Feature: A Night At The Theatre With Symphonic Legends
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
A mixed adventure
On Sunday 13th July the Barbican in London hosted Symphonic Legends, a concert featuring music from The Legend of Zelda. It was performed by the world-class London Symphony Orchestra, with appearances by London Symphony Chorus and the energetic 'classical band', Spark; the arrangements were composed by Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo. Arrangements drew direct or brief inspiration from titles such as A Link To The Past, Ocarina of Time, The Wind Waker, Skyward Sword and more.
Unlike the terrific 25th Anniversary 2011 event in London, this wasn't officially a Nintendo concert, though clearly had its blessing. While previous worldwide tours — this was a one-off performance — have featured a lot of Zelda imagery, video and faithful orchestrations of series music, the approach of this concert was somewhat different. Some of the Nintendo Life team attended, and you can see their personal opinions on the evening below.
In 2011 I was fortunate enough to attend the ‘The Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony’ concert in London, which was a fantastically magical experience; whilst I enjoyed parts of ‘Symphonic Legends’ last night, it was sadly underwhelming by comparison. I want to be fair and clear that I know very little (pretty much nothing) about performing classical music, or how the source material may have been required to change to suit an orchestra, but for me large parts of the performance simply didn’t resonate in the way I was expecting, leaving me feeling quite flat. Key moments in the music seemed off, almost in a different key to what I expected, which felt a little strange. Occasionally trademark themes would begin to appear but almost as quickly would disappear without a trace — it’s as if the fan-service we were craving was teased and then snatched back by the conductor who simply wanted to play his own interpretation.
Overall I found the experience to be confusing; the quality of the music and performance was of course very high, but at the same time it all felt rather disguised or incomplete.
This was a peculiar night. The issue was the performance style clashing with audience expectations, with arrangements that — whether for artistic or rights reasons — diverged significantly from source. My favourite arrangement was the most simple and relatively faithful of the night, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword — Overture. My instinct is that it's the game with a soundtrack originally composed with a live orchestra in mind, as used in the game, so there was less scope for the composer to 'interpret' the original source material.
I did, in my younger days, play music to a high level — French Horn, as my pointless fact of the day — and considered studying classical performance at University. Listening to the performance I could understand what the promoters, arrangement team and the LSO had tried to achieve, as it was an interpretation on video game music that would perhaps interest their regular followers and the Classical FM crowd. Unfortunately for them the audience was mainly gamers, so fan-service was in demand; the 25th Anniversary Event mark two, in other words. This, however, was a straight-laced orchestral performance, so the issue is not with the standard of the concert, but the fact that some of those that paid a lot of money perhaps felt a little caught out by the content on offer.
To round off with a more critical — less apologetic — perception, I will say that the LSO, one of the finest orchestras in the world, seemed a tad undercooked. This felt like a typical one night 'job for the money', as there were moments of poor timing and mistakes that suggested limited rehearsal time and familiarity with the music; the enthusiastic guest players for The Wind Waker segment were often drowned out, too. I also continually complain about some forgetting that video games are games, but seek a deeper artistic meaning and impact. Zelda games are mostly about a hero saving the world / Princess — it's hardly Dostoevsky. It's a trend in games writing and performances like this to try and make the industry more 'grown up', which I believe is sometimes vested in personal insecurities, not what's best for games. In that sense, Zelda music should be simply reproduced from the games with a lovely orchestral sound — attempting artistic interpretation, as these arrangements did, is unlikely to succeed.
Overall, I was glad to have attended and quite enjoyed the concert. Would I go again if I knew what to expect, though? Considering the ticket prices and costs to get to the venue, probably not.
Like Ant, I too went to Nintendo's Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony, so it's fair to say that the stunning performance I experienced back in 2011 influenced my enjoyment of the Symphonic Legends Orchestra.
Know your audience: these are the three words that should have been uttered into the ear of whoever organised this latest event. Potential rights issues aside, the Symphonic Legends Orchestra didn't sound like it should have done — odd given that it was aimed at core Zelda fans — but, more crucially, it also failed to exude much in the way of charm or fan service. The Barbican Centre was woefully lacking in Zelda paraphernalia, and instead we were greeted with a rather generic setup that didn't feel like a celebration of one of gaming's greatest successes.
The music was heavily rearranged, sometimes to the point where it was practically indistinguishable, with the orchestra relying on the same leitmotif pretty much the whole way throughout. Classic tunes which have remained ingrained in our brains for decades were conspicuously absent, leading me to assume that the orchestra hadn't sufficiently researched the game's aural history to identify what it is that gamers love so much about it. Combined with the lack of a screen showing gameplay as per Nintendo's show, it was difficult to identify what game a specific section of the music came from — even a longtime Zelda fan such as myself was at a loss. With that said, the orchestra should be commended for its exceptional quality of performance, and while I feel that the overall execution missed the mark for its intended audience, it was nevertheless an interesting approach in that it did something a bit different.