Symphonic Shades - Huelsbeck in Concert (Cologne, August 2008): The First Report
It was August 23rd and my first time in Cologne. I was following the call of Symphonic Shades — the concert to honor the famous game composer Chris Hülsbeck in a way he will probably never forget — hoping for a great evening. To be honest I don't know much music from him and ordered the ticket just to attend a orchestral game music concert in Germany after my last one was the Symphonic Game Music Concert in Leipzig 2004. However, it was definitely worth it!
In this report I don't want to analyze the music much for two reasons: 1) I'm bad at that and 2) after a live radio broadcast (the first time for a game music concert ever!) and the upcoming release of a CD, there are enough possibilities for you to form your own opinion about it. What else do I want to talk about, you wonder? About something no CD can deliver: the atmosphere.
One and a half hours before the first of the two concerts started, an autograph session was held. On the hot seats were Jonne Valtonen, main arranger and orchestrator of Symphonic Shades, Yuzo Koshiro and Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, guest arrangers who arranged one track each, and of course, Chris Hülsbeck. Teioh, my partner for this evening, and I were wondering how many people would be there because the announcement of a specific time were published just the day before. However, it was enough of a line to wait in!
Chris Hülsbeck was very friendly and signed all the material fans brought in (some fans used the chance and brought all the games and other things with them for signing) with patience and pleasure. Also Jonne Valtonen was there but he looked kind of shy; maybe it was his first time giving autographs to such a large audience. Finally there was Yuzo Koshiro and Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, who were for some more interesting than Hülsbeck! Also a lot of rare CDs were coming up and all that Mitsuyoshi-san could said was "Where did you get that? This was years ago!" or "Hey! That's me!" while looking a booklet. He was pure fun the whole evening. He did funny faces or poses for photos and enjoyed every single minute. On the other hand Koshiro-san was the complete opposite. He always looked strict and serious. A little surprising for me as I met him before in 2004 when he was more shy but also more active.
The freedom of all the "stars" was completely fascinating. They moved from one point to another in the lobby as if there were just ordinary guests. Those that had no idea what he looked like had no idea they were standing next to Jonne Valtonen. Occasionally an individual or small group of fans stopped one of them for a small talk or an autograph. Fortunately we saw Thomas Böcker also walking around so we took the chance to ask him for a autograph — with success! He has done much for the game music scene in Germany and indeed Europe as a whole so why should we ignore him?
Shortly after 8 pm, the concert started with Grand Monster Slam. This arrangement was premiered earlier this year, as the WDR Radio Orchestra have played it in a PROMS concert. The premiere was nice but not overwhelming when I listened to it via radio! Live, however, it's a great opening fanfare. Before the next piece, host Matthias Opdenhövel came out and greeted the audience in the hall but also those listening via radio around the world. Mr Opdenhövel said that this concert is a special way to celebrate Chris Hülsbeck, although he joked that Hülsbeck doesn't like it when people do that. "Well, this will be a hard evening for him because we're going to do that!" and everybody, Hülsbeck included, was laughing.
During items like X-Out, Tower of Babel, or The Great Giana Sisters, there was tasteful visual support to emphasise the performance, but the orchestra was always at the center of attraction. A great moment was as the lights pulsated with the rhythms of Rony Barrak's percussion performance for Tunnel B1. Apropos Rony Barrak, I've heard many times his name as he was part of some Leipzig and PLAY! concerts and the already mentioned PROMS so I've known about his mastery in drumming, especially the darbuka. However, to see him in front of myself was entirely different. What looks so easy is the product of long training and, of course, a good portion of talent. What I really liked was his engagement. He didn't sit there and play his part; no, he played with soul and heart and during his solo Arnie Roth grinned at him because of showing so much enthusiasm.
Jonne Valtonen and the guest arrangers tried not just to convert the tracks simply for orchestra but to add special features in each track. For example the choir lyrics weren't just English or standard la-la-las but rather Japanese for Apidya II and Greek for R-Type. Another element was the use of ceramic pots as an instrument for Gem'X. Very cool! But my favorite was Symphonic Shades. Shades was Chris Hülsbeck's first known piece and with that he started his career. Mr. Valtonen connected the past with the present by means of synchronising the orchestra with a synthesizer playing the original retro track. Simply great!
The last two items of the evening were Karawane der Elefanten (Caravan of the Elephants) and The Final Fight from Turrican II. Karawane der Elefanten was written just for the concert by Chris Hülsbeck so a world premiere awaited everyone. In my humble opinion it was nice but not spectacular in any way. It's just good to know that Mr Hülsbeck can still compose strong music. Before the performance, Matthias Opdenhövel made some funny comments about his inspiration for the title like "Elephants in the desert? What happened, Chris? Open your window from time to time while composing!" As for The Final Fight, this was treated as a piano concerto in a variety of styles. I was personally disappointed as I was expecting a fast rendition of the original piece with emphasis on the melody. However, the intricate arrangement will really please people who appreciate classical music and Jari Salmela's piano performance was excellent.
To summarise, this was a great evening. There were standing ovations at the end and a lot of additional applause during the whole concert. Arnie Roth sometimes challenged Chris Hülsbeck to stand up which caused louder applause each time. As I already mentioned above, the atmosphere was great. Even during the intermission, while fans pressed Mr Hülsbeck for autographs and photos, he smiled and was as friendly as always. I love the video game music scene! I want to propose that everyone who is open-minded to game music orchestra arrangements should buy the CD. I'm sure you won't be disappointed and every copy sold will raise our chances of getting more CDs for upcoming events like this!
Finally I want to thank everyone who was involved in this project. Rony Barrak and Jari Salmela for their wonderful solo parts, Winfried Fechner and his WDR Radio Orchestra for their openness to play game music, Chris Hülsbeck for his contribution to game music history, Jonne Valtonen, Yuzo Koshiro and Takenobu Mitsuyoshi for their great arrangements, and especially Thomas Böcker for his idea and engagement. Thank you everyone! I'd be glad to attend a new concert next year!