Sinfonia Drammatica (Stockholm, August 2009): Concert Report
Video game music concerts have become a bit of a tradition in Sweden. Stockholm's Konserthuset venue has repeatedly hosted the PLAY! A Video Game Symphony and Distant Worlds - Music from Fantasy concerts, has witnessed the recording of the orchestral Distant Worlds CD, and has welcomed game music celebrities like Nobuo Uematsu, Akira Yamaoka, and Chris Huelsbeck.
On August 4, 2009, this legacy continued. Yoko Shimomura, whose visit to the Swedish capital was part of her first official trip to Europe, joined the ranks of legendary Konserthuset guests; Chris Huelsbeck, a composer who has made a huge impact on the Commodore 64 and Amiga music scene, also arrived in Stockholm the same day. Both composers had good reason to be in Sweden this evening — the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, the Ensemblen & Stockholm Singers, and the famed conductor Arnie Roth joined forces, once again, to play a one-of-a-kind show. Entitled 'Sinfonia Drammatica', this event was created to connect Eastern and Western game music styles together, and promote both genres in a single show. The show's creators decided that presenting Shimomura's and Huelsbeck's creations was the best way to achieve this goal. This proved to be a good decision, as the composers' works play off of each other nicely, and their great fame in the game music world means a built-in audience of interested fans.
Sinfonia Drammatica was an experiment built on the worldwide success of two orchestral game music albums: Drammatica - The Very Best of Yoko Shimomura and Symphonic Shades - Huelsbeck in Concert. Both CDs summed up the decades-long game music careers of Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts, Legend of Mana, Live a Live) and Huelsbeck (Great Giana Sisters, Turrican, Apidya). Their most beloved tracks were reimagined through full orchestral arrangements, recorded by top musicians, and released on these memorial albums. We probably wouldn't have received such high quality compilations if producer Thomas Boecker hadn't infected classically-trained Finnish arranger Jonne Valtonen with a strong passion for game music, and recruited Arnie Roth (aka Maestro Video Game Music), who's always ready for new challenges.
As a result of this collaboration, a large amount of material was written. So when Konserthuset's director Stefan Forsberg suggested a new game music show this year in Sweden, the choice of repertoire was a formality. Open-minded about new arrangements and styles, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra agreed to take this challenge. Arnie Roth reprised his role as musical director, and the project began. Initial information about the concert was released to the media in March, and the concert programme was even published. This setlist was arranged to alternate catchy Western game melodies with atmospheric, magical Japanese game music tracks. Additionally, musicians prepared a surprise encore — a track that had never been performed live in Europe before. Which track was this? Don't worry — you'll find out soon enough!
We (Kamil Rojek and Mariusz Borkowski) arrived in Stockholm as a two person squad. On the day of the concert, the Konserthuset Philharmonic was decorated by sponsors' banners and a big poster that promoted the impending event. Outside the venue's main doors, tracks from the Drammatica and Symphonic Shades albums played through a set of speakers. Inside the building, we found promo leaflets about the evening's special guests (prepared and edited by our colleague Johan Köhn, from spelmusik.net) and poster displays, the same designs as the ones that blanketed the city.
We spent a few hours inside the venue before the concert began, where we conducted a few short interviews with the show's big names — Yoko Shimumora, Chris Huelsbeck, and Arnie Roth. To our pleasure, our subjects found our prepared questions interesting, and drew attention to their uniqueness. Because we had limited time, though, we had to skip many of our questions. However, the artists asked us to send the rest of the questions via email. After three interesting and congenial meetings, we joined the crowd that was forming in front of the Konserthuset. We then entered the lobby, where we gathered and waited for the concert hall's doors to open. Any fan waiting here had the opportunity to purchase Drammatica, Symphonic Shades, or Distant Worlds at a very affordable price of 150 SEK.
Finally, the door to the concert hall was unlocked and opened, and the public — hungry for musical rapture — poured inside. The ravenous fans filled the venue, taking all of the seats, in only a couple of minutes. In the meantime, Yoko Shimomura, Chris Huelsbeck, Thomas Boecker, and Mrs. Boecker sneaked inside, unnoticed, and took their seats in the center of the room. The orchestra and choir then walked onto the stage. Stefan Forsberg followed, and announced maestro Arnie Roth. After this activity, the first part of the concert began. From time to time, between the suites, Arnie exhorted the audience for applause to honour the special guests.
During the first half of the show, Roth conducted eight arrangements. These performances, due to the vibrancy of the instruments, invoked a full array of colors, spreading throughout the sumptuous hall of the Swedish Philharmony. The orchestra put a great deal of effort into performing the X-Out and Gem'X suites as similarly to the Symphonic Shades recordings as possible. X-Out featured the familiar ambient sounds inspired by submarines, while Gem'X's minimalist arrangement was truly captivating. "The Other Promise," from Kingdom Hearts, was another remarkable arrangement, as Stefan Lindrgen's subtle grand piano melodies skillfully built a nostalgic fantasy vibe. However, the strongest point of the concert's first half was definitely the dynamic "Colored Earth," from the Legend of Mana soundtrack. The whole orchestra, especially Joakim Svenheden — who played the first violin — did all they could do to make this theme memorable, especially for Yoko Shimomura fans. Even Yoko herself seemed to be satisfied with such an expressive and rousing performance of her work.
After the 15 minute intermission, it was time for the second part of the concert. The show's last half was packed with the evening's most famous melodies. It's hard to find the right words to express the feelings that The Great Giana Sisters evokes in a Commodore 64 player. 16 years ago, I played this title constantly, even mastering it to the point where I could finish the entire game without losing a single 'life'. Back then, I never would've imagined that I would someday listen to its music at a professional concert, and hear the tunes played by a full orchestra. The game itself was unremarkable — just another Super Mario Bros. clone — but the soundtrack was the game's true attraction. Today, not only was I able to witness the revival of this great melody, but I had been able to speak with its creator Chris Huelsbeck before the show.
Another strong point of the concert, the regal "Destati", was full of spectacular choral renditions by the Ensemblen & Stockholm Singers. After this track, the first notes of "Hometown Domina" resounded. The pieces composed as background music for J-RPG game locations are usually relaxing tunes, and those meant to accompany the exploration of a character's homeland often have particularly soothing undertones. The performance of "Hometown Domina" painted a colorful picture of the Legend of Mana homeworld in listeners' minds, and the feeling of carefreeness and safety seemed to hang in the air. Suddenly, I realized there was only one track left in the concert. It was the renderings of the main theme for Turrican II The Final Fight, a piano concertino spanning almost 10 minutes. Stefan Lindrgen fully demonstrated his virtuosity, faultlessly performing the track's numerous piano segments. But the final showdown was yet to come...
The standing ovations seemed to be endless. After a few minutes of applause, Arnie Roth came back on the stage and announced an encore, stressing that it would definitely be the last theme of the evening. He then said he had always wanted to conduct an orchestra in performing "Fantasia alla Marcia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra," a piece known simply as "Fantasia". This medley, which combines the most significant tracks from Kingdom Hearts series, fit into the Sinfonia Drammatica's musical frame well, and its strong melodic character summed up the entire video game music evening in Konserthuset Hall. Soon after this last track ended, Yoko Shimomura and Chris Huelsbeck appeared onstage and received a bouquet of flowers, while the audience continued applauding. They left the stage, but a couple of minutes later, they were forced to reemerge — this large group of video game music fans were not going to leave the building without seeing more than a fleeting glimpse of the composers!
When both composers finally disappeared behind curtains, and the lights switched off, some concert attendees purchased tickets for the post-show meet and greet event, while the rest left the venue in a sparkling mood. It was well after 10 PM, so we headed toward the exit as well. While leaving the venue, we received leaflets inviting us to the upcoming Symphonic Fantasies show, scheduled for September 12th in Cologne. This show is slated to be the biggest video game music fest in Europe ever.
Special thanks to Ronnie Schmidt for all his priceless help that led to our trip to Stockholm.