Thomas Boecker Interview: Producer of Symphonic Shades (July 2008)
In August, the music of Chris Huelsbeck will be commemorated in two symphonic concerts. Symphonic Shades - Huelsbeck in Concert will feature all new orchestral arrangements of a range of works from the German video game music icon.
In the first English interview about the concert, we discuss with producer Thomas Boecker the background and aims of the concerts, what to expect from the arrangements and performances, and a newly announced CD release. This is a follow-up to a three-part interview we conducted last year.
Interview Subject: Thomas Boecker
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Greening
Chris: You've been a fan of Chris Huelsbeck since your youth. What do you find inspiring about his music? Do you have any personal favourite works?
Thomas: I think similar to Nobuo Uematsu, Chris Huelsbeck is a real 'melody maker'. So I guess what got my attention first were his catchy compositions that really encouraged me to keep playing the games. His tracks are so motivating, and some of the games featuring his soundtracks I just bought for this purpose: being able to listen to his compositions.
About personal favourite works, there is no question: "Turrican II" is the big winner. I am also a fan of "Giana Sisters" and "Apidya II" among many others.
Chris: How did the idea of "Symphonic Shades" come about?
Thomas: To be honest, this idea existed quite some time already. Chris Huelsbeck and I knew we would do this concert one day, just not the exact date...
Then I got in contact with Winfried Fechner, orchestra manager of the WDR Radio Orchestra. He heard about my previous concert productions, and he was curious to learn more about this — at this point — new world of music. So I invited him to attend the fifth Symphonic Game Music Concert. From there it was no difficult road anymore. I told him about my idea of an exclusive concert with music by Chris Huelsbeck — he liked the concept, and we started producing.
When tickets sold out within days so that we had to schedule an encore performance, I think simply everybody in the team was so excited. Now that tickets for the second concert are also sold out since months already — for a concert that starts 11 PM — I clearly can say that "Symphonic Shades" is a great success for all involved. It even marked a new record in terms of the speed of ticket sales for the WDR as well.
Chris: What are the main goals of the concerts?
Our concert program is very versatile, ranging from pieces for mainly strings to piano solo, piano concerto, choir-focused pieces, bombastic arrangements, jazzy pieces etc. The whole palette of orchestral colours and symphonic shades, so to speak. We believe that it is the best way of showing respect to the composer, the arrangers, and, of course, the soloists, the conductor, the orchestra, and the choir.
We also believe that great performances are always connected with the fun that the musicians have when playing the music. At one of my concerts I heard musicians talking that they were so touched by some of the arrangements that they had a hard time not to start crying. This is the kind of atmosphere I want to create, where you literally can feel the appreciation in the air. Appreciation for what these concerts are about: the art of music.
Chris: Unlike most game music concerts, all of the "Symphonic Shades" arrangements will be original. What can we expect from Jonne Valtonen's role?
Thomas: Yes, the arrangements for "Symphonic Shades" are completely new. Only the "Turrican 3 Piano Suite" has been heard in Leipzig before, but Jonne Valtonen improved it further for Cologne in August. So we are talking about 70 minutes of new arrangements. They are some of the most complex, sophisticated and beautiful arrangements I have seen in my career.
Jonne Valtonen was working hard for several months, and frankly he will be busy until the very last second, because he is a real perfectionist. It shows: The quality is outstanding. Having been involved in many different concerts I am proud to say that "Symphonic Shades" is on the very top in terms of quality of arrangements and orchestrations.
I know it must sound strange, coming from the concert producer himself. But I am 100% confident in what I am saying here: it is almost unbelievable what Jonne Valtonen did, how he made Chris Huelsbeck's already beautiful music working with a live orchestra and choir. It will take some serious effort from the musicians to perform this work. It is not going to be easy for them — they will have fun though as there is no single watered-down arrangement that could bore them.
I know Chris Huelsbeck shares my opinion — basically we are constantly in awe when checking Jonne Valtonen's work. He is a real genius. People who know Jonne Valtonen's work for concert arrangements such as "Super Mario Bros." (PLAY!), "Secret of Mana" (Leipzig 2007), "The Legend of Zelda" (PLAY!), "Metal Gear Solid 3" (Leipzig 2007) and "Turrican 3" (Leipzig 2006) know that the quality must be extremely high.
Chris: You and conductor Arnie Roth have extensive experience in game music concerts. Could you outline your accomplishments so far?
Thomas: I have been working with Arnie Roth at "PLAY! A Video Game Symphony" at first, now we are doing the "Distant Worlds - music from Final Fantasy" tour. I have been involved in the CD production with the same name, too. It is a great pleasure, really, as Arnie Roth simply knows what he is doing, at the highest level one can imagine. I feel very honoured that he agreed working on "Symphonic Shades" with me. And really, with these quality arrangements it really needs a conductor with his skill.
Chris: That said, you will not be creating the sixth "Symphonic Game Music Concert" in Leipzig this year. Why is this? Is there hope for a revival of the series in 2009?
Thomas: The Leipziger Messe GmbH, the organiser of the Games Convention, decided to do a multimedia event instead. The official statement is that, from 2003-2007 the Leipziger Messe GmbH wanted to prove with our concerts to politics and economy that video games are objects of cultural value. Now that the official opening ceremony is disconnected from any concert, they felt that this requirement is unnecessary.
Of course we were disappointed at first, and that official statement is nothing I would ever agree on. However, it underlines the high class of the "Symphonic Game Music Concerts" in Leipzig, and I am happy to have ended the series with an amazing success.
Due to our co-operation with the WDR Radio Orchestra we can continue to work in the traditional way, which is a big plus. Further announcements should be made public in the not-so-distant-future; it is not going to end in August with "Symphonic Shades".
Chris: Why did you choose the WDR Radio Orchestra to perform "Symphonic Shades"? Does the collaboration have anything to do with Drammatica -The Very Best of Yoko Shimomura-?
Thomas: The decision for "Symphonic Shades" was made long time before that. Again the WDR Radio Orchestra had great interest in trying out something new, and we all thought it would be a good opportunity.
In fact, "Drammatica" was their first contact with video game music, and they did a really amazing job in my opinion. I have been at the recordings, naturally, and I have been so impressed by the quality of their musicians. And: They were so much into it, they were so interested in Yoko Shimomura's work.
Chris: There'll also be guest performances from vocalists, pianists, and percussionists at "Symphonic Shades". Could you tell us more?
Thomas: We are working with the FILMharmonic Choir Prague again. It is wonderful as they have so much experience with video game music, as they recorded original soundtracks such as "Halo Wars", "Brothers in Arms", "Too Human", "Gothic 3", and many others. They were also invited to perform at the concerts in Leipzig in 2006 and 2007. As the choral work of "Symphonic Shades" is really demanding, we needed first class singers, professional singers, so they were invited to take a flight to come from Czech to Germany for about a week for reheharsals and the concerts! I think it shows how serious the WDR takes this topic.
They are not our only international guests, as Jari Salmela will come from Finland. He is a world renowned pianist with many years of professional experience as a soloist and orchestra musician. He will perform a complex piano solo, and an even more complex piano concerto. Fans of Chris Huelsbeck might know his work from his performance of the "Turrican 3 Piano Suite" on his latest CD album, "Number Nine".
A good old friend from the Lebanon is going to join us again, too: Rony Barrak. We have worked together so often now, and when I invited him to do a concert in February 2008 with the WDR Radio Orchestra, they all loved him so much that it took only a short question to get green light for "Symphonic Shades" together with that star percussionist.
Chris: Finally, what can we expect from Yuzo Koshiro and Takenobu Mitsuyoshi's roles?
Thomas: Yuzo Koshiro agreed on doing a wonderful arrangement for "Jim Power". I would say it's a mixture of classical and impressionist music. I asked Yuzo Koshiro to work on "Symphonic Shades" because I knew that Chris Huelsbeck is a really great fan of his work — he once called "ActRaiser" one of the best orchestra game soundtracks in history.
Takenobu Mitsuyoshi created a great "Apidya II" orchestra version. It has a very cinematic feel to it and tells a story with Japanese lyrics for the choir written by himself, of course! Here we have a connection again — Chris Huelsbeck said several times in interviews that he thinks the soundtrack for "Shenmue" is awesome.
So as you can see, there was a reason behind asking Yuzo Koshiro and Takenobu Mitsuyoshi if they would be interested in working with us. I am very grateful that they joined "Symphonic Shades", even coming to Cologne to attend both performances.
Chris: Given the obvious fan demand, do you think there is a possibility for follow-up performances or a CD release?
Thomas: I am very, very happy and excited to announce an official CD release of the concerts! It means a lot to me personally, having been unable to produce a CD soundtrack of the Leipzig concerts before. Our CD will feature the complete recordings of all music performed at the "Symphonic Shades" concerts in Cologne, which equals about 70 minutes of music. Chris Huelsbeck himself will provide feedback on the mixing and mastering process of the album, so that the CD will be unique featuring all music in the best possible quality and with the approval of the original composer and the arrangers.
The CD is available for international pre-order from today. We have a deal with the German shop MAZ Sound Tools. They are selling the CD for one month after release exclusively. So if you want to get the "Symphonic Shades" album as soon as possible, no matter where you are living, MAZ Sound Tools is the place to go. We are planning with a release of the CD in the 4th quarter of 2008, and we will keep the fans updated on the concert's official website. The CD costs 22,00 EUR. If you sign up now it is non-binding, of course.
The CD booklet will feature a brand-new and extensive interview with Chris Huelsbeck, with anecdotes about his work on the classics he is so famous for. I am so proud that manga artist Hitoshi Ariga agreed on providing spectacular artwork for our CD cover. Please enlarge the image on the left!
Finally I am confident that the Symphonic Shades CD will be a great product, and I am sure that it will become a collector's item pretty soon.