On October 21, 2011, Hollywood's Pantages Theatre was a welcome sight for Legend of Zelda fans -- not only because the exterior was adorned with several twenty-foot-tall banners of Link, the recurring protagonist of the video games, but also because the theater's brightly lit, thirty-foot-wide marquee was covered with his face. Many a casual passerbys must also have noticed this unexpectedly delightful vision. After all, how often does one find such a conspicuous display of a character from a Japanese video game in Hollywood, the heartland of American popular culture?
The visual splendor didn't stop there. The theatre's beautifully ornate and lush interior design looked as if specifically tailored for the medieval theme of the games. Gold-colored pennants with the crest of the Royal Family were hung along the walls, and numerous vertical flags depicting the newest Legend of Zelda games were placed around the lobby. The event organizers had also arranged a number of demo booths in the lobby, including islands of Nintendo DS consoles pre-loaded with Ocarina of Time or Four Swords as well as Wii consoles pre-loaded with Nintendo's newest and long-awaited addition to the franchise, Skyward Sword.
The Legend of Zelda is a highly successful video game franchise that needs no introduction to anyone remotely familiar with Nintendo's games. Spun from the imagination of Shigeru Miyamoto, these games are rewarding because of their ability to immerse the player in adventure through excellent gameplay and catchy, memorable soundtracks. Ocarina of Time, in fact, was among the first action/adventure games to incorporate music-making as a critical component in gameplay. The music of Legend of Zelda was mostly composed by Koji Kondo (the same man who composed the infamous Mario theme song), though the last game for which he was the sole composer was Ocarina of Time; since then, he has assumed the role of music supervisor. In celebration of the franchise's 25th anniversary, Nintendo and Jason Michael Paul Productions organized a special treat for its fanbase: music exclusively from the series brought to life in concert, for the first time in the United States.
At the start of the concert, Eiji Aonuma greeted a very excited audience and introduced himself as the producer of the game. It was difficult to not be charmed by this man's infectious energy and love for the video game series. He half-joked that concert's goal was to bring the audience to tears and casually mentioned that Japanese fans had actually shed tears at some point during another concert recently held there. Eimar Noone, the conductor, made a rather cheerful guide as she enthusiastically narrated the sequence of songs as if preparing the audience on a journey to a distant land.
The concert seemed intent on helping audience members re-live their fondest memories through video clips and occasional spoilers -- and welcoming listeners back to these foreign worlds through familiar melodies. One aspect of the concert that was unusual was the use of headphones by the entire orchestra and the conductor. Since the images on the small LCD monitor next to Noone matched the video clips projected onto the large screen behind the orchestra, I assumed this performance would be conducted like a film scoring session, because it's rare to see an entire orchestra use headphones otherwise. Throughout the concert, the large screen would not only show video clips from the games, but also real-time close-ups of the performers.
Eiji Aonuma and translator
The programming highlighted best-known pieces that had been used in multiple games (such as "Princess Zelda's Theme" or "Hyrule Castle Theme"), as well as a number of medleys. While some of these medleys were excellent, others, at times, made the concert feel like a how-many-songs-can-you-recognize game more than a musical experience. The arrangers jumped at every opportunity to transform the original, compressed synth-generated music into grand arrangements, and this eagerness worked out favorably in most cases.
"Gerudo Valley" from Ocarina of Time was tweaked to "sound like a grand canyon" rather than a valley. Though this new, dramatic-sounding arrangement had all the merits of a perfectly sensible symphonic arrangement, it felt a little bland compared to the original version with its upbeat, ethnic flavor and castanet-driven sound. The symphonic recreation of "Hyrule Field," on the other hand, was true to the original, to a fault -- it sounded like an exact reproduction of the game's score with the same repeats and loops, rather than a stand-alone work of music. The piece would have been more exciting, had there been game footage to distract from the repetition.
"Great Fairy Fountain's Theme" had great potential to provide a wonderful, unique musical experience because of the featured harp duet, but that the piece nearly fell apart when a flute attempted to join the precariously-performed duet. Luckily, the performers pulled the music together before the rest of the orchestra joined in.
The Wind Waker Symphonic Movement was a medley that was particularly enjoyable because it captured the nautical spirit of the game so well. The delightful sequence of video clips gave context to the music; at the start of the piece, cutscenes from the very beginning of the game were shown. As the music progressed, various characters that Link encountered on his journey were introduced, and more of the game's storyline was revealed. In essence, this medley and the cutscenes shown captured some of the best moments of the game in a way that made even those who had not played the game want to pick up a controller and explore this world for themselves.
The Twilight Princess Symphonic Movement was extremely enjoyable for a similar reason. Just as the music of Wind Waker had an adventurous and free-spirited touch, there was a gripping solemnity to this game's darker score. This time, the concert producers showed no mercy in helping gamers re-live the dramatic highlights, as a cutscene came from one of the most tear-inducing moments of Zelda games.
The highlight of the concert had to be the moment when Koji Kondo suddenly appeared on stage and settled behind the grand piano to perform "Grandma's Theme" from Wind Waker, much to the frenzied audience's delight. He appeared slightly nervous, as if unused to being under the spotlight, but his brief appearance onstage, as well as his performance of the theme song of one of the most beloved characters from Wind Waker, was one of the concert's best moments. The concert then closed on a triumphant note as the orchestra performed the uplifting music of Skyward Sword to a new promotional trailer for the game. The vitality with which this new melody was performed could easily make one overlook the fact that the game's composer had simply used the notes of Zelda's lullaby in reverse.
Images from the Legend of Zelda concert booklet.
Overall, the concert was solid, with room for improvement. Despite the orchestra's occasional slip-ups, it was clear that the concertgoers enjoyed the music and that the 25th anniversary concert experience meant much more than just a concert to them -- it was re-living the glory of the previous 25 years of Legend of Zelda games, of exploring different worlds, rescuing Princess Zelda, and fighting against Ganondorf or whatever other dark force happened to befall Hyrule. As much as the concert was a link to the past (pun half-heartedly intended), it was as much a peek into the future. It was as much of a nostalgic experience as an experience that allowed the audience prepare themselves for the long-awaited arrival of Skyward Sword, a game that looks as promising as any of the series' other major titles.
The internet is abuzz with rumors that this Legend of Zelda concert will not be the only one in North America, and the general consensus is that a 2012 concert tour is certainly underway. Fans, at least, will have a brand new adventure to keep themselves occupied until the concert's anticipated return.
Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword opens around the world in late November (Europe: November 18; North America: November 20; Japan: November 23; Australia: November 24). For more information, go to its official website.
The next Legend of Zelda Symphony concert takes place in Dallas, Texas on January 10, 2012. For more information, go to Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses' official website.