Previously on OTAKU COMING HOME...
- How FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST Saved Anime (For Me) *** SAILOR MOON is for Boys (Too)!
- KINGDOM HEARTS Rescued an Anime Fan *** The Art of the Remake Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3
- The Do's & Dont's of Conventions *** For Under-Rated "Japanimation" *** Capcom vs. Alex!
- America in Anime * Why the EVA Rebuilds are Trivial * It's Not So Fun to be an American Otaku in Japan?
- A Photologue of Nerdy Japan * Real Japanese Cuisine for the Traveling Otaku * Stop Hating on DBZ!
It’s no secret that I take pride in my nerdy street cred. I write comics, have anime and video game-inspired tattoos, and my idea of a good time traveling includes eating everything in Japan. So it really shouldn’t surprise anyone that, two short weeks after landing back home, I found myself, my wife, and one of our best pals and nerdy traveling companions - - the extraordinary artist Kate Glasheen - - headed for the LEGEND OF ZELDA: SYMPHONY OF THE GODDESSES concert in New York City.
We made a brief dinner stop at Tabata Noodle on 9th Avenue (between 39th and 40th Street, for you New Yorkers in need of a ramen fix) before heading to Madison Square Garden. And believe me, there’s nothing better on a cold night of nerdery than a plate of wasabi shumai and a steaming bowl of tonkotsu broth with fatty pork, springy noodles and soy-marinated, soft boiled eggs. Nothing.
Our small-but-full-of-heart-(containers) group had no idea what to expect when we hit MSG. Would there be a large group? Did the show sell out? Would we be lost in a sea of green-skirted otaku? Lots of questions were on our collective mind. Know what we never once asked ourselves?
Would Justin Bieber be there?
The divided crowd entering MSG was pretty hysterical. Gaggles of teenaged girls and hapless parents in tow parting one way toward the arena whilst we nerds were herded into the theater. But other than that? Not a peep. The two events never interfered with one another after we parted ways.
We showed up a bit earlier than most, and grabbed our seats near the stage. Screens were set up on either side of the audience and dead center above the performers, each one emblazoned with a Triforce symbol. ZELDA soundtracks played softly behind the shuffling of excited fans finding their seats. We set about the difficult task of waiting by doing the only thing we could think of - - taking pictures of strangers to put on the internet!
Now is probably a good time to explain what giant ZELDA geeks all three of us are.
- When we go on vacation to Maine together, we usually bring an NES or SNES to marathon a classic ZELDA game in the evenings.
- When we get together at home, it usually devolves into a week-long attack on some JRPG... And when that doesn’t work, ZELDA goes into the system.
- We often found ourselves debating the validity of a ZELDA timeline. And when an official one was released, there was no time wasted in dissecting and critiquing it.
- When I was a kid, my mom used to play ZELDA. She once recorded a playthrough of her beating it. That tape spent a lot of time in my VCR. Obviously, nerdery runs in my veins.
And all of this is to explain why the following video, taken with my phone, is horribly shaky. You see, we couldn’t quite keep still once the music started. And though it isn’t the same as being there, perhaps this video of the opening (“Overture”) will help you understand why...
Now, I’m going to approach the rest of this in two very different ways...
The first is my emotional response. This is tethered to my love affair with video games, their music, and THE LEGEND OF ZELDA. The second is going to be my objective view of the show, because if I’m going to play journalist here, it requires me to be critical of the things I love just as much as anything else.
So, the emotional bit: HOLY SHIT.
Conducted by Eimear Noone (with music arrangement by Noone and legendary Nintendo composer, Koji Kondo!) this was ZELDA as you’ve never heard it before. The tour, conceived and promoted by Jason Michael Paul, was definitely a labor of love for both Noone and Paul. Noone told the audience that the music spoke to her, and it showed in both her arrangement and spirited conducting. Paul came out to introduce the separate parts of the symphony and showed his love by whipping out a gold LEGEND OF ZELDA cartridge for the NES. When “The Wind Waker” movement began, Noone traded her baton for a replica of the actual Wind Waker from the game!
These were some legit fans, no question.
The full setlist was as follows:
- Dungeons of Hyrule
- Kakariko Village
- Songs of the Hero (Ocarina Medley)
- Prelude - The Creation of Hyrule
- Movement I - Ocarina of Time
- Movement II - The Wind Waker
- Intermezzo - Great Fairy's Fountain
- Movement III - Twilight Princess
- Movement IV - A Link to the Past
- Gerudo Valley
- Ballad of the Windfish
- Majora’s Mask
For anybody who picked up SKYWARD SWORD, you’ve heard a bunch of these already, but it’s such an experience to see them performed live and accompanied by giant screens running cleverly timed and edited game footage. Either way, hearing those arrangements on CD or in person really drives home something astonishing: Koji Kondo is a brilliant composer! Even tracks designed to play on an 8-bit system sounded wonderful when arranged across an entire orchestra. Harps plink, cellos reverberate, and violins send you flying right onto Hyrule Field.
Masterfully composed by Kondo and brilliantly arranged with Noone, the symphony itself was ideal. I could quibble over a few missing elements, personal favorites and such, but they were sacrificed to keep the symphony focussed. This was no “greatest hits” concert; instead, it was a story told through song, and in that it succeeded, telling us the literal “Legend of Zelda,” as it were.
Disappointingly, there was no CD for sale at the show, so the 25th anniversary disc with SKYWARD SWORD, and my memories, will have to hold me over for now. Hopefully we’ll see some kind of CD/DVD combo down the road.
Now, for the hard part.
Nobody likes being critical of a loved one, but there were a number of critiques I walked out of the show with and, try as I might, I just couldn’t overlook them. The blame doesn’t fall squarely on one party but, rather, spreads evenly across pretty much everybody, including the audience.
The Theater at Madison Square Garden isn’t any place I’m in a rush to get back. Though there was ample seating, the acoustics were awful. I may not be a symphony buff, but I do fancy myself a bit of an amateur audiophile (which basically means I’m just picky about sound quality and don’t have the vocabulary to back it up yet). When you’re working with electric instruments at a typical rock or metal show, you’re plugged into amps to help pump the music out to the crowd. Most concert halls for symphonies are constructed such that no help is necessary - - the music is naturally carried through the venue by architectural design.
However, putting an orchestra on stage in a venue that wasn’t built for it meant hanging microphones near most of the instruments and blasting the sound out through giant speakers next to the stage. Not only was the music often riddled with clicks and pops from the equipment, but quiet solos were punctuated by the furious turning of sheet music by those not playing. It gave the impression that we were actually listening to a YouTube video at times rather than a live performance, which was a damn shame.
Also, a rock show is all about the stage performance, meaning even the most bland venue can be brought to life by energetic performers. This was not a rock show, and the venue looked and felt like a high school auditorium, despite the large screens. That might explain why the audience, aside from a few kinetic fans like my lil’ group, seemed like they were at a mandatory assembly rather than a Nintendo concert, where applause, cheers, and standing ovations weren’t just accepted but encouraged. They started strong at the opening, but after that... fizzle. The crowd really let me down here.
It didn’t help that we were seated next to a stereotypical otaku. We’re still not sure if he had a legitimate social disorder that kept him from showering and encouraged him to shout “HEY! LISTEN!” like Navi between most every song.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out some issues with the performance itself. While the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (NYC natives) acquitted themselves well enough, there was an inherent flaw in the system set up by this tour. Rather than traveling with an orchestra, who could refine and perfect a performance over the course of the tour, the symphony is performed by a different orchestra in each city.
As such, things like stage presence (these guys came out with their bags and purses, stuffing them under their chairs - - another nod to the high school atmosphere), performance mishaps (collapsing music stands, misplaced sheet music) and technical snafus (the video was missing for most of Kakariko Village, though that fault could lay with any number of people) took away from what could, and likely should have been a classy (if nerdy) production.
Perhaps it was too costly to tour with a dedicated group, or maybe the desire was to support local musicians, but at this show it seemed to be just another kink conspiring against an otherwise brilliant show.
Given how successful the tour has been, with most shows selling out pretty quickly, it’s at least possible we’ll see it come back around again and, when and if it does, I’ll be first in line to buy front row seats. Hopefully, they’ll learn from some of the mishaps and missteps, but even if it were the same issue-riddled show at the same terrible venue, I’d still show up with a smile on my face.
Because when the music starts, none of that other stuff matters. I’m connected to a special place, and a lot of special times, as soon as that first familiar chord leaps from the string section. Fond memories, old and new, come to life on the screens and in my mind. And, for two-and-a-half-hours, I get to live in a Hyrule that isn’t in my living room.
That’s worth every rupee.
Nick Tapalansky is an author of comics and other things, some of them nominated for awards and stuff. Read some comics for free at http://www.NickTapalansky.com/blog and find him on Twitter as @NickTapalansky.