PLAY! A Video Game Symphony (Chicago, May 2006): Introduction

Back when PLAY! A Video Game Symphony was announced, I was mildly intrigued, but didn't plan on attending unless they came to my home state of Colorado. My family had already considered me completely insane for flying out to see three Dear Friends - Music From Final Fantasy concerts in the last two years — the premier in Los Angeles in May 2004, one in Chicago in February 2005, and the final stop on the tour in Detroit in July 2005. Each show was an unforgettable experience — especially the premiere, for obvious reasons, and the Chicago show, which afforded me the opportunity to meet the legendary Nobuo Uematsu in person. When I heard that the premier of PLAY! would be in Chicago again, and would feature music from such games as Halo, the Elder Scrolls series, Metal Gear Solid in addition to the Final Fantasy series, I was even more interested. I've consistently enjoyed the music from these series, and the opportunity to hear the music performed live was something I really wanted to do. I was tempted, but simply couldn't justify the expense of another trip.

As time went on, more and more details about the upcoming concert were revealed. Music from new series was announced, as well as new guest performers and composers. It became more and more difficult to refrain from buying tickets, but I still resisted the temptation to enter into extreme debt. Then, one day, I saw a post on our forums titled something like "Yasunori Mitsuda to attend Chicago Play! Concert." After confirming these details on the concert website, my ticket had been purchased. Meeting Nobuo Uematsu in person had always been a dream of mine, and after having the pleasure of doing so, I remember thinking how life would be complete if I could meet Yasunori Mitsuda as well. After all, Mitsuda is the composer of two of my top three favorite albums: the Chrono Cross Original Soundtrack and the Xenogears Original Soundtrack.

Time continued to pass, and my decision to attend the concert started looking better and better. It seemed there was an announcement on the PLAY! website every few days with information about new music that would be played, or another guest musician who would be in attendance. The biggest bombshell came with the announcement of Koji Kondo's imminent arrival, and performances of his music from both the Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. By the middle of May, it became clear that this concert was to offer the most prolific gathering of video game music composers ever, and I was not only going to be in attendance, but I was going to get to meet them all in person too. Words couldn't describe my excitement.

Fast forward to Friday, May 26th. My flight was to arrive in Chicago at about 6:00 PM Central time. It had been announced a few days previous that Angela Aki, the famous singer, who is performing the vocal cover "Kiss Me Goodbye" in Final Fantasy XII, was going to join Uematsu at an autograph session at a nearby Virgin Megastore. I had planned to check into my hotel and head down there, but my flight was delayed by about an hour and a half, so I wasn't able to. This was disappointing, as I really wanted to meet Aki, and though she was scheduled to attend the concert, she wasn't listed as one of the participants at the meet-and-greet.

The day of the concert, Saturday May 27, I sat in my hotel room (the Hilton O'Hare, which I got for $50 per night on Priceline) wishing there was absolutely anything to do near the O'Hare airport in Chicago. Aside from the ridiculously overpriced hotel restaurant, I couldn't even get something to eat without a boarding pass. I had an email conversation with Phill (fillyboy from our forums) the night before, and we had discussed meeting for lunch the next day. So I called him up and we went to lunch at Giordano's — a great place if you love Chicago-style pizza. Aside from McDonald's and pricy hotel restaurants, that's about the only place within walking distance. We talked about the concert, games, and sports for a couple of hours, and then headed back to our hotels. I had considered taking a train to downtown Chicago so I can say I at least did something while I was there, but it was about 2:00 already and I didn't want to risk getting lost and being late to the concert.

As discussed on our forums, a few of us got together at about 5:30 at the Crowne Plaza hotel next door to the Rosemont Theater, where the show was performed. Phill was there, along with our neighborhood piano arranger Josh Barron (whom I'd already met at the Dear Friends show in Chicago), his grandfather, and Richard (TheShroud13 from our forums). Richard was actually in the choir at the show and had just come from rehearsal, so we were all remarkably jealous. We went to (you guessed it) Giordano's for dinner, and we had the same waitress that Phill and I had had previously. Luckily, their menu is diverse enough that I was able to pick out something else. We had a good time chatting about games, music, and other things. Richard spilled the beans about a few of the tracks we'd be hearing at the show. Richard then drove us back to the theater, and we went our separate ways. Somehow I spaced taking a picture this time — even though we'd discussed it previously. I'm a little bummed out about that.

Anyway, upon entrance, the theater halls were packed with an audience primarily of people between the ages of 14 and 20. I didn't see the normal bevvy of cosplayers this time around, though I did see two separate pairs dressed up as Mario and Luigi. There were several long merchandise lines that had formed, and some people handing out cards for Anime conventions. I got in the souvenir line, hoping to purchase a concert poster for signing later. It turned out they weren't selling posters, but they did have a much wider variety of merchandise than in previous concerts. They had various Play! t-shirts, as well as programs (more reasonably priced at "only" $20 this time), and various CDs. The CDs included KiRite, Hako no Niwa, Sailing to the World, and Moonlit Shadow (thanks to Josh Barron for helping me remember which CDs they were). They were also selling the Sailing to the World Piano Score sheet music book, which includes a CD of the music performed, the Chrono Cross Guitar Arrangement sheet music, and the live recording of More Friends - Music from Final Fantasy ~Los Angeles Live 2005~ that I reviewed previously. They also had the More Friends poster available, which I figured must've been factory overstock. I picked up two programs in the hopes of getting them both signed. The first page of the program featured the following tracklist:

01) PLAY! A Video Game Symphony :: Fanfare :: Nobuo Uematsu
02) Final Fantasy VIII :: Liberi Fatali :: Nobuo Uematsu, Shiro Hamaguchi
03) Super Mario Bros. :: Suite :: Koji Kondo
04) Shenmue :: Sedge Tree :: Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, Hayato Matsuo
05) Battlefield 1942 & Battlefield 2 :: Suite :: Joel Eriksson, David Tallroth, Fredrik Englund, Jonas Östholm, Bence Pajor
06) Final Fantasy VII :: Aerith's Theme :: Nobuo Uematsu, Shiro Hamaguchi
07) Sonic the Hedgehog :: Suite :: Masato Nakamura, Yuzo Koshiro
08) Metal Gear Solid :: Main Theme :: Tappi Iwase, Kazuki Muraoka
09) Kingdom Hearts :: Suite :: Yoko Shimomura, Utada Hikaru


10) The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind :: Suite :: Jeremy Soule
11) Final Fantasy X :: Swing de Chocobo :: Nobuo Uematsu, Arnie Roth
12) Chrono Trigger & Chrono Cross :: Suite :: Yasunori Mitsuda
13) World of Warcraft :: Suite :: Jason Hayes
14) Silent Hill 2 :: Theme of Laura :: Akira Yamaoka
15) HALO :: Suite :: Martin O'Donnell, Michael Salvatori
16) The Legend of Zelda :: Suite :: Koji Kondo

To be honest, I was at first rather disappointed with the Final Fantasy music selection for this concert, but I should've seen it coming. I was hoping for "Vamo alla Flamenco," "Tina's Theme," or even "Opening Bombing Mission," but arguably the three most popular pieces from the series were chosen, so I can't say I really blame them.

With my programs in tow, I headed for my seat. I managed to get tickets right smack dab in the center this time around, which was surprising given how late I had purchased the tickets. I was in the last row, but the view was really great. There were signs everywhere insisting that no photography of any kind was allowed, yet flash bulbs were going off every few seconds. At one point, a guy stood up, walked down the aisle, and took a picture of the stage while the orchestra was playing right in front of the usher. He didn't even flinch. Obviously, they put on a strict face, but didn't enforce the rules. Personally, I find it fairly rude to take flash photos while the orchestra is playing, but maybe that's just me. When the show was over, I thought it safe to take a picture, which turned out really poorly (see photos section), but it'll give you a rough idea of where my seat was.

The show was scheduled to start at 8:00, but they were a little late getting going. At about 8:05, a parade of well-dressed men went striding down the center aisle directly behind me, closely followed by a couple of security guards. When people realized it was the cavalcade of composers, the crowd stood and cheered very loudly. The full list of composers present at the event includes Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy), Yasunori Mitsuda (Chronos), Koji Kondo (Mario, Zelda), Jeremy Soule (The Elder Scrolls), Yuzo Koshiro (Sonic the Hedgehog), Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill), Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori (Halo), Takenobu Mitsuyoshi (Shenmue), and Jason Hayes (World of Warcraft). Also present were conductor and music director Arnie Roth, vocalist Angela Aki, and percussionist Rony Barrak.

The flamboyant Uematsu, who I believe was the only one not dressed in a suit jacket, waved his arms in the air wildly and egged-on the crowd. When he neared his seat about two rows from the front, he bent down on his hands and knees, bowing to the audience. This drew a hearty chuckle. Once the VIPs of the evening were seated, it was time for the show to begin!