PLAY! A Video Game Symphony (Chicago, May 2006): Part One Report
Arnie Roth, conductor of the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra, as well as all the previous Dear Friends, More Friends, and Voices concerts, strode on stage to tumultuous applause. He then grabbed the microphone, thanked everyone for being there, and silently began conducting the PLAY! A Video Game Music Symphony Fanfare. This piece was composed by Nobuo Uematsu exclusively for this concert tour. You can hear a synthesized version of this theme on the Play! homepage. I admit that when I first heard this piece on the website, I found it rather obnoxious, but it was much better when performed by the orchestra. I wouldn't call it one of Uematsu's gems, but it wasn't bad nonetheless.
After the fanfare, Roth told the crowd that it was composed solely for this event, and it was making it's world debut. He then went on to introduce the next selection: Liberi Fatali from Final Fantasy VIII. This piece was awfully familiar to anyone who's attended any of the Dear Friends or More Friends concerts. Having heard this piece performed live on three other occasions, I wasn't all just dying to hear it again, but I have to say that seeing it live is still a remarkable experience. The fervor of the orchestra really makes it more exciting. As expected, this piece was very well-received by the crowd.
Next up in the program was a suite of music from Super Mario Bros., composed by Koji Kondo. Before we got to that however, Roth made his first reference to a number of "surprises" we were to be treated to in this concert. The first one came at this point, with Kondo coming on stage to play a piano solo from New Super Mario Bros.. I thought the solo was really well done, sounding like a perfect match for the series. After Kondo left the stage, the orchestra started belting out what is undoubtedly the most recognizable tune in the history of game music: the main theme you hear when you begin the first level in the original Super Mario Bros. This music was accompanied by footage of that level on the three huge overhead screens. Unfortunately, it seemed to lock up about 10 seconds in, so the screens flashed back to the orchestra. The piece later transitioned to the popular "swimming" theme you hear in underwater levels, before finishing with a suite from Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine. The entire suite, of course, drew insane audience approval.
Next up was Sedge Tree from Shenmue, composed by Takenobu Mitsuyoshi. Having not played or heard the soundtrack from Shenmue, I can't comment on this track specifically, but like most tracks in the concert, it had a really epic feel to it. Following that piece, Roth introduced world-renowned percussionist Rony Barrak, who was greeted with lukewarm applause. Like most people, I was wondering what this guy had to do with game music. I also remember thinking to myself "how can a percussionist be considered world-renowned? He's just playing a drum." About 10 seconds into his short solo though, my foot was firmly planted in my mouth. This man did some absolutely amazing things with his hands. When the solo was complete, he predictably became a crowd-favorite. He stayed on stage for the next suite, which was from Battlefield 1942 & Battlefield 2, composed by Joel Eriksson, David Tallroth, Fredrik Englund, Jonas Östholm, Bence Pajor. Again, I've never played these games, but this turned out be one of my favorite pieces in the concert. I've always been a big fan of the music from old war movies like "Guns of Navarone" and "The Great Escape." This music fits perfectly in this genre.
Somewhere around this time, Roth introduced Angela Aki to the mix. Her appearance isn't mentioned in the program or tracklist, and I can't remember when exactly it was. But she came out dressed in blue jeans and a bright orange t-shirt. She sat down at the piano and said something like "I'm feeling a bit informal, but I'd love to sing these songs for you." The songs were Kiss Me Goodbye, the main vocal track in Final Fantasy XII, and her own rendition of Eyes on Me from Final Fantasy VIII. I hadn't heard the FFXII track before, but I have heard some relatively negative reviews of it. Personally, I found it to be absolutely wonderful, but I've always been a fan of those sappy vocal tracks in the Final Fantasy games. The orchestra accompanied her as she sang and played the piano for this piece, while her rendition of "Eyes on Me" was completely solo. I've always enjoyed the original "Eyes on Me" sung by Faye Wong, but Aki's version was much better, in my personal opinion. Perhaps it was just seeing it performed live that made such a difference, but she clearly poured her heart and soul into the music as she sang. She has a lovely voice, and I have to admit it was nice to hear the piece sung by someone completely fluent in English. Aki is definitely someone I'll be keeping my eye on in the future.
Going back to following the tracklist in the program, the ever-popular Aerith's Theme was up next. It was beautiful as usual, though I admit to being a little sick of it. It was followed by a memorable suite from Sonic the Hedgehog, composed by Masato Nakamura. Mr. Nakamura was not at the concert, but one of the composers he collaborated with, Yuzo Koshiro, was. You might recognize Koshiro from his compositions in Streets of Rage and the ActRaiser series. The suite contained some very nice arrangements, starting with the very first Sonic game for Sega Genesis. As the piece progressed, the footage onscreen adapted to the later Sonic titles.
Next up was another epic suite; this time, from Metal Gear Solid. Roth didn't say much to introduce this piece, but just uttering those three words drew raucous cheers. The main theme from the Metal Gear Solid series was the primary theme. Other themes from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater were intermingled, before the main theme made a triumphant return. I know I'll end up saying this a lot, but this was another of my favorite pieces. Next up was a suite from Kingdom Hearts I & II, by Yoko Shimomura. I was hoping that one of the "surprises" that Roth mentioned might be that Shimomura was also at the concert, but alas, it wasn't to be. The suite itself contained no Disney music, so I can only assume they wouldn't allow it to be played at the concert. Even without it though, the beautiful main themes from the two games made for an excellent listen.
A brief intermission followed, and Phill came over to ask what I thought of the concert so far. To sum up the conversation, I told him I thought it was awesome. Phill's been to nearly every Dear Friends concert, as well as the More Friends concert, and has become a bit of an insider with one of the show's producers Jason Michael Paul. You can read Chris's interview with Jason and the other producers. Jason ran by during the intermission, and whisked Phill backstage with him, which made me quite jealous. A few minutes later, Phill showed up with an autographed ticket, which was signed by all the composers present. Lucky dog! Anyway, all the composers walked back to their seats to start the second half of the show. The walkway was directly behind my row of seats, so I had a supreme view. Some guys jumped out in front of Uematsu as he came down, and he slapped them all five. I managed to shake hands with Mitsuda as he walked by, which was pretty cool. I'll never wash that had aga...oh, never mind!