Thomas Boecker Interview: The Music of Legends and Odysseys (June 2011)
This summer, producer Thomas Boecker is commemorating the music of two icons with two symphonic game music concerts. On June 1, LEGENDS celebrated the music of Nintendo's most franchises with a sold-out performance by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. On July 9, Symphonic Odysseys will pay homage to the work of the works of Nobuo Uematsu in the producer's fourth and final concert with the WDR Radio Orchestra.
In this interview, Boecker recollects his experiences at LEGENDS. He discusses how the production develops the concept of last year's Symphonic Legends while continuing to push artistic boundaries. He also discusses highlight arrangements and his experiences with the orchestra, conductor, and special guests of the concert. He subsequently gives a preview of Symphonic Odysseys, noting how the concert will blend all new arrangements of Final Fantasy music with other historical and emotional selections. The interview is supplemented by photos from LEGENDS © Jan-Olav Wedin.
Interview Subject: Thomas Boecker
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Greening
Chris: Thomas Boecker, many thanks for talking to us today about your latest concert productions, Symphonic Odysseys and LEGENDS. LEGENDS premiered on June 1 at the famous Stockholm Konserthuset. Could you recall your experiences at the event? Were you satisfied with the final performance?
Thomas Boecker: This would be an understatement per excellence. The whole experience in Stockholm has been like a dream. Everything went so smoothly and we had a great time. LEGENDS definitely marked the peak of my concert productions so far, from a very subjective point of view — probably needless to say. I loved every second of LEGENDS.
Chris: LEGENDS was based on the program of Symphonic Legends, a Nintendo tribute concert that occurred last year. How did you feel about the variable reception to the original concert?
Thomas Boecker: Assumingly, the concerts of the WDR are the ones that are in the focus the most worldwide. Besides the more than 2,000 people in attendance at the Philharmonic Hall in Cologne, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands are accessing the live audio and the live video stream internationally. No other video game music concert series is reaching such a large number of people live.
Therefore I do not find it too surprising that people have different opinions on what we are offering and expressing them, and especially with Symphonic Legends it would have been a bit naive to believe that arrangements such as Super Metroid or the Symphonic Poem of The Legend of Zelda would not cause any controversies; causing controversial discussions on certain approaches is part of the maturation process for this relatively new art form.
Symphonic Legends has been awarded "Concert of the Year" by the respected LEVEL magazine in Sweden, and was interpreted by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra recently, in some of the highest accolades in my book.
Chris: Do you feel LEGENDS was as musically challenging as its predecessor or was it curtailed more towards mainstream fans?
Thomas Boecker: The program for LEGENDS has been changed for that occasion and I will go more into detail about that later. However, the RSPO's official website headlined the concert would be "More sophisticated than ever", which clearly underlines that we did not step back.
We were fortunate of having trust and support of the management. We had 140 outstanding musicians on stage: a prestigious orchestra and a professional choir. It was the first video game music concert of this size by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. Knowing the great achievements of their past, one can imagine what that meant for LEGENDS.
Chris: Do you think LEGENDS is a culmination of the concepts you have been pursuing since your earlier symphonic game music concerts?
Thomas Boecker: Since the beginning, our concerts have been produced with the goal of offering great orchestral arrangements to people who love video game music and symphonic music in general. Concerts where the musicians are the most important aspect, and not just decoration. Knowing the games is a plus, but there is no requirement to enjoy the original scores. LEGENDS in Stockholm has been sold out, yet there were no light effects, no laser effects, no video projections on screens — everything was focused on the music and the musicians, just as we did for Sinfonia Drammatica in 2009.
There is no better way to build a trustful relationship between the audience and the orchestra on a long term. And this is what counts, because people are getting more interested in all the other wonderful concerts they are doing besides the events with video game music.
Chris: Symphonic Legends featured numerous high-profile arrangers, whereas LEGENDS focused on three: Jonne Valtonen, Roger Wanamo, and Masashi Hamauzu. What are the reasons behind this approach? Is this what you mean when you said that LEGENDS would be an "arranger's concert"?
Thomas Boecker: Please, let me explain at first that the term of an "arranger's concert" is often used in a negative way, which I would like to object. To me, it means that our arrangers are given artistic freedom, with the aim that the music fits best in an orchestral environment.
Often enough, original game music is transcribed 1:1 into orchestral arrangements, which to me feels like an insult to the musicians. If you are translating a poem from one language into another, you must not do that word by word, instead you have to adjust it: find the meaning, the intend, the soul, so to speak. You have to take cultural differences into account, different rhythms, different tones to express moods. Still, the original character has to survive this process, and assumingly this is the parting of the ways.
A lot of the music that we are performing comes from the time of 8 bit and 16 bit consoles. Analyzing the music, finding certain manners of the composers, doing research on their intentions, and talking to them directly is also our work. Seeing the feedback — for example, Koji Kondo who called the Symphonic Poem of The Legend of Zelda a wonderful, fantastic and unparalleled work — is proof to us that we captured the mood of that universe.
So let me summarize by saying that I love the original music, but in order to create the same emotional effect and the same impact live with an orchestra and choir, it needs a lot of thinking, investigating and arranging.
Chris: What was it like to reunite with the arrangers on the concert?
Thomas Boecker: Now Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo are two top composers and arrangers who have the gift of translating the original music into orchestral pieces. We have a great relationship and share the same thoughts on how to approach video game music concerts. They are as passionate about it as I am, and they are driven by the same strong will to improve.
I knew Masashi Hamauzu from my past projects such as Vielen Dank, and now that he became a freelancer I wanted to use the chance to have him arranging for Symphonic Legends. His work turned out to be at least as fantastic as I expected, and besides this, his style fits extremely well in a program together with the ones of Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo. Together they offered three different approaches — three different ways of translating, one could say — but together a wonderfully well balanced unit with highly artistic work.
Chris: In particular, it would be interesting to hear more about the all-new arrangements on the concert. Could you tell us more about these items? How would you compare and contrast them with the Symphonic Legends additions?
Thomas Boecker: Please let me start with Kirby, a piece that was no part of the Symphonic Legends concert at all. The arrangement was done by Masashi Hamauzu, and the decision was made to write the arrangement for a wind quintet — something hardly seen in a video game music concert. The reason was that I wanted to make sure to keep a nice balance, and not to produce an overly loud concert. Besides, we thought that actually a smaller ensemble would be much better to describe Kirby's character.
For Pikmin, we thought that there should be emphasis on the fact that the Pikmin are cute, little and brave creatures surrounded by forests and nature in general. We wanted soft tones, so besides a piccolo trumpet with solos describing the battle part of the life of the Pikmin, there was no brass used at all. In most parts, the arrangement by Masashi Hamauzu is calm and certainly a bit melancholic too.
Chris: Now we covered Hamauzu's pieces, it would be interesting to hear about Roger Wanamo and Jonne Valtonen's contributions too...
Thomas Boecker: For F-Zero, Roger Wanamo had the idea of featuring Benyamin Nuss on piano, so he wrote a race for piano and orchestra, and really, what a race it was! The character of this high speed game is underlined perfectly. It also made a great contrast to "Aquatic Ambiance" that was followed next, so that Benyamin could showcase his skills as a versatile pianist.
Super Metroid by Jonne Valtonen was certainly as controversial as the arrangement by Torsten Rasch last year. Jonne's work features a narrator and describes the inner conflict of Samus. It is very dark, moody and operatic, but themes such as the Main Theme and the theme of Mother Brain are very prominently featured.
Star Fox has, as one can guess, a very John Williams inspired style to it. It also acted as the opening piece, so it starts with a fanfare. I know that the style of John Williams is a bit over-used, and it gets old to borrow inspiration from him so often. However, besides the fact that Star Fox was almost like made for such an approach, I think the big compliment here is that it really sounded like a big Hollywood blockbuster. As a newspaper wrote, the piece set the tone for the whole concert. The melodies of Nintendo were never kitschy or banal in their presentation at LEGENDS.
Chris: The second half of the concert featured the Symphonic Poem of The Legend of Zelda, as well as encores. Could you elaborate on the approach for these?
Thomas Boecker: Jonne and I discussed the Symphonic Poem of The Legend of Zelda extensively in an interview with you last year. However, I would like to add that we produced a carefully revised version with a re-written Battlefield part.
Besides that, we performed two encores as a surprise. We knew that fans in Stockholm would be aware of the encore from Cologne, so right after the Symphonic Poem we performed the beautiful arrangement of The Legend of Zelda's Fairy Fountain with Benyamin Nuss on piano. Jonne Valtonen did the score.
It was followed by a revised version of Roger Wanamo's encore that is known from Symphonic Legends, but with a twist. It started the same way, but then it also featured the ending music of F-Zero at one point, and other extensions like with music from Star Fox being presented more than before. I think it is obvious by now how much heart was put into LEGENDS, and it was fun to play with people's expectations more intensively.
Chris: On LEGENDS, you once again produced a performance by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. What was it like to reunite with this famous orchestra? Were you satisfied with the contribution by the ensemble, conductor, and soloists?
Thomas Boecker: It is true that I was involved as a producer for the first PLAY! A Video Game Symphony concert in 2006. Besides I offered my consulting services for Sinfonia Drammatica and Distant Worlds as well. However, LEGENDS this year was the first time that I did a full concert for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, and before I never had been responsible for so many tasks. Nevertheless, the orchestra has many great people helping and ensuring that everything works well, so I cannot take credit for just everything: it is always a team effort, and that known fact was especially obvious with LEGENDS.
If I would now getting started on how great the orchestra was, it would be an endless interview. Just let me tell you: the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra is not from this world. I simply could not believe it. One has to keep in mind that this concert definitely featured the most challenging scores of concerts I produced, but there was not the slightest problem.
Arnie Roth loves the orchestra, and the orchestra feel the same way about him. This was obvious to see, and this has a great impact on the performance quality that was of highest standard. As for the soloists, Benyamin Nuss was able to prove his skills beautifully, with the fast paced F-Zero, the impressionistic "Aquatic Ambiance" from Donkey Kong Country, and the soft "Fairy Fountain" melody from The Legend of Zelda. The event was made even more special by the original composer and arranger of "Aquatic Ambience", David Wise and Masashi Hamauzu, attending as special guests.
Chris: Many are curious whether your music from either concert will ever be officially released. Are there any plans for a live recording similar to Symphonic Shades and Symphonic Fantasies? Would Nintendo be supportive of this idea?
Thomas Boecker: Unfortunately this is difficult. As I said previously, the goal with Symphonic Legends was to make it available permanently, and the WDR got permission from Nintendo to upload all videos from the video stream to their own video archive. Theoretically this could be done in an edited and mixed form, in very high video and audio quality as a video on demand service. So far, the WDR has not used this rare opportunity, but I am hopeful that one day it is going to happen. I know that many fans would prefer a CD or a DVD, but the video on demand service is the next best thing that can be offered.
Chris: At the end of May, music from Pikmin and The Legend of Zelda were performed in Dusseldorf as part of a Japanese-themed concert. Could you elaborate on the inspirations behind this crossover concert? How did the game music integrate alongside the other items?
Thomas Boecker: I have to admit that I did not attend the concert, and I was not involved in the production. Responsible people from the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker were in attendance at Symphonic Legends last year, and they felt that The Legend of Zelda and Pikmin would be great additions to a Japan-themed concert targeted towards teenagers. Apparently they thought that both arrangements had a quality that would ensure interest from an audience that would not necessarily have to know the games.
Chris: Next month, you will premiere Symphonic Odysseys dedicated to Nobuo Uematsu in Cologne. What inspired you to create your own tribute to this much-loved musician? How will this production differ from others dedicated to the composer?
Thomas Boecker: The difference is, like with all the Cologne concerts, that the content is completely new and exclusively written for the performances at the Philharmonic Hall. We will present a fanfare composed by Nobuo Uematsu and Jonne Valtonen to open the event, and from there we are showcasing different stops in the career of Nobuo Uematsu.
In terms of the general mood, the concert will reflect various facets of Nobuo Uematsu's personal musicality. I would say that, in general, Symphonic Odysseys might have a soft tone to it, comparable to Symphonic Fantasies. I find Nobuo Uematsu's music very melody-driven and vast in terms of emotional scope. His music is quite melancholic and sad at times despite his battle themes. Nevertheless, Nobuo Uematsu is a very humorous person, so this is something to expect to be shown at our latest concert production too.
Chris: With Symphonic Shades, you produced a program that effectively balanced well-known representative works with more obscure historic gems. Is this also true for Symphonic Odysseys? What lesser-known pieces should listeners expect from the night?
Thomas Boecker: While we are naturally taking into account how much music he composed for the Final Fantasy series. You can expect an all-new suite of Final Fantasy music in the way of what we did for the Symphonic Fantasies concert — meaning an elaborated arrangement spanning over more than 15 min. Besides that, there will be stand-alone pieces featured from that series. I guess it is not too surprising that we are concentrating on material that has not been performed yet, and if it does, then we are offering a different take on the scores.
We are also presenting a lot of music from Lost Odyssey. Or to be more specific, the concert will feature two big segments of similar length; there is the "Final Fantasy Suite" and the "Lost Odyssey Suite". Roger Wanamo and Jonne Valtonen are the responsible arrangers.
Besides this, the concert will have shorter pieces from other games, some of them quite exotic. I think that King's Knight definitely belongs to the category of an obscure gem. We are also going to perform music from The Last Story, which is of course not exotic at all, but one should keep in mind that the game has not been released yet in Europe. Among other items, there is also an adaptation from Chrono Trigger too, where Nobuo Uematsu contributed several memorable pieces alongside Yasunori Mitsuda.
Beyond this, I do not want to reveal too many specific details at this point, as I feel that the surprise aspect at the concert is of benefit for a special, personal experience.
Chris: On Symphonic Odysseys, Arnie Roth will once again conduct the WDR Radio Orchestra, after an absence at Symphonic Legends. Is it satisfying to reunite with the conductor and ensemble? Will the concert once again receive extensive rehearsal time?
Thomas Boecker: Yes, the extensive rehearsal time is fortunately one of the big advantages when working with this outstanding orchestra. It is good to see that the WDR invited Arnie Roth as the conductor, which is definitely a nice bonus for Nobuo Uematsu as well, as they have such a long and successful co-operation on the Distant Worlds concert tour.
Chris: On that note, the existing Final Fantasy concert repertoire has been used extensively through concert tours such as Distant Worlds. Would you be interested in arrangements from Symphonic Odysseys being incorporated into such tours? Or would you prefer them to remain exclusive to your concerts?
Thomas Boecker: I think that this is not entirely out of question. It happened before with arrangements such as "Dancing Mad", which has been world-premiered in Leipzig and is now performed internationally in an extended and revised version.
Frankly speaking, though, despite legal questions, one has to keep in mind that all arrangements for Cologne are created with the knowledge that a good amount of rehearsal time is going to be spent. As a result, I am not sure if the same arrangements would be suitable for a world-tour. With an excellent orchestra such as the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra it would be doable, though.
Chris: You have previously hinted that Symphonic Odysseys may be your last concert in Cologne. Do you expect this is true? What are your plans for the future?
Thomas Boecker: Next year, my concert series will celebrate its tenth anniversary, so I am definitely interested in continuing until then as a producer. What is true, however, is that the WDR will close the tetralogy of their symphonic game music series after Symphonic Odysseys. However, rest assured that the orchestra will continue performing video game music in 2012.
Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Thomas Boecker. Is there anything else you would like to say about your productions? In addition, is there any message you'd like to leave to those supporting LEGENDS and Symphonic Odysseys?
Thomas Boecker: I would like to thank all fans who are attending our concerts, being so open-minded to new ideas. I know this is not a given. Frankly, I would be happy if some of the classic music lovers would be as supportive to video game music as our fans are towards elements of contemporary music and experiments. There is a new generation of people who love symphonic music without being too conservative about its style and form. I am hopeful that orchestras will realize this potential by taking video game music into their standard concert repertoire.