Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Legend of Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra: Review

Last night my partner and I had front row seats for the DSO's sold out performance of The Legend of Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses.  This morning while it's still fresh on my mind, I wanted to write a review of the concert.  I've mentioned before that I find reviews of these types of game audio concerts lacking.  If they are covered, reviewers either have extreme disdain for the music being performed in the first place, or else they are super game enthusiast fans who love anything that has to do with that game franchise and often don't know much about music.  I suppose I'm somewhere in between.  It was only my second time in the DSO audience; most visits, I've been onstage performing as part of the pre-concert music.  The other time I attended a concert here, I was seeing Kathleen Battle perform Previn's Honey and Rue, and that was at least a decade ago.

The first thing I was struck by even as I entered the hall was the audience; most classical concerts can only wish for the diversity of patron that this concert had.  The audience was primarily young, I'd guess many close to my age or under, though there were also some blue hairs to be seen as well.  I saw folks of so many ethnicities and races as well; being from a mixed household, that kind of feeling walking into a concert is so uplifting for me.  And of course, folks were in costumes: I saw a few Kokiri outfits, a couple Zeldas, and even a King of Hyrule.  The audience enthusiasm was visible even just entering the hall.  Once inside, crowds overwhelmed tables with various Zelda merchandise.  (I bought a piano collection for some research I'm working on.)  I don't know how the DSO usually handles drinks in the concert hall, but I saw a number of audience members with beers and mixed drinks during the concert, so the atmosphere was definitely relaxed.  When you can sit in your chair and have a drink as you listen to the orchestra, that's my kind of concert!

The program consisted of the following movements, and this was given out as a printed page:

Overture 2017
Majora's Mask Medley
Breath of the Wild
Prelude
Ocarina of Time
The Wind Waker

Intermission

Temple of Time Intermezzo
The Twilight Princess
Time of the Falling Rain
Ballad of the Windfish
Gordon City Medley

The first half was about 50 minutes, intermission around 20, and I was walking out the door of the concert hall at 9:24, so the whole event was just less than an hour.

My favorite movement by far was the Time of the Falling Rain arrangement, which was a medley from A Link to the Past.  The LttP music ended with the credit music from the game-- something I show in my Video Game Music class most semesters-- and that connection was really powerful for me.  This was one of the best arrangements in the evening and acted as a natural end piece to the concert before two printed "encores."  The Goron City Medley at the end of the program really showcased the brass sections of the orchestra and the players gave all the character that the trombone and tuba can have as they play these themes.  Really awesome and the whole orchestra sounded great at parts like this!  I also very much enjoyed the Breath of the Wild material from early in the show.  I think that arrangement may have been literally from the game.  Although BotW was too short of a movement, perhaps to avoid spoilers?, I think that going forward actually playing direct music from cutscenes in games may be a better way to go than so many of these arrangements.  The arrangements depend so much on the quality of the orchestration and the skill of the arranger in stitching together various themes or making a theme have a different feel than one might expect.  That simply doesn't always translate well.  Now that game audio can be fully orchestrated, there's no substitute for hearing the original audio in much the same way as a film concert.

The conductor was Kelly Corcoran, who is based out of Nashville.  She is a regular conductor of these Symphony of the Goddesses performances and has numerous upcoming dates around the country in the next months.  It was a cool connection to read in her bio that she studied with Leonard Slatkin, currently the conductor of the DSO.  One of my favorite moments of the concert was when she held up -- to cheers and laughter from the audience --  and then conducted with the Windwaker before The Wind Waker movement in the program (although she held it quite awkwardly high, not by the base).  That said, I did wonder exactly what the purpose of the conductor for an event like this is.  Several members of the orchestra had ear pieces, so if everyone is trying to play to the click track, what does the conductor do?  Yes, perhaps someone needs to cue the various entrances of the orchestra, certainly the choir needed babying in tonight's performance.  However, Ms. Corcoran never indicated a musical phrase or shape, always beating very precisely in time and there was never an adjustment to the balance; there were several cases, between the percussion and the wind sections, whether through the arrangement or the overdone amplification of the orchestra, where the melodic theme was buried.  Furthermore, Ms. Corcoran would often grab her earpiece during the loud climatic sections, in what struck me as an homage to Mariah Carey, as she tried to hear how the tempo of the click track was changing.  Whether the audience is aware of it or not, there's nothing less satisfying than seeing a conductor freeze and bend over slightly, pressing an earpiece into her ear during a climatic musical moment instead of standing straight and embodying the sound confidently.  I wish that these concerts were able to tie the multimedia projections to the music instead of slavishly asking the musicians to sync themselves so metronomically to the visuals.  Isn't that the point?: a concert of this type should be a celebration of the audio over the visual.  

By far, the weakest part of the concert was The Community Chorus of Detroit.  They seemed unfamiliar with the music, under rehearsed, musically uncertain, and had terrible intonation and tone.  Think about where chorus is used in game audio: an epic boss battle, an ancient legend unfolding - something that takes the moment over the top.  Now imagine that chorus to be so weak that it actually feels anti-climatic.  Not pleasant.  Vince and I broke out in laughter a few times at the chorus singing.   Disappointing.

These concerts have a lot of things going for them:

  • Lighting changes - for instance, blue during Wind Waker and green during Breath of the Wild
  • Multimedia projections of game footage and the orchestra members playing live 
  • Short spoken statements from the creators of the games and music 
  • Incorporation of prerecorded sounds and sound effects.  
Now, I don't need these things to feel engaged at a concert, but I do appreciate how game audio lends itself quite naturally to a multimedia updating of the traditional symphony concert.  I liked very much being able to see into wind and brass sections of the orchestra from the camera shots.  But for everything there is a flip side, and hearing the piccolo struggle through the Zelda good morning cue is painful enough, much less to watch the player projected on the big screen in a delay.  I do often feel though that the orchestra players aren't fully into the music and there's a lack of excitement at concerts like this.  I think part of that is the arrangements/orchestration aren't always great.  I also think part of it is the players/singers may have a slight disdain for the music.  The average audience member may not notice, but when a section is played double time (as happen with the cellos early in the concert), or a wind cue is in minor instead of major, I'm really taken aback.  I understand mistakes happen and I'm certainly not perfect myself live.  Some of that is undoubtedly unfamiliarity with the material, or perhaps misprinted parts.  Maybe a concert like Distant Worlds or Video Games Live! works better because of the variety of music possible-- after all, how many times can you see an arrangement that progresses through a quiet beginning, a goofy character theme, an epic theme, etc, until a climatic boss battle plays Ganon's theme for the finale?  The same format and music gets tiring as the night progresses.  Whatever causes it, I hate always leaving events like this feeling "something's missing" and that happen again for me with this concert.

I did enjoy myself last night and I know I'm not the typical concert-goer at any musical event, much less this sort of concert.  However, when a concert can fill a 2000 seat house on a Wednesday evening, something is really, really right.  Then again, as I scanned the orchestra, I noticed the concertmaster was away as was the principle cellist.  Several of my UM colleagues were subbing in various sections as well.  If the audience can be this into the music, what can we do to get the top orchestra members to believe in it enough to play it as well instead of taking the night off?  Or should these concerts just be sold electronically, recorded perfectly, mixed, mastered, and synced up precisely to the visuals?  Is there a reason for the "live" aspect of this show?  I can say that for me there's "something missing" and I wish I could put my finger on what it is.  Overall though, I did enjoy myself and most of all, seeing this performance bolstered my desire to organize/perform in an all game audio concert.  

Bottom line: If you love game audio and The Legend of Zelda, I suggest you see one of these concerts if it comes close to you.  The sense of community is always great at a live event and for any fans of the games, this celebration of the music will be a treat.