Having covered the last two Final Fantasy: Distant Worlds concerts, it was a treat to see another iconic video game soundtrack get the orchestral treatment in Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses. The Koji Kondo themes that make up the 25-year-old series have remained some of the most memorable in video game music history, and manage to somehow maintain their innovation despite constant repetition.
The crowd was a definitely as expected, a solid mix of fans from across the age groups. I was served merlot by a bartender with a tattoo of the Hyrulian crest peaking out of his shirt. He admitted that it was done in sharpie until he could afford the real deal. There were a few less cosplayers than I would've expected, but I sat near an 11-year-old boy fully-decked out in classic Link attire and armed with the Master Sword. Several folks bearing Majora's Masks could be seen but appropriately darted away when I tried to get close enough for pictures.
Unlike the music of Final Fantasy, most compositions from Zelda are not really meant to be played at a concert level. The pieces are too short, especially the most famous ones. What we ended up with were a selection of medleys that appropriately summed up a game series that has always had a pretty fractured chronology until Nintendo finally released an official timeline.
The evening was led by the capable hands of conductor Eimear Noone, who conducted the symphonic Zelda soundtrack that shipped with Skyward Sword, and has also conducted recordings for Starcraft and World of Warcraft. As both a female conductor and a veteran of video game music, she's rarer than the Triforce itself, but the skill she brings to the podium is undeniable. Throughout the evening she maintained an adventurous line that not only melded the different songs into each other perfectly, but expertly matched the video presentation that dominated over the heads of the musicians.
The first third of the concert was various collected melodies that shone through with only a few nagging complaints. "Dungeons" was more than worth the price of admission for the whole evening, and brought back memories of every epic battle fought by gamers in the name of defeating Ganon. It was especially nice to hear the high-energy themes from Adventure of Link, which remains a black sheep in the series despite the fact that it birthed many of the current conventions used and had a soundtrack that you honestly forget is pretty awesome until a symphony throws it at you.
Two more short works followed, a soft piece celebrating Kakariko Village that was more than pretty but seemed to try and draw too much from a somewhat shallow well, and a celebration of the ocarina tunes from Ocarina of Time called "Songs of the Hero."
This was a definite highlight of the evening. Ocarina is arguably the best game in the series, and could also be said to have invented many aspects of modern gaming with its innovative battle system. When Chad Seiter set out to arrange the magic songs that make up so much a part of the plot, it was the one thing that he had better not screw up. Did he?
No. The mixture is potent, with "The Song of Time" making up a good portion. It builds well, with full-throttle force, and ends with an almost unbearably throbbing variation on "The Song of Storms." That such a minor tune in the overall scheme should dominate the arrangement was a weird choice, but you can't deny that it had the audience on the edge of their seats. It was a daring inclusion. Sadly, my personal favorite, "Epona's Song" apparently didn't make the cut.
The real focus of the night was the 80-minute, four movement Symphony of the Goddesses. Each movement was designed to represent a different game as a full musical narrative. In short, you got an abridged playthrough with the best backing track ever devised.
The first movement, "Ocarina of Time" was stellar. Seiter chose to play heavily on the themes of friendship and affection between Link and Saria, a move that adds a fantastic depth to their in-game relationship and addresses the lack of her personal theme in "Songs of the Hero." By making Saria almost a main character through the power of her motifs, it forces the audience to think about Ocarina in a whole new way.
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I was far less enthralled in the Wind Waker and Twilight Princess movements. Both games are from a period when I had stopped gaming, and thus had little emotional investment in. "Wind Waker" in particular seems mismatched, with a bizarre juxtaposition of sea chanteys and Asian music influences, while "Twilight Princess" amounts to little more than an update of "Ocarina."
Throughout the entirety of the symphony though, concertmaster Eric Halen would pop up suddenly with a violin version of the basic Zelda adventure theme, something that he used time and time again to anchor the symphony firmly in its most basic premise. Whenever the cameras would cut to him soulfully coaxing the song out at just under the game tempo, it reaffirmed the storytelling setting and reminded each listener of their own first time into Hyrule.
Surprising to many, the last movement eschewed Skyward Sword to return to the 16-bit era in "Link to the Past." The sole SNES entry in the series has held up well, with the Dark World music in particular having a devastating grip. The only complaint I can voice is that the epilogue of the movement missed a great opportunity video-wise to not feature the happy follow-ups of all the characters that makes up the game ending. Sure, to a non-player it would've seemed out of place, but the sheer happiness of the quest completed would carry it, and the final shot of Link laying the Master Sword to rest in the Lost Woods until another hero is would have been the perfect exclamation point.
Overall, it was a magical experience that brought out more joy in an audience than I have ever seen. Watching gaming grow-up and be accepted as something worthy of such a tribute has been a wonderful thing to witness, and it only gets better from here, I hope.