Back to the Future (Boston, April 2011): Concert Report


Boston's Symphony Hall is an imposing edifice, built like a temple in the era in which music was treated as a kind of sacred ritual. The interior greets its visitors with corridors lined with pictures of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's history, and although they are not terribly narrow, surrounding the spacious interior hall, they seem tiny by comparison. Venturing into the hall, with its three levels, one is struck by the pseudo-classical decor, with statues standing watch over the second balcony, and the names of famous classical composers inscribed over the stage, Beethoven in the center. On Friday night of April 1, 2011, a speaker column hung under that name, as if to emphasize the combination of classical and popular, traditional and modern that was to take place.

The Video Game Orchestra, founded by our own Shota Nakama, had finally arrived in this most prestigious location, to perform a program of film and video game music. Film music, of course, has been a staple of Boston Pops concerts for years, but video game music still exists on the periphery, so this felt like a significant breakthrough. But despite the group's name, only half of the program ended up being dedicated to video game music. The rest was a collection of pieces, original and from films. Aside from the pieces conducted by guests, Yohei Sato directed the group for the evening.

The rock-orchestra blend in Lucas Vidal's "March Madness," written for an upcoming movie starring Bruce Willis, was well executed, showing the influences of John Williams and Hans Zimmer, but not entirely memorable. Keith Murray's "The Lion Fell in Love with the Lamb," however, was all too memorable. An extended pop/orchestral ballad conceptually inspired by the Twilight series of books, one could at least say that the lyrics were fitting to the quality of writing found in the series, but the music was unfortunately too repetitive, and it lacked the drive that ballads of this kind require.

Howard Shore's suite from The Lord of the Rings, with a prominent part for flute solo, was entirely familiar to the audience, and the VGO got a chance to shine here with Shore's striking orchestrations and melodies. The soloist, Burak Besir, deserves special mention as well for his admirable performance. As a student of James Galway, who played in the original movies, he brought a real aunthenticity to the performance. Two pieces by Georges Delerue, from the movies Steel MagnoliasM and Salvador, could not have been more contrasting. The gentle piece from the former movie emphasized strings, while the martial piece from the second was driven home with snare drum ostinati throughout.

The first half of the concert concluded with Alan Silvestri taking the podium to conduct his suites from the movies Forrest Gump and Back to the Future, in that order. Both movies, and their scores, are remembered fondly to this day, and the audience lit up when Silvestri came on stage. The VGO proved themselves worthy of Hollywood, and Silvestri was an animated conductor.

After the intermission, Shota Nakama took the stage to MC for the second half of the program. For many in the crowd, one had the sense that this was what they had been waiting for, and the mood in the hall changed considerably. Opening up with Super Mario Bros., probably the most famous of all video game scores, the feel of the concert shifted away from the purely orchestral to what Shota called "rockestral," and this new arrangement of the main theme fit the bill perfectly. Nakama's arrangement, while following the general outline of the earlier orchestral version from the 90s, felt more lively, and the jazzy nature of the melody was brought out much more than before. When the electric bassist, Keisuke Higashino, played the underground motif, the audience cheered, and with Nakama's electric guitar and Giancarlo de Trizio's drums, a new dimension was brought to the classic themes.

The group also played the Grammy-winning "Baba Yetu," by Christopher Tin. The choir and orchestra performed this moving piece with passion. The soloists, Jose Delgado and Courtney Knott, sang clearly and beautifully. The international spirit was carried further with Wataru Hokoyama's Afrika suite. Hokoyama, who had flown in from Hollywood to conduct, began by conducting the crowd's cheers, first signaling to the left, then the right, asking for crescendos and diminuendos. It was the most difficult piece on the program, Nakama emphasized in his introduction, and one could hear easily what he meant. Opening up with a solo on English horn, the piece contained virtuosic passages for the entire orchestra, and even had a prominent solo for the tuba. Hokoyama's Hollywood training shone throughout the piece, and the VGO proved themselves worthy of that lineage.

Also in a distinctly Hollywood-esque vein, Jack Wall's Myst suite was striking, even if less familiar. Its deft blend of choir and orchestra accentuated the mysterious tone very well, and the occasional appearances of Robyn Miller's theme for the original Myst were well integrated. The Hollywood aspects of the style brought to mind the first half of the program, but here the orchestration seemed more colorful, less ordinary. The Metal Gear Solid suite, combining the main theme, in Harry Gregson-Williams' arrangement for the second game, with Norihiko Hibino's song "Snake Eater," constituted the most direct of the evening's East meets West engagements. Courtney Knott sang the latter, with its clear James Bond influence, and her performance was a highlight of the evening. Nakama arranged the suite, along with Naoto Kubo, and the juxtaposition of the two revealed more similarities than differences in style.

Nakama regretfully informed the enthusiastic audience that there were only two pieces left, and jokingly suggested that they switch over to central time in order to go on longer. The first of the two, a suite from Uematsu's Final Fantasy VII arranged by Nakama and Kubo, was the longest single item on the program. The medley opened with the Prelude, proceeded through "Those Who Fight," "Final Fantasy," and "Aerith's Theme," and a mock-dignified version of the Chocobo theme. It felt a bit uneven, but when "Advent: One Winged Angel" began, Nakama's guitar and Higashino's bass energized the suite through to the end. Unfortunately, the amplified elements drowned out the rest of the orchestra at times, and even the choir had to struggle to be heard at the beginning. But when the entire group, acoustic and electric, played "Final Fantasy" as a finale, the balance felt right, and the suite closed very well.

Finally, the group played an arrangement of Yasunori Mitsuda's "Chrono Cross ~ Scars Left by Time," extended with a solo played by the concertmistress, Julgi Kang. Nakama opened the piece on acoustic guitar, and the arrangement managed to retain the intimacy of the original, which has been lost in some earlier concert arrangements of the piece. Although it felt very short coming after the mammoth Final Fantasy VII suite, it was also an excellent close to the concert, not being quite as heavy in tone as the "rockestral" pieces.

The Video Game Orchestra had arrived. The group has expanded from its original small ensemble to full orchestra size, and made it to Boston's own Symphony Hall. Although the program's two halves didn't quite feel like they belonged together, the group performed well throughout, apart from a few intonation problems in the brass. But recognition of video game scores has only just begun, and I am sure that groups like the VGO will continue to champion this overlooked genre of music into the future. Hopefully others will be inspired to create their own groups as a result.






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