PLAY! A Video Game Symphony (Prague, April 2008): Concert Report
Wednesday April 23, 2008 in Prague, Czech Republic — the day that will go down in history as the day PLAY! A Video Game Symphony blessed this little backwater country in the heart of Europe with it's presence. Two weeks prior to the concert one of my friends stumbled upon an annoucement on a game site saying PLAY! would be performing in the famous Dvorák Hall of the Rudolfinum here in my hometown and that they'd be recording the whole thing for a CD / DVD release for the first time. The concert would be performed by the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra and Kuehn's mixed choir under the baton of Grammy Award winner Arnie Roth. I knew immediately that I had to be there. After all, video game music has had a huge impact on me from early on, as I grew up on all kinds of consoles. Now that the recording of the album has been published, here I reminisce about my thoughts on the fantastic evening itself.
To my surprise obtaining tickets was absolutely no problem even as late as a week prior to the concert. The tickets for the Stockholm gig were gone within two weeks, so I thought we were very lucky. But when I read a post from what obviously was one of the orchestra members on a public forum about the promoters being unable to sell the needed amount of tickets, I started to worry. "This can't be," I kept telling myself. Well, as we found out on Wednesday, it was true. The Dvorák Hall with it's capacity of more than 1000 seats was not even half full. There even was no one to check our tickets, meaning you could walk in for free!
If you ask me, the reason for this must have been a bad advertising campaign. I hadn't seen any posters in the streets or anything... Of course, another reason is the fact that the majority of people here still won't recognize today's video games as something almost on par with movies — something that could feature a story, characters and musical score of a similar scope and complexity. Another reason may be the traditional disregard for consoles in these lands (I still can't believe Chrono Cross never got released in Europe...).
My first impression was that this concert of PLAY! had to be probably the most low scale / budget of all the shows so far (which still isn't a bad thing) with only one large screen above the stage and all. Anyway, they asked us to move into the first few rows so that they could shoot only those, probably to make the place look crowded. No problem. The concert started 30 minutes later than planned. Sure, why not. The cameras were in place, the orchestra and choir started filling up the front, and finally maestro Arnie Roth appeared.
After a short introduction the concert opened with the "PLAY! Opening Fanfare" composed by the one and only Nobuo Uematsu. It quickly moved on to the early periods of gaming history with the Commodore 64 and Amiga medleys, featuring The Great Giana Sisters, International Karate, The Last Ninja, Forbidden Forest, Alienbreed, Lionheart, Lemmings, and Turrican. Some real retro stuff to be sure, but I was really surprised by the huge sound the orchestra and choir were able to produce. A lot of that items also had a bit of a nostalgic impact on me, because I could remember many of the tunes from the time when I was about six and I'd visit my friend after school and occupy his Commodore for hours.
I'm really not sure about the order, but later in the first half came Battlefield 1942. This was the first piece on the concert where guest star percussionist Rony Barrak would beat his darbouka (he's regarded as one of the greatest darbouka players in the world). The theme itself, composed by Joel Eriksson, is a solid piece of action writing but Barrak really nailed it by giving it a strong Middle Eastern flavor. He was called out by Arnie Roth for many more occasions during the evening, including my personal highlight, Tappy Iwase's original version of the Metal Gear Solid main theme. By the time the mixed choir kicked in towards the end, I really thought they were going to tear the place down. Wow.
No general game music concert could be complete without the Super Mario Bros. theme by Koji Kondo and we got it. And not just that, they even performed a brand new suite of Super Mario Galaxy by Koji Kondo and Mahito Yokota for the fist time for us. Beautiful stuff. Later we were presented with another piece I was really looking forward to, the Kingdom Hearts suite. The PLAY! version featured an arrangement of themes both by Yoko Shimomura as well as the orchestral versions of "Hikari" and "Passion" by Hikaru Utada. I was a little startled by the fact that the performance was an almost one to one copy of the sound as heard on the original soundtrack albums. However, this was probably a good sign.
I used the short break to sniff around the souvenir shop and I bought the More Friends - Music from Final Fantasy album from the huge Final Fantasy concert that took place in Los Angeles in 2005 and was also conducted by Roth. A real bargain.
Anyway, the second part of the concert featured music from numerous titles. They ranged from classics such as Castlevania, The Revenge of Shinobi, Sonic the Hedgehog, and the Chrono series to more modern pieces such as Halo, Guild Wars,World of Warcraft, and Lost Odyssey. It's hard for me to give a detailed breakdown of all the pieces, because all of them were absolutely fantastic. Castlevania probably stood out, because it featured some incredible choir work intertwined with a pipe organ and frenetic drums. The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion with its beautiful main theme of course was gorgeous, as was the hugely epic World of Warcraft suite.
Silent Hill 2 was interesting given the fact that the main theme, "Theme of Laura", is mainly a piece for electric guitar. Another interesting moment was Arnie Roth interrupting the piece after just a few seconds because of the guitarist's bad start. He explained to us that he really wanted the recording to be perfect, thus a second take. A similar thing happened during the Lost Odyssey suite, where Mr. Roth asked the orchestra and mainly the choir to replay the middle section of the piece to adress a minor fault the female section of the choir had made. That being said, he really made the impression of a nice guy. I really enjoyed his role of being a conductor and sort of a show host at the same time.
So what's the verdict? An excellent concert with great performances by the orchestra, the choir and the soloists, especially Rony Barrak. I couldn't think of a better way to spend an evening and, if I ever get the chance to see PLAY! again, I'll do so without thinking twice. A downside for me was the complete lack of any Final Fantasy music, although it's probably getting over-performed by now and was one of the items that wouldn't have been able to make it to the album anyway. Of course, the understandable absence of any special guest composers was a disappointment too relative to the shows that took place in bigger cities like Stockholm and Sydney or most USA stops. Based on this concert, I'll look forward to hearing the newly released CD / DVD recording. I think it'll be worth your money and, of course, mine too.