranged such that the notes were played on 1, the upbeat after 2, and the downbeat of 3. In other words, dotted quarter note, eighth note, and quarter note in a 3/4 time signature. In fact, the melody is syncopated such that it should have been dotted quarter note, quarter note, then eighth note (downbeat 1, upbeats of 2 and 3). (Edit: Shota Nakama informed me that the arrangement was originally syncopated as heard in-game, but the players wanted to do it their own way, and they were ultimately given artistic liberty). To make up for what I found to be a minor irritation, though, they did have the whole chamber group yell “ha!” just like you’ll hear in the original version. This was really great. Also included in the CT arrangement was Frog’s Theme, Chrono Trigger, and other pieces. All in all, a hardy arrangement.

This got me pumped for their performance of “Scars of Time,” the opening theme to Chrono Cross. There are tons of arrangements out there for this track, and nearly all of them have managed to fail. It’s strange that VGO’s performers chose to simplify the syncopation on Millennial Fair, yet they’re the only ones that have managed to get the syncopated, complicated rhythm of the melody to Scars of Time correct. Everyone else invariably seems to screw it up, but they didn’t. That made me quite happy.

So these two pieces set the mood, getting me into the incredible “Chrono soundscape” of Yasunori Mitsuda. I loved what I heard, but I wasn’t ready for the emotional resonance of the next track. The group broke into an even smaller section: just a string quartet, plus Shota Nakama on acoustic guitar. The piece performed? “Radical Dreamers” from Chrono Cross. And like I said, I just wasn’t ready. I wasn’t emotionally prepared. And I nearly wept at the beauty of it. For three minutes, all pretense of being a writer, or critic, of game music left. I was just a 15-year-old kid feeling moved and inspired by one of the most beautiful melodies he’d ever heard. The performers treated the song with a similar respect. Much of the concert that night had a fun, energetic tone to it. But here, the artists were serious and somber as they performed. When the music was over, there was a solid 10 seconds of silence before the inevitable uproar of applause began.

I have three more pieces to talk about. Two of them featured a fantastic female vocalist who is a member of VGO. And the last? Well, I think you know whom I’ll be talking about there.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is, for many people, the least enjoyable of the four games in the main series. But the music? Ah, that is a different thing entirely. Much of the series has music composed by Norihiko Hibino, including the vocal theme song “Snake Eater,” performed originally by Cynthia Harrell. For VGO’s performance, their star singer Courtney Swain performed the theme. I heard a lot of positive feedback from the attendees the next day on this one. I’m not entirely familiar with the MGS3 soundtrack, but this was a moving performance. Jazz plus orchestra plus incredible singer equals unforgettable. Don’t forget that equation. After she finished singing, a military march instrumental theme was performed, and the entire audience stood up and saluted, unsolicited by VGO. It was just an awesome fan response.

Ms. Swain stayed on-stage to perform some music from the Kingdom Hearts series. As soon as the orchestra began playing the melody, I said to the person sitting next to me (Michael Ferreira of Anime Dream) “looks like they’re going to perform Hikaru Utada’s ‘Sanctuary.’” Close, but no cigar. While we expected an English performance, we actually got the original Japanese version, “Passion.” After the concert, Shota informed me that Courtney is half Japanese and as such was comfortable performing the Japanese language version of the song (which is the version I have always preferred). It’s a difficult song to do live, in part because there are many vocal effects throughout the piece that cannot be imitated (including that reverse “I need more affection than you know” that plays every few measures). Nonetheless, Courtney captivated the audience with her strong and beautiful voice. I absolutely loved this performance.

Shota and crew acted as though this were the final piece, but of course there was an encore, and of course it would be Final Fantasy VII, and *of course* it would be One-Winged Angel. If you have orchestra, rock band and choir, it almost goes without saying that you’ll be hearing Halo and FFVII (both Mr. Ferreira and I made this observation, though interestingly we got God of War II in place of Halo, which was a welcome change). But it wasn’t just One-Winged Angel. It was a full medley containing Prelude, Chocobo, Main Theme, Aeris’ Theme, Battle, Boss Battle, J-E-N-O-V-A Battle, and more. No one does this. Even at the Distant Worlds concert, we don’t get that much FFVII in one night. The arrangements were new for the most part, and they were excellent. At this point we had the full range of performers: full orchestra, full choir, and the rock band. However, no one was sitting at the organ. I wonder why?

But you know why, don’t you?! Shota Nakama went up to the mic and announced: “ladies and gentlemen, Nobuo Uematsu!” The crowd went absolutely wild as Uematsu stepped out from backstage wearing one of his signature “I’m about to destroy this organ” bandannas (which he later gave to one of the rock band members of VGO, whom we’ve lovingly renamed “The Boston Mages”). Uematsu was smiling when he walked out, even though he was fighting off jet-lag and illness, and he put on a grade-A performance. The arrangement of One-Winged Angel followed the Advent Children version, which allowed for instrumental solos. Shota was on electric guitar, standing next to Uematsu on organ as they totally rocked out. The crowd could not stop cheering throughout the entire performance; fake cosplay weapons were held high during the piece.

After the show I talked to many VGO performers about the evening, and most of them agreed that the best part of the night, and perhaps out of their musical careers to this point, was being able to say that they’ve performed on-stage with Nobuo Uematsu himself. What a treat. I have to say, I’m jealous of them. They are very fortunate musicians, even if their talent affords them these kinds of opportunities.

So my miseducation about VGO has been dispelled, and I’ve been given a renewed sense of passion and desire regarding game music thanks to this concert. For many others in the audience, it was their first time hearing any game music performed live, and that too must’ve been a powerful experience. The full concert was nearly 2 hours in length, and it was well worth a horrendous 8 hour drive (I’m sure others suffered worse) to hear it.

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