Symphonic Fantasies (Cologne, September 2009): The First Half
Now that I've discussed about the backstage experience of Symphonic Fantasies, I'd like to discuss the actual music in some more detail. The first half was a spectacular artistic experience for me. Jonne Valtonen's opening fanfare introduced the fantastical aura and symphonic colours to expect elsewhere on the concert. While an original composition, its inclusion now makes sense given the symphony-based format of the game arrangements. The composition was premiered through YouTube some time ago, giving listeners a chance to become familiar with it. This was beneficial given there are a lot of colours and intricacies in the fanfare that aren't always evident on first listen. It's especially interesting to note how Valtonen presents the focus on successive sections of the orchestra and blends traditional nationalistic elements of a fanfare with more modernist influences. It was an effective introduction to the concert overall.
The Kingdom Hearts fantasy was a particularly emotional experience. Echoing his approach to Turrican II: The Final Fight, Valtonen wrote the arrangement in the style of a piano concertino, but this time it was filled with romantic influences, particularly from Rachmaninoff. The structure and arch of the whole arrangement was spot on, with diverse themes and emotions, yet continuous elements. Several tracks from the series, namely "Dearly Beloved", "Sora", and "Hand in Hand", made recurring appearances during the suite, and were integrated with the other additions to form a cohesive and expansive 17 minute experience. There were original elements too, such as a recurring bass rhythm that initially recreated the grand yet wistful quality of Ravel's Bolero, but gradually descended into something more apocalyptic, explicitly inspired by Mars, the Bringer of War. The result could have been clichéd, but it was so exquisitely integrated that it just added to the intensity.
Fortunately, the performers did the Kingdom Hearts fantasy justice. Pianist Benyamin Nuss coped extremely well with the technically and emotionally demanding piece as was evident sitting right in front of him in the arena concert whether the contemplative cadenzas based on "The Other Promise", the feathery interpretation of "Dearly Beloved", or the ferocious virtuosic passagework at the climactic "A Fight to the Death". He gave an especially polished performance at the Oberhausen. The orchestra nevertheless offered a rich support and each section received an opportunity to shine. The final result captured the drama, darkness, and romance lurking behind each game, but sections such as "Happy Holidays!" also ensured some of the series' more youthful vibe was reflected. It stayed true to Yoko Shimomura's intentions while bringing even more artistic integrity to the concert hall. The result was spell-binding for me and fans also seemed to enjoy it.
Perhaps the most fascinating experience was a suite entirely dedicated to Secret of Mana. Valtonen created the spiritual yet natural concept of the game and score with some inspired experimentation. More obviously, he created a range of 'sound effects' during the suite, from the stormy opening to the sounds of water dropping at the end, but without relying on computers; instead he used prepared instrumental techniques, unusual choral approaches, carefully oriented percussionists, and dashes of hand-rubbing and floor-stamping to create the desired sounds. While the result was wonderfully aurally, the full effect can only be really felt live given the importance of the acoustics and floor vibrations. The sound design was very novel for all those in the hall with many of us shaked with each stormy growl of the bass drum. However, it also felt artistic and fitting too when it could have easily been gimmicky.
The melodies of the Secret of Mana suite were presented in quite a different way to others and this only enhanced the spiritual flavour. The opening particularly achieved this with successive cantabile presentations of the "Fear of the Heavens" on violin, brass, and choir against minimal, albeit occasionally earth-shattering, accompaniment. The transposition of the original theme to a major key only enhanced the uplifting quality. Subsequent renditions such as "Into the Thick of It" and "The Oracle" pleased with their strong melodies and quirky rhythms; including pieces like these was essential for capturing the charm and eccentricity of Hiroki Kikuta's Mana compositions. However, pieces such as "Eternal Recurrence", "Phantom... and... A Rose", and the reprise of the main theme ensured the suite was emotionally charged overall. It was a particularly special arrangement and the WDR Radio Orchestra and Choir brought out all of its beauty. Could the second half maintain the same integrity?