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Video Game Orchestra: Berklee Performance (Concert Review)

November 28, 2014 | | Comment? Share thison Facebook Video Game Orchestra: Berklee Performance (Concert Review)on Twitter

Back in early October the Video Game Orchestra, also known as the VGO, held a performance at the Berklee School of Music to kick off their latest concert tour. The group has its origins in Boston and is lead by Shota Nakama. The Video Game Orchestra has performed at a number of venues including MAGFest, PAX East, and the Boston Festival of Indie Games. At the beginning of this year, they even started their own recording studio and began producing music for some big game titles, one of the most recent being Final Fantasy XIII-3. The group’s style is what band leader Shota Nakama often refers to as rockestral game music. This is essentially a blending of an orchestra and rock band that helps create a whole new style. It’s a combination that works well for game music, especially for a lot of the material that they cover.

The VGO varies in the size of its ensemble, depending on the venue or project they are working on. In performances at Boston’s Symphony Hall they’ve made use of a full orchestra and their rock band, while smaller venues have required them to make due with just the rock band ensemble. For this performance at Berklee Hall, the VGO went with a compromise of the two set ups. The standard rock ensemble was present, but they were joined by a small string section and choir. While there are always a handful of standard pieces that the VGO likes to play at their events, some surprises and new pieces are always being added to the repertoire. What did the VGO have in store this time? Read on to find out. 

The concert began with two standards from the Video Game Orchestra’s set list. The opening piece was the “Main Theme” from Street Fighter 2, originally written by Yoko Shimomura, followed immediately by the “Main Theme” from Chrono Trigger. Both of these pieces I’ve heard live with just the rock ensemble, so it was interesting to hear the alterations made to include the choir and string section. Most of these additions involved the extra sections simply supporting the harmonies already being played by the rhythm guitar and other accompaniment instruments. They were minor adjustments, but it added to the overall power of the group’s sound.

Next up was “Time’s Scar” from the game Chrono Cross. This arrangement followed a set up similar to the original sound version from the game. Beginning with simple arpeggios from a lone guitar and a haunting melody from the piccolo, the piece soon launched into a lively orchestral piece incorporating most of the ensemble. The string and rhythm sections joined in, again sticking close to the arrangement of the original version, with the lead violinist performing the melody. Overall, a great performance of Yasunori Mitsuda’s music.

One of the surprises at this concert was the prominence of songs and vocal pieces. The first of these was an arrangement of “Coils of Light” from Dragon’s Dogma. The lead vocalist of the VGO Ingred Gerdes joined the group to deliver an excellent rendition of the song. Other song selections performed during the concert’s first half included “Still Alive” from Portal and a world premier performance, according to group leader Shota Nakama, of “Somato” from God Eater 2, a game that has yet to see a U.S. release. Of course, “Still Alive” from Portal was a necessary inclusion, but it was nice to have it mixed with some other vocal selections. I had never heard the other two pieces before, so it was a refreshing and enjoyable change.

The songs were broken up by a few solos from the group’s head keyboardist, Livan. His first performance was a suite from Kingdom of Hearts. A nice change of pace from the full VGO ensemble, covering a handful of themes from the Kingdom of Hearts score. His second solo was a medley from Mega Man 2. This medley covered the opening title screen music and quickly jumped to the well known Dr. Wiley stage music. The medley started out slow but soon became a dazzling and fast paced arrangement, especially when Livan launched into the Dr. Wiley stage music. It was cool to hear some solo work during the concert and it was a nice change up between the performances of “Coils of Light” and “Still Alive.”

For the second half of the concert, the VGO began with another one of the pieces from their standard set. They opened with the rock version of the God of War theme “The End Begins to Rock”. This is an adaptation of the Rock Band version of the piece. Incorporating the full ensemble, including the choir, the performance was intense and really got the crowd going. It also gave the guitarists and keyboard players an excuse to show off with some solos.

The next collection of music all came from the newly released XB One game D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die. The creator of the game Hidetaka Suehiro, aka SWERY, was even present to hear this world premier performance. The opening piece for this suite was a song titled, “Requiem (Salvation)” and once again saw Ingrid returning to the stage for the lead vocals. “Requiem (Salvation)” was a gentle and ethereal song that complimented the surreal visuals from the game really well. This piece transitioned into the other selections in this suite including “Battle (Introduction)” and “Drank Dead DOM Die.” The style of the music ranged wildly from contemporary jazz to to upbeat rock, evoking the mysterious and often bizarre narrative of the game and its gameplay. It was all excellent music that definitely got me interested in checking out the full soundtrack.

The following music selection came from the Sonic the Hedgehog series. This ended up being the song “Endless Possibilities” from Sonic Unleashed. I was personally hoping for something from the earlier Sonic games, but this was another great vocal piece and, again, another interesting piece that I had never heard before.

The Video Game Orchestra then performed one of my favorite arrangements from their playlist. This was “Big Blue” from F-Zero, one of the fastest and hardest pieces that the group usually plays. It’s always a great crowd pleaser and it’s always a blast to watch them perform it. After playing through the theme, the bass, guitar players, and violinist took turns giving solos. Like the previous performances I’ve seen, the back and forth solos between the band members started to become a contest to see who could pull off the fastest and most ridiculous riffs. Despite the continuing escalation of challenge and intensity, every soloist participating made the task seem like child’s play. This was just as much a game to them as it was a performance. The climax of the guitar battle was reached with each player fretting the chords of another soloist’s guitar. A great final trick before returning to one last repeat of the theme and the F-Zero finish line music.

(VGO Performing “Big Blue”)

The final three pieces for the evening were all songs. Once again, Ingrid returned to the stage as the lead vocalist. The first selection was “Snake Eater” from Metal Gear Solid 3, another standard song from the VGO’s repertoire. The second song was something that I don’t think anyone expected. In tribute to some people from Harmonix who were attending the concert, the VGO decided to play a song from the Rock Band library with the full band. The song that they choose was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Up came the familiar Rock Band note highway and the VGO began playing, with the entire audience singing along. SWERY himself even came to the stage brandishing a plastic guitar controller. I’m usually not a huge fan of rock groups trying to play “Bohemian Rhapsody” live, but the VGO really pulled it off. The audience was really into it and of course there was the obligatory head banging ala Wayne’s World.

(VGO Performing “Bohemian Rhapsody”)

Now that would have been the conclusion of the concert, but naturally the audience, myself included, were yelling for more. As a final encore, the Video Game Orchestra performed one last song. This was “Zombies on Your Lawn” from the game Plants Vs. Zombies. It was not exactly what I would have expected as a follow-up to Queen, but then that’s a very tough act to follow. Regardless, It’s a fun little tune and everyone enjoyed this final goofy song to end the evening.

This was one of the more interesting concerts that I’ve seen from the VGO. There was a heavy emphasis on songs and vocal pieces, which is not something you see a lot of in game music concerts, even from this group. There were a number of pieces that I wasn’t familiar with, but that made it an exciting experience. It was a chance to showcase newer pieces, including the new D4 soundtrack, while keeping a handful of their standard repertoire in the mix. There was a great amount of variety in the music genres and the arrangements gave a refreshing spin to all of the material. I definitely had a great time at this concert and I can’t wait to hear what this group does next. They are certainly a music act to keep an eye on. You can check out the Video Game Orchestra and see their upcoming events and shows at the VGO website. Also be sure to check out their newly released Live at Symphony Hall album.

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