Video Games Heroes (London, September 2011): Concert Report
They kept this concert really quiet. I didn't hear about it until a week before it was scheduled to take place, and this was only because a friend of mine showed me the website. I probably would have heard about it eventually though because the Official Nintendo Magazine UK, of which I am a reader, announced the concert on their website. So I found a seat and booked my ticket three days before the show. It was all very last minute, but I got to go to the concert in the end.
The concert itself was part of the Vision Sound Music festival taking place on the 2nd to 4th September at London's Southbank Centre, with several events and talks looking at music for media in its various forms. The Friday night of the festival concluded with Video Game Heroes, a concert featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Voices. Composer, arranger, and orchestrator Andrew Skeet conducted the event and writer, presenter, and comedian Iain Lee was the host. This concert was just about the music, there were no big screens with action from the games as per Video Games Live; they kept it all simple, and the pieces performed were mostly individual themes as oppose to the suites and medleys you would usually hear at concerts like this. The audience was a good mix of people too, from older people to students to kids and their parents. There were no cosplayers to be found (not that I don't like cosplayers, it just would've been inappropriate for this concert), and some people attended out of curiosity or to experience something new. All in all, it was a great crowd.
The concert began with a Western-focused selection. Advent Rising's "Muse" was an unlikely opener, but nevertheless quite emotional with its operatic focus. The experience and talent of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and London Voices shone here, in contrast to the often underrehearsed smaller orchestras featured in composer Tommy Tallarico's Video Games Live concerts. Further textures of Western game music were explored with the main themes from Call of Duty and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, contrasting Michael Giacchino's military anthems with Jeremy Soule's fantasy orchestrations. While neither selection brought any surprises, they reflected how video game music has matured in the last decade and attained a more cinematic quality.
After about every two pieces, Iain Lee came on stage to talk about the music and it's stage in the overall evolution of video game music. He did a great job, talking about a great variety of topics from the humble beginnings of Nolan Bushnell and Atari, to the SID chip, to the use of orchestras in video games. Other topics included film composers getting involved in the industry, the history of Tetris, and more. He also injected some good humour into his presentation too, and had a particularly funny story about his experiences on World of Warcraft. Apparently he signed up for the free trial, created his character, and, upon entering Azeroth, was greeted by a more experienced player. This guy seemed friendly enough, asked him if he was new to the game, and offered to give Iain some armour, warning him that he would get killed in his current attire. The guy told Iain to follow him into this dark alley, he then told Iain to take his cloths off and give them to him, after which he ran off, leaving Iain's character naked. Since then Iain has never played WOW again!
Now back to the music, the main theme from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 highlighted the entrance of film composers to the industry. I don't think there's a lot of Zimmer's music that's well suited for live performance, but the LPO did a good job with the main theme from Modern Warfare 2. It was pretty dramatic and demonstrated one thing that this concert did really well combining electronics with live performance. Normally arrangers and performers shy away from including any electronic elements in their live performances, but here everyone involved did a good job with not only including electronic elements in the performance but also keeping the orchestra in time with the synthesizers. They weren't overused either, only using some electronic percussion and bass but keeping the focus on the orchestra. Another good example of this in the first half was the Splinter Cell: Conviction main theme. The electronics were restricted to the synth bass while all the percussion was done on the drum kit and in some other clever ways such as hitting the side of the tam tam. There were a few moments where the orchestra got behind the electronics, but they were always able to get back into the rhythm. Although I hadn't heard this theme before, I enjoyed the strong espionage feel.
Not all the selections were from Western game music. Nintendo got some love in this concert too. The first half had The Legend of Zelda suite and Super Mario Bros. suite, based on the arrangements from Video Games Live and the Orchestral Game Music Concert respectively. The Zelda tunes were played really well, and the LPO captured the feel of the main theme and slower sections as desired. Super Mario Bros. was great fun. The orchestra embraced the jazz side of the arrangement and really got into it, especially as several moments got laughs from the audience; the brass particularly enjoyed themselves, and the trombones were comically loud during the underground theme. Unfortunately the lighting crew thought it was OK to raise some of the lights at the back by cranking the handles quite loudly during the performance, which was a little bit distracting.
In the first half, we were treated to a light-hearted orchestral rendition of "The Orb of Dreamers: The Cosmic Imagisphere" from LittleBigPlanet. The orchestra captured the childlike quality of the piece really well and the arrangement was really well put together. The last two pieces in the first half were the main themes from Battlefield 2 and Final Fantasy. The former was appropriately militaristic and the brass were careful as to not overpower the rest of the orchestra too much. The Final Fantasy theme was a different arrangement from the one that's used in Distant Worlds and other related concerts. This arrangement is in the original key of B flat major instead of F major, and some of the orchestration was different. It was well written, particularly for the strings, though for me the arrangement lacked the dramatic ending that can be heard in the Final Fantasy focused concert recordings. A shame, but it was a nice end to the first half.
The second half began with the theme from Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. The trumpet solo was spectacular and the drum kit kept everyone in time really well, though during the faster sections of the piece it felt a little bit thin in the texture. This got better as the piece progressed and the slower sections felt more complete, though the overall balance could've done with more choir more singers were probably needed to achieve this. Next was a new arrangement of "Welcome Aboard the U.S.G. Ishimura" from Dead Space, which was really good. The atmosphere was really haunting, thanks in part to the shimmering strings, and there was a good mix of action and suspense in the piece. I just love how unique and unconventional the music of Dead Space is.
Next up was "Nate's Theme" from Uncharted: Drake's Fortune followed immediately by "Seasons of War" from World of Warcraft. While certainly an odd pairing, it worked and the transition between the pieces was good. Personally I prefer the Uncharted 2 version of Nate's theme, but the original version is also good and this version was well performed. The thick brass chords gave way surprisingly well into Seasons of War, also a nice performance again the choir could've been stronger, though worked well during the more ominous quieter sections. The performers all kept up the 7/8 rhythm very well too. The rhythmic accuracy and feel was also a strong point in "One Final Effort" from Halo 3, with the strings keeping it up throughout and the piano being a highlight at the start of the track. The Fallout 3 theme meanwhile had a much slower, appropriately apocalyptic feel to it, and there was a good kick from the low brass.
Continuing the Western focus, next was "Athens Harbour Chase" from James Bond 007: Blood Stone. I could tell the orchestra enjoyed playing this high-octane piece, especially the brass, who were really going for the wah wah effect in the trumpets and the rips in the french horns. It was one of the highlights of the night from a performance point of view. Composer Richard Jacques was present at the concert, and was invited to go on stage and shake the conductor's hand after the piece had finished. This was followed by "The Ocean on His Shoulders" from BioShock, which was beautiful if a bit short; the violin solo was fantastic. "Suicide Mission" from Mass Effect 2 (the mere mention of the game got a huge cheer from one guy, resulting in everyone else laughing at him) was another good example of electronics blended really well with live orchestra. The New Age style of the beginning shone through really well followed by a really intense and epic orchestral sound. It was nice to hear the orchestra, especially the brass parts, for real as oppose to the samples actually used in the soundtrack, and the choir worked really well in the quiet bits, even if they may have been slightly overpowered in the louder sections.
After all of that dark music, it was nice to have something more lighthearted and comical, and that came in the form of Tetris. The opening was actually quite epic sounding, and then the piano started playing the Type A tune, after which the whole orchestra joined in. They had great fun passing the tune around from instrument to instrument. The orchestra eventually came to a section where they sped up until they launched a swing rhythm, which was really cool, a really fun arrangement. We were then treated to a wonderful performance of "Gusty Garden Galaxy" from Super Mario Galaxy. Even though the arrangement they played was lacking in a few areas, such as a lack of countermelody in the middle, they captured the spirit of the piece really well.
Everything I said about the choir being too small earlier was all too apparent in "Liberi Fatali", which was definitely the weakest performance of the night. The arrangement didn't have the power that the original orchestration has and the choir were simply not strong enough and even mispronounced some of the words. It's a shame, because the orchestra captured the character of the piece really well, but overall Video Game Heroes didn't do it justice. They more than made up for this with the last two pieces of the concert, both of which were big surprises. The first being Ari Pulkkinen's theme tune for Angry Birds, which was brilliant fun and had a similar arrangement and comical elements to Tetris (I overheard someone saying that it was nice to hear more than the first 10 seconds of the piece). The last was "Last Movement" from Enemy Zero, one of the most overlooked video game soundtracks of all time, composed by the one and only Michael Nyman. This was really well performed, and in true minimalist style, had a fantastic sense of progression with it's driving strings and subtle melodies, a fantastic way to end the concert, and appropriately most of the audience were on their feet by the end.
At the end of the concert, I went and said hi to Richard Jacques. I also introduced myself to Iain Lee, who was a really nice guy and much taller than I expected him to be. I also couldn't resist going inside the spray fountain feature outside of the hall before I headed home. When I got on the train at Westminster, I opened up my 3DS and got my first streetpass hits, which was pretty cool. So overall it was a great night. This concert was just about the music: there were no screens, just a few lights, and a fantastic orchestral performance of some familiar and some not so familiar video game music. This concert proves that you don't need flashing lights, giant screens and cosplayers to appeal to video game music fans you just need the music (not that any of those other things are bad, just that you can put on a concert without them). I am really looking forward to the up and coming album release of the arrangements from this concert later this year, and hope that there are more concerts like this in the future.