Press Start 2009: Symphony of Games (Tokyo, August 2009): Concert Report
It may appear that Press Start 2009 didn't create as much attention as the Press Start 2008. The tickets for last year's concert sold out in only four or so hours with the sentential guest line up hinted by Super Smash Bros. Brawl. In contrast, some tickets of the 2009 concert were still available on the day of the concert. However, it's not quite that simple. For the sake of sound quality, the Press Start 2008 concert used much smaller venues that accommodated 2,150 people as opposed to 5,000, and was held only once. The 2009 concert still used the smaller venue, namely the Tokyo Art Hall, yet the biggest difference was there were two concerts occurring on one day, with afternoon and evening performances.
"More symphonic" was declared as the direction of this year's concert. I wasn't really excited, as the 2007 concert was not entirely satisfying either. Besides I had been so busy lately that I wasn't sure if I would ever was possible to attend a concert in Sunday. Luckily though, I managed to attend the evening concert. Soon after I entered the venue, I sensed the enthusiasm toward tonight's fare. The age demographic seemed to range from 20s to 40s but was dominated by those younger. Surprisingly the female proportion was so high. Sadly, photography was highly prohibited within the hall, though.
Soon after the curtain time was over, the orchestra started to perform its first item. It was a small Persona 4 medley made up of three tracks, namely "Aria of the Soul", "Reach Out To The Truth" and "A Corner of Memory". Shoji Meguro once revealed "Aria of he Soul" already had such definitive form in Persona 3 that he couldn't improve on it anymore, so I was curious how Kazuhiko Toyama managed to elaborate on it with a real orchestra. Unexpectedly, it was not the piano that opened this track. The new introduction with oboe, tremolo strings, and chime bars knocked my breath, and then Oriko Takahashi, the regular soprano singer of Press Start, offered her serene a cappella performance. That was almost the perfect opening. It was a shame that as the song progressed, her performance obviously became lost among the loud orchestra. Her voice also came off as somewhat clipped and really didn't maintain expression in high register.
However, the orchestra soon redeemed the Persona 4. After "Aria of Soul", it suddenly transited to the orchestral version of "Reach Out To The Truth". If you own the soundtrack to the game, you may know what "The Genesis" attempted to do but arguably failed. However, Kazuhiko Toyama masterfully actualized these intentions in a far less short time! It was one of the most powerful and energetic moments from the day. Although I really wished it would last longer, the next track "A Corner of Memory" came. Although I was familiar with the melody, I really couldn't recall the original, and later I figured why. It's just a short version of "Never More"! The arrangement didn't leave much impression on me overall, but I understood how they managed to make an emotional yet rich arrangement. Not so bad, but not remarkable either.
The next item was the medley of Super Mario Bros., the most famous game music piece ever. It opened with the big band-influenced arrangement of the overworld theme with humorous cowbells. It subsequently featured the waltzy underwater theme and the tuba-heavy underground theme articulated with timpani rolls. The arranger Nobuo Kurita did a decent job, if not remarkable. Apparently, this arrangement is directly from the Orchestral Game Concert indicating the concert was a bit stretched for original material. The guest Koji Kondo was exclusive to the evening concert. I guess, as the head of Nintendo's sound team, he was extremely busy!
After the two performances, the host and planners of the concert made their appearances and talked ramblingly. Once again, Nobuo Uematsu, Shogo Sakai, Masahiro Sakurai, Kazunari Nojima, and Taizo Takemoto had returned to the series and gave some fresh insight. Later, guest Shoji Meguro was invited to the stage and praised the orchestral arrangement. He didn't know how some of the originals, which featured rock and rap elements would turn out, but it turned out so fantastic for him and he was sorry he had to listen to it near the stage. After he was asked for an anecdote by Nobuo Uematsu, he revealed "Aria of the Soul" was composed even before he formally joined in Atlus since his boss (Hidehito Aoki, R.I.P) requested an operatic song. However, as some of you Game Music Net visitors know, he already had told this anecdote before! Then, Uematsu asked him how much the Persona 4 soundtrack had sold and said it was quite amazing that it had sold 70,000 copies so far while the sales of the game was around 300,000.
Subsequently there was a medley of Chunsoft's novel series, based on Kamaitachi no Yoru and Otogirisou. In Japan, these games are known for their 'noble' game-play and were the first 'novel' games ever, but they are not as well known musically sadly. The ominous strings might have been effective in their own game contexts, but out of the games, I frankly found it a bit hard to enjoy it. It wasn't helped by the poorly synchronised performances. Given Chunsoft's later novel games such as Machi and 428 have better music, I don't know why they selected these specific two.
The next track is the main theme of Suikoden. Although the original composer Miki Higashino virtually retired and her guest appearance wasn't possible, her music still remains a fan favorite. She's even loved by some of the most talented game composers out there such as Keiki Kobayashi, who reveals his favorite soundtrack is Suikoden II. Today's item is one of Higashino's legacies, the main theme of Suikoden, "Into a World of Illusions". My major grip is, this performance was merely about repeating the same melody (e.g. D G E G~ DGBCBGED~) for several minutes. This is a good motif, but I think the orchestra could have played a medley made up of multiple tracks, rather than repeating just one melody! Still, the vivid and colorful performance didn't waste my time that much. I especially enjoyed the jazzy parts.
The NES medley (and one track that comes later) was a unique item in that the audiences were insisted to 'participate' in the performance by handclaps once they recognized what track went on in the medley, and most audience seemed to grab them in the first few seconds! The idea behind this item was really wonderful, but I really wished it would have been longer and listened to it without the handclaps. It's a shame is the quality of each orchestration was so high. I knew the orchestrator was Shogo Sakai, not Kazuhiko Toyama and this explained a lot! One of tonight's finest.
The sixth item of the concert was easily the worst. Before the performance, Sakurai played Portal, a highly acclaimed FPS game featured in The Orange Box and demonstrated its inventive game-play. As this game was hardly known among Japanese, many people wowed and sometimes giggled at the way Sakurai solved the puzzle. He talked so much that he spoiled the story part and told us what the ending song "Still Alive" stranded for. Frankly, I'd go so far as to say we could end up with a far much better fan-performance in YouTube than this one. When translated in Japanese, the lyrics quickly sounded childish and nonsensical. In addition, Eriko Otsuka's faceless performance made it really painful and dreadful. I don't understand why they really needed to translate the original lyrics and hire a different singer. Even more so, given this was supposedly a symphonic concert. I appreciated that both Sakurai and Nojima brought a lesser known gem to this place, but I wasn't impressed in the way it was executed.
After a short intermission, the second part started. As Okami is considered one of the best soundtrack releases in 2006 with its accessible yet unique style, it was hardly surprising to see it getting such a treatment. The Okami medley was actually so ambitious in that it brought the shakuhachi and shamisen performers HIDE-HIDE to the stage, but it still left me a bit wanting. It seemingly consisted of three tracks, but "Beginning" was too a short piece to count in, so it was virtually two, "Ryo Shima Plains II" and "Reset". "Ryo Shima Plains II" was easily one of my favorite tracks of Okami nonetheless and, given how strong its melody was, I thought its orchestral interpretation had promise. Yet as the performance progressed, frankly, it was getting so hard to figure even what track they were performing. It felt that the orchestra was just following what the shakuhachi player was aimlessly improvising, yet the shakuhachi and shamisen were sometimes lost among the loud brass sections. "Reset" was ending theme of Okami, but due to my little interest in the original form, the arrangement didn't leave much impression. Okami had a better material to shine at a symphonic concert.
At last came "ZERO" from Ace Combat Zero. This track was indeed performed in the 2007 concert but was reprised inscrutably faster than usual, but I could see why. Back in 2007, I decided to attend the concert almost for this track alone, as I felt it was the best video game piece of music ever. However, I was moderately disappointed by the sloppy performance and balance issues and probably most others shared this impression. They previously had announced the new orchestration would focus less on the rhythmic part and it sounded like more faithful to the original. The introduction part was interesting and the epic chorus part was entirely executed by the brass section. There were still some balance problems, but it was overall a better performance than 2007. Not spectacular, but Kazuhiko Toyama certainly redeemed himself.
Moving on, "Ninja" from Rhythm Heaven was more like a comedy show. While hardly musical, it was really entertaining. Two candidates were chosen, went up on the stage, and 'played' the game with the real orchestra and composers like Nobuo Uematsu. The enthusiasm and ambition of the organizers were right there. It was a pretty gimmicky idea, but paid off for me at least. Subsequently the Fantasy Zone melody came across a bit sparse due to the obscurity of each track. An exception was "YA-DA-YO" that much of the audience bursted into a gale of laughter. The samba feel was also integrated nicely throughout the suite.
The penultimate item of the concert was "Flower" was from Ore No Shikabane Wo Koeteike. The game isn't such an obscure title in Japan but I hadn't been familiar with it myself. The energy and emotional performance was far better that of "Still Alive", but I didn't understand if this track fitted the concert aiming for a more symphonic sound with its vocal performance and electric guitar use.
The final affair is "Melfes ~shining blue~" from the incredibly acclaimed soundtrack to Tales of Legendia. Although it had been widely regarded as the best Tales soundtrack ever, the composer Masaru Shiina remained rather an obscure composer till recently. Before the performance, he appeared in the stage and briefly made a conversation with Uematsu. Shiina revealed he had experienced Electone in his youth and Uematsu said that's the very educational instrument with which one could learn melody and chords with. When Tales of Legendia was an arsenal of impressive tracks, why they selected this specific one track was beyond me. It sounded like something from Joe Hisaishi's Laputa, and while it was good, I'd have been much happy if it had been a medley that visited other tracks from the soundtrack.
After all of the announced performances ended, the concert hall erupted into cheers and applause. Soon the orchestra come back to the stage to offer two encores. The materials of both performances were closely related to the organizers of Press Start. To celebrate Nobuo Uematsu, Final Fantasy X's "At Zanarkand" was performed in a manner similar to Tour de Japon with both piano and orchestra. After the attendees sung happy birthday to Masahiro Sakurai, a special medley from Kirby was performed. Given my unfamiliarity with the original material except for "King Dedede" or "Green Greens", it sadly didn't leave much impression on me.
Overall, I felt like Press Start 2009 was a very sincere and ambitious event, and over the years it's getting evolving. Still, if the organisers really want to pursue a mature and symphonic sound, they still need to consider the program once again. It's improved than 2007, but the tracks like "Still Alive" or "Flower" require a more careful treatment. In addition, they need to consider their image as to whether more gimmicky inclusions are appropriate. Nonetheless, the 2009 concert gave me a good indication as to where Press Start is heading.