Winfried Fechner Interview: Game Music Concerts at the WDR Radio Orchestra
Winfried Fechner has been the manager of the WDR Radio Orchestra Cologne for five years. The orchestra is well-known for performing a wide range of music in radio broadcasts and concert performances. In recent years, Fechner has established a collaboration with video game music producer Thomas Böcker. This has resulted in the orchestra’s involvement in several impressive productions, namely the studio recording drammatica and the live concerts Symphonic Shades and Symphonic Fantasies.
In an exclusive interview, Fechner reflects upon his time at the WDR Radio Orchestra. He discusses his memories of its video game concerts and gives his explanations for their enormous commercial and critical success. He goes on to exclusively reveal the concept of the orchestra’s upcoming video game concert Symphonic Legends. He describes the arrangements of Symphonic Legends, discusses several classical-game crossover concerts, reveals the Symphonic Fantasies album release, and, perhaps most excitingly, announces the orchestra’s fourth video game concert Symphonic Odysseys will occur in July 2011.
Interview Subject: Winfried Fechner
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Thomas Boecker
Chris: Thank you for exclusively talking to us today, Mr Fechner. For people who might not know you yet, could you please introduce yourself?
Winfried Fechner: My name is Winfried Fechner. I have been the manager of the WDR Radio Orchestra Cologne for five years now. At the WDR Radio Orchestra, being the manager basically means being the intendant; next to organizing rehearsals and scheduling in general, I am responsible for creating new programs and hiring artists.
As for my educational background, I graduated in German language and literature studies, action-research, and musicology. I studied pipe organ, piano, and conducting. Additionally, I worked many years as a theatre actor and partly as a dramatic adviser at the opera. I have been at the Westdeutscher Rundfunk Cologne for 25 years — initially as an editor for serious music and later I was responsible for the huge field of culture in general.
Chris: Looking back, what would you describe as the personal highlights of your career?
Winfried Fechner: One highlight in those years has been the reproduction of operettas from Paul Abraham. I was lucky enough to find the scores that were, for a long time, considered to be lost. The second highlight was my first concert with video game music, Symphonic Shades. I was surprised by that music genre — one I did not know much about before, and one that is so fascinating through its beauty.
Chris: The WDR Radio Orchestra started performing video game music in 2008. Where did the idea came from originally?
Winfried Fechner: A conductor, who is also a friend of mine, contacted me saying: “You are doing so many crazy things with the WDR Radio Orchestra. I have an idea for you: Check out video game music”. He told me the name of Thomas Böcker, and he gave his telephone number to me. A little bit later, I met Thomas Böcker and he told me about the field of video game music. That was the start of our co-operation.
Chris: Shortly after the meeting, you attended the Fifth Symphonic Game Music Concert in Leipzig.
Winfried Fechner: Yes, and because of that concert I made the decision to bring video game music to the WDR Radio Orchestra. What I experienced in Leipzig was something that I thought was exceptional The concert audience consisted mainly of quite young people. I was sitting there like a grandfather between children. It was an exciting and musically wonderful experience. I was also very impressed by the enthusiasm towards the attending composers.
Chris: …only a little later Symphonic Shades was announced.
Winfried Fechner: Indeed. Symphonic Shades. The first concert took place in the Klaus-Von-Bismarck-Saal at the WDR Funkhaus. This is where the WDR Radio Orchestra presents a lot of its concerts, and this is where Yoko Shimomura’s album drammatica was recorded too. At the time of the planning of Symphonic Shades, there were no dates available at the Cologne Philharmonic Hall.
When we announced the concert in 2007, it was sold out within just a few days. It came to me as a total surprise! And so many people kept calling that they want a ticket. Therefore we decided to offer a repeat performance the same day, at 11 PM! Everybody who attended that evening will agree that there was not one single empty seat.
Chris: Is it correct that the success of Symphonic Shades convinced you to continue with video game music concerts?
Winfried Fechner: Absolutely. This is why we came up with the idea of Symphonic Fantasies and this year Symphonic Legends. All events are ones which I am planning together with Thomas Böcker one year in advance. Please let me add here that I think we succeeded for several reasons. Firstly, it was the first time that the WDR Radio Orchestra worked on such a big concert with video game music — something that was a new genre for most of the orchestra members. They played with so much passion. And there was an audience — and this is the other reason for the success — that was listening with such a dedication and responding to the music with so much energy that the musicians felt very encouraged.
I would like to add a third thought. Another reason for the success were the exceptionally beautiful and musically high-class arrangements by Jonne Valtonen.
Chris: What are the special qualities of the WDR Radio Orchestra that make their performances of video game music so unique?
Winfried Fechner: The WDR Radio Orchestra is mastering a special way of performing music. Something that is so important with popular music, with entertaining music. The musicians immediately react to tempo speed-ups, tempo reductions, crescendi, decrescendi — getting louder and quieter; that’s something a normal orchestra does not master with such perfection. In addition to that, there is what I describe as ‘sound ecstasy’. The orchestra musicians have a strong passion for ‘sound ecstasy’ — they are living the sound, living the music so to speak. No wonder they told me after our video game music concerts: We want to continue doing such events, the sound is absolutely beautiful. Pure ‘sound ecstasy’.
Chris: Symphonic Fantasies had almost two weeks of rehearsals. This is quite unusual.
Winfried Fechner: It is probably important to mention that rehearsal means something special at the WDR. At the WDR, we are rehearsing the music, and we are also recording the music for radio broadcast purposes. Therefore every piece has to be performed both in parts and as a whole many times, so that it does not have any mistakes in the recordings. Orchestra musicians need a lot of concentration, time, and power to create such a flawless recording. However, of course, such a working style has a very positive effect on the quality of the actual concert performance later. It is this perfect sound that I insist on for my audience.
Chris: Symphonic Fantasies was different to other video game music concerts arrangement-wise, featuring long suites of up to 17 minutes…
Winfried Fechner: For Symphonic Shades, Jonne Valtonen created arrangements closer to the original music. Not that he simply did 1:1 arrangements; in fact he added a lot of very creative ideas — unbelievably many creative, beautiful ideas. However, he stayed close to the original structure of the pieces, and so we mainly got 3-5 minute arrangements. Now for Symphonic Fantasies he went a step further. He worked as an arranger and composer, he consolidated short pieces of original music into one suite, and he composed his own transitions in a very unique style. In my opinion, one should call the resultant works symphonic poems. Jonne Valtonen created symphonic poems for Symphonic Fantasies.
That step was a significant step in the development of video game music. Not that the melodies were only played piece by piece, but they were combined and layered in order to open a musical dialogue. I was very much looking forward to the response of the audience that did not know such a kind of music before. I was interested to see how people would react. The result: The audience members listened extremely intensively, and at the end, the enthusiasm was at least on one level with Symphonic Shades.
Chris: Could you please tell us what you favorite piece was at Symphonic Fantasies?
Winfried Fechner: Actually I liked two pieces very much. Kingdom Hearts because it was successful in presenting a video game as a piano concerto. It was performed by a classically trained pianist, Benyamin Nuss, who is so much into video game music that he put all his skills and effort into the concert and this year even canceled another assignment in Berlin to be available for Symphonic Legendsinstead.
The second piece was Secret of Mana. Jonne Valtonen used sounds that one would probably expect from radio plays. Like the rustling of paper, or the clicking of the tongues in the choir. It sounded like gurgling and rain drops. What Jonne Valtonen is doing here is a blend of musically attracting elements from the original music, and almost experimental music. I have to say, I was curious to see how the audience would react on that. And I have to admit that I admire the audience, an audience that understood everything right at the first listen and got excited about it. I will tell you — I would love to have such an audience for many other concerts that I am doing.
Chris: The concerts are both artistically and commercially successful. After all, 60% of the tickets were sold within a week for Symphonic Legends…
Winfried Fechner: Yes, after one month we were almost at 80% and, at the time of this interview, it is basically sold out. We convinced the fans so much that the announcement of a concert title is enough to make them wanting to attend. This is an immense trust that makes me very happy. For me it means that the WDR Radio Orchestra is now a synonym for high quality. The fans know that our video game music concerts are going to be very special events which are different from others.
Chris: Unquestionably, our readers are keen on knowing what Symphonic Legends has to offer. Can you please reveal this year’s concept exclusively to the readers here?
Winfried Fechner: Symphonic Legends – music from Nintendo. This is the concert title. Fans immediately know now what it is all about: The concert is dedicated to the Japanese company Nintendo.
We will perform music from franchise classics such as Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, Metroid, F-Zero, and The Legend of Zelda. And we are announcing more titles during the next few months through media outlets such as Game Music Net and at our official website. We are very excited about the fantastic opportunity; it is the first time ever that Nintendo grants permission for an event of this scope. It is a great, great honor to us.
Chris: Could you tell us more about what to expect from the arrangements for the concert. Is Jonne Valtonen involved in arranging the music for the concert again, as he did for your previous concerts?
Winfried Fechner: Yes, Jonne Valtonen is the main arranger of the concert. I am also very happy to announce that three famous Japanese guest arrangers will join us this year, including Shiro Hamaguchi, Hayato Matsuo, and… one surprise!
Jonne Valtonen is also the composer of the official opening fanfare that will be recorded this week at the Philharmonic Hall in Cologne, performed by the WDR Radio Orchestra, conducted by Eckehard Stier. Fans of video game music might know the conductor’s name from the drammatica album. We are planning to make a video of the official opening fanfare available at our official website soon.
The original composition is entitled Fanfare for the Common 8-bit Hero.
Chris: Next to these three, are there other known faces from the concert series expected to be a part of Symphonic Legends?
Winfried Fechner: Yes, Benyamin Nuss who will join us again as a pianist. His performances include the newly announced fanfare. Of course, percussionist Rony Barrak, who has been with us since the very first concert in 2008, will perform too.
As for new faces, the concert will be directed by Swedish conductor Niklas Willén, who is the new chief conductor of the WDR Radio Orchestra. It will be his first concert featuring video game music, and it is going to be a special treat; after all, Niklas Willén is a sound wizard and, at the same time, one of the biggest fans of video game music!
Additionally we invited the State Choir Latvija from Riga. Movie music fans might know these singers from recordings such as for the Perfume movie that they performed in conjunction with the Berlin Philharmonic.
Chris: The WDR Radio Orchestra plan to reaffirm their love for video game concerts with some classical-game crossover concerts in the future. Could you elaborate on this concept?
Winfried Fechner: I am confident that if video game music will keep its high quality, the WDR Radio Orchestra will be the first ensemble to bring video game music into its regular concert repertoire. We actually initially performed video game music in such a crossover concert, PROMS: That’s Sound, That’s Rhythm, back in 2008. Music from Final Fantasy VIII, Shenmue, and Symphonic Shades was performed alongside popular classical works.
We’re now aiming to offer such concerts on a more regular basis. A step into that direction was the performance of a piece for full strings — the Secret of Mana main theme — in an arrangement by Jonne Valtonen. It was a part of our spring concert on March 7, 2010. Video game music was presented together with classics from Strauss and Vivaldi. It was such a great success that it will be performed again at my concert Einstand, Ausklang in July. I think it makes great sense, because it was the piece that impressed me the most when I attended the Fifth Symphonic Game Music Concert in Leipzig in 2007.
Chris: Mr Fechner, now that you have mentioned that video game music will remain a major part of the WDR’s repertoire, could you please tell us something about the 2011 concert already?
Winfried Fechner: My pleasure: On July 9, 2011 we will present Symphonic Odysseys – Uematsu in Concert at the Philharmonic Hall in Cologne. The concert will be dedicated to the work of Nobuo Uematsu exclusively. I recommend to check the newly opened official website from time to time here. Here we will announce details about the concert program and ticket sales first, probably at the end of the year.
I am sure that I am not revealing too much by saying that Nobuo Uematsu is very excited about the concert. In fact, Nobuo Uematsu was always dreaming about such an event dedicated to his career. We will do that and present arrangements that are exclusively written for us, with Jonne Valtonen being our main arranger again. It will be our fourth fantastic concert entirely dedicated to video game music.
Chris: With all these concerts, do you think you can change the opinion of classically-oriented musicians who tend to deny the musical qualities of film and video game scores?
Winfried Fechner: I tell you: I gave the Symphonic Shades CD to several conductors, managers and singers. The feedback included quotes such as: “I already listened five times to it”, “I am listening to it in my car all time”, “I would love to perform video game music together with the WDR”, or “Please invite me to the next concert!”
All comments which are a proof of the quality of the music. The music is fascinating, the music is inspiring, the music wakes the interest of older people, too. This shows that this music has a future!
Chris: On that note, last but not least: Do you think there will be a chance for you to give outSymphonic Fantasies CDs one day, too?
Winfried Fechner: Yes. We are working on a CD release as we speak — an album based on the live concert at the Philharmonic Hall in Cologne. We invested a good amount of time into the fine-tuning and we are very proud of the results. The music was edited and mixed at the WDR Studios and is going to be mastered at a prestigious European studio. Expect an announcement with further details during the next few weeks.
All composers and arrangers listened to the music and gave their approvals. They are very happy, too. Jonne Valtonen even came to Cologne for a few days to attend the first mixing sessions to provide his feedback. We left nothing to chance. We never do.
Chris: Finally, you announced that you will retire from your job as the manager of the WDR Radio Orchestra this year. What does that mean for the future of video game music at the WDR that you just mentioned? Thank you so much for your time and revelations.
Winfried Fechner: The next manager of the WDR Radio Orchestra will continue doing video game music concerts. We are even planning to do two concerts per season. Symphonic Legends in September 2010 followed by Symphonic Odysseys in July 2011 is the first example of this approach.
Posted on March 15, 2010 by Chris Greening. Last modified on March 7, 2014.