PLAY! A Video Game Symphony Live!
PLAY! A Video Game Symphony Live!
January 9, 2009
Buy at PLAY! Webshop
The album release for the world concert tour PLAY! A Video Game Symphony should have been a masterpiece. The tour has become popular thanks to its balanced selection of pieces and suites based on Western and Eastern titles. The arrangements featured are among the finest of video game concert repertoire thanks to the talents of professionals such as Adam Klemens and Nic Raine. Award-winning maestro Arnie Roth has conducted polished performances of these items to amazing reception at concert halls in Chicago, Sydney, and Stockholm. From this background, it was announced to much excitement that the tour would publish a live recording of a concert recorded at Prague on April 23, 2008 for CD and DVD. After six months of delays, frustration, and speculation, the album started to ship in January. Sadly, those who actually received their copies tended to be disappointed. Producer Jason Michael Paul ensured that the album has fallen way below its potential by making numerous cutbacks to save time and budget. He failed to provide sufficient time for the orchestra to rehearse their performance and he didn’t even managed to print the album with a real record company. What is left is a complete shambles…
The album is appropriately introduced by Nobuo Uematsu’s PLAY! A Video Game Symphony fanfare. Due to the brash trumpet performance, the opening section of the fanfare feels especially jarring and reminds me of the childish taunts ‘nah nah ne nah nah’. The mellow strings during the interlude are far more enjoyable, but they don’t fully redeem this especially bad rendition of the fanfare. Weak performances also undermine Jonne Valtonen’s Commodore 64 medley. His jazzy interpretation of The Great Giana Sisters was delightful when performed by the WDR Radio Orchestra at Symphonic Shades – Huelsbeck in Concert. However, the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra degrade it into a lifeless manner in the second part of this medley; the conservative flute performance doesn’t bring out the bounciness and jazziness of the melody while the wood blocks are pronounced far too loudly against the shy orchestra. The rest of the medley features the orchestra stumbling carelessly through the melodies of The Last Ninja, Wizball, Forbidden Forest, and Ancestors as if it is the first they had performed them. An astonishing way to butcher an amazing arrangement.
There are nevertheless some enjoyable items on the album. The Castlevania suite takes a mature orchestral approach in contrast to Video Games Live‘s rocking arrangement. It begins with playful renditions of Castlevania‘s “Vampire Killer” and “Wicked Child” as featured on Perfect Selection Dracula New Classic. However, the arrangement takes an awesome dramatic twist when it moves into a beautiful organ solo based on Castlevania: Curse of Darkness‘s “A Toccata into Blood Soaked Darkness”. With the gradual additions of chorus, drum kit, and orchestra, the performers finally demonstrate they can do epic well if they have sufficient rehearsal time. The rendition of Silent Hill 2‘s “Theme of Laura” is also acceptable. The orchestra could have been more balanced, but the electric guitarist convincingly offers an elaborate performance and ends up being one of the stars of the whole concert. Despite the low rehearsal time and the detrimental trumpets, Arnie Roth managed to get the orchestra to capture the lush and smooth nature of Kingdom Hearts‘s “Hikari” unlike Video Games Live Volume One. Though the inclusion of “March Caprice” feels abrupt in the suite, the conclusion featuring “Passion” is gorgeous.
Most of the remaining Western material is clustered in the second half of the disc. Andy Brick’s Halo suite recreates the dramatic and atmospheric sound of the series with symphony and choir. Much like the rest of the selection, the piece selection is spot on thanks to the knowledge of the original PLAY! team. The World of Warcraft suite recreates images of the epic fantasy world and achieves a spectacular dramatic arch. However, it is one of the most uneven performances; the strings are emotional and the soprano solo is absolute beautiful, but the brass is unpleasant, the percussion is too loud, and the youth Kuehn’s Choir seem inexperienced. Bizarrely placed in succession at the end of the disc, the two Jeremy Soule suites reaffirm my suspicions that Jason Michael Paul knows nothing about how to produce a balanced album. Those who love Soule’s fantasy orchestral style will appreciate the experience of hearing his Oblivion and Guild Wars work performed by a real orchestra. His music has enough intrinsic colour and timbral variety to survive the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra experience and there are several highlight passages in both suites.
The expansive Chrono suite often featured on PLAY!‘s concerts was spliced for copyright reasons. The arrangements feature a beautiful piano solo of “Reminiscence” and a driving percussive performance of “Scars of Time”, both from Chrono Cross (misspelt Crono Cross here). Disappointly, fans do not get the performances of the three Chrono Trigger themes they expected. Entire items from PLAY!‘s large program were also cut; omissions such as Metal Gear Solid, Super Mario Galaxy, Lost Odyssey, The Legend of Zelda, Shenmue, and Final Fantasy leaves the album featuring just 12 items. Thankfully, at least Rony Barrak’s excellent darbuka solo in the middle of the otherwise sluggishly performed Battlefield suite made it through. Despite the post-production trimming, there is an abundance of background noise such as coughing, chairs moving, and applauses throughout the album. Most amusingly, somebody’s hums at the beginning of the Sonic the Hedgehog suite made it through, though their intonation is ironically more precise than the ever rasping brass. The sound quality is technically good, but the noise and strong reverb of the concert hall gives it the impression of a bootleg recording.
The lack of professionalism doesn’t end there. While it is conventional to publish albums through a professional record label, Jason Michael Paul actually created it at home using a CD-R collection and a blurry inkjet printer. The accompanying DVD-R, while once promoted as a full concert video, is in fact an underwhelming 20 minute supplement. It features some brief clips from actual concert items from inside the stunning Rudolfinum Concert Hall. However, there were some dubious choice of clips; for instance, the DVD shows orchestra members looking tired or bored and accompanies The Great Giana Siters with a video of International Karate. Added to that, there are no special features or even a proper menu, so this isn’t something worth paying 35 dollars for. The accompanying booklet is quite comprehensive and well designed. However, the printing quality could have been better and most information was taken from PLAY!‘s souvenir booklet made back in 2006; as a result, information such as how many games are in the Silent Hill or Warcraft series is out of date. The advert published on YouTube was also quite well done. It is a real pity that the money spent on this didn’t go on more rehearsal times and a record label.
PLAY! A Video Game Symphony Live! is the most unprofessional video game music production I am aware of. The flaws are endless: numerous delays, misleading promotion, nonexistent customer support, home-printed discs, omitted items, considerable audience noise, an underwhelming video, a hefty pricetag, etc. However, the biggest problem is that the concert sounds especially underrehearsed and, as a result, even conductor Arnie Roth cannot rescue it from mediocrity. The Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra seem focused on just getting the notes right, not bringing out the character, emotion, and drama of the stunning melodies and arrangements featured within. They also lack balance and suffer in particular from shrill trumpets and overly loud percussion. They still manage to do an acceptable if underwhelming job of Castlevania, Kingdom Hearts, Guild Wars, Silent Hill, and Chrono Cross with the help of some good soloists. However, the performances of the Opening Fanfare, Commodore 64 Medley, Sonic the Hedgehog, Battlefield, and Warcraft are also unforgivably flawed — they are an insult to the original pieces and excellent arrangements.
The failures lie almost exclusively with producer Jason Michael Paul who has shamefully mismanaged PLAY! since executive producer Thomas Boecker’s departure at the end of 2006. As he said in a recent interview, “Basically, I am responsible for everything, so if something goes wrong you can blame me”. It is a tragedy that the only official recording to commemorate this tour is based on one of their weakest concerts to date when their debut at Chicago in 2006 was simply amazing. However, simply skipping this album and attending a future concert is not a good idea. PLAY! A Video Game Symphony is now a commercialistic yet incompetent tour that regularly cancels concerts, omits popular items, and features underrehearsed performances. Unless something magic happens, it should probably be laid to rest as it has disappointed audiences and butchered great arrangements for too long now. Those desperate for the arrangements should consider purchasing them on iTunes, but ought to avoid the overpriced and rarely shipped physical copies. Everyone else should stay well away. Those who have good memories of past PLAY! concerts should simply cherish rather than attempt to revisit the music.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Chris Greening. Last modified on August 1, 2012.