'Delightfully Irreverent, Yet Effective' review: The Legend of Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses

There was a once-famous internet feud between noted movie reviewer Roger Ebert and all of geekdom some time ago. This feud consisted of Mr. Ebert’s opinion of how video games weren’t art, and geekdom’s response. The feud burned bright for a few months, and then Mr. Ebert relented to the storm of nerd-rage. While he didn’t agree that games aren’t inherently art, he said that games could be art for those who play them.

Well, let’s fast forward to January 10, 2012. The argument has been settled for good.

Last night, my wife and I were privy to an event that makes me proud to be a gamer, and a nerd, and a fan of music. The world premiere of The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses took place last night to an overflow crowd at the Meyerson Symphony Center, and folks…it was glorious. 

But I knew it would be. I had extremely high expectations for the treatment of Koji Kondo’s beautiful music. I had only a moment of worry that the music would be given it’s due respect. And the moment passed very quickly at the spectacle that unfolded.

As soon as Kathryn and I walked into the Meyerson, we knew it was going to be a magical night. Kids happily prancing along, literally dragging their parents to their seats, in a wonderfully ironic role-reversal; other kids and adults cosplaying (for the uninitiated, ‘Costume Play’) various iterations of Link, Zelda, and even the evil Ganondorf Dragmire. This wasn’t your stereotypical night at the symphony. And it was amazing.

And the concert hadn’t even started yet.

Something else that you won’t normally see at a symphonic concert is the addition of a giant video screen with the crest of Hyrule emblazoned upon it. This was part of the presentation that helped tie the experience of playing the games to the music that accompanied it, and it was extremely effective.

The night began with a prelude that displayed all 25 years of Zelda games on the screen, as new arrangements of popular themes within the games soared above the stage, complete with choral arrangements that complimented perfectly the scenes seen onscreen. A huge build to the end brought chills to my arms as it finished, and the applause was thunderous and immediate, as the excitement of all of those in attendance boiled over in anticipation. I couldn’t wait for the rest.

An introduction to the format followed by conductor Eímear Noone, who has been with the project since its inception. She was happy to explain that the music had, indeed, been formatted to that of a symphony in four movements. She also mentioned that although it was traditional that an audience not clap between movements (at least in the modern era), she invited the audience to show their appreciation after each movement, “as this is a special night.”

And it began. 

As is the case with symphonies, each movement centers on a theme or motif. The Zelda symphony does that by tying to a particular game in the series, while also attempting to stay near sonata form. Movement I was an Allegro based on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I can’t think of a better way to start the piece than basing it on this game. It is considered by most to be the best in the series, and the accompanying themes realized in a fully orchestral setting immediately brought a smile to my face and a squeeze to my hand from my wife. As Link’s progression through the game unfolded on screen, the music punctuated each scene from the game: Title Theme, Enter Ganondorf, Zelda’s Lullaby, Hyrule Field Morning Theme, Lost Woods, The Temple of Time, Boss Battle, Ganondorf’s Battle, and Last Battle, with a wink onscreen and in music to Majora’s Mask. Nice touch.

I was blown away. So was the audience. Movement I over. Audience eruption. Amazing. On to Movement II.

Movement II wove the story of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker together. Motifs from Outset Island, Ocean, Aryll’s Kidnapping, Forsaken Fortress Invasion 1, a moment of The Tower of the Gods, Sealed Hyrule Castle, and of course Ganondorf Battle and Farewell Hyrule King round out a wonderfully light Andante movement, with excellent work by the strings and high winds to do justice to the playful themes that were associated with The Wind Waker. More smiles all around and heavy applause after this movement, which brought us to intermission.

Not a normal thing to have an intermission mid-symphony, but then again, it was smart on all levels to have one, giving more opportunity to the audience to buy t-shirts and posters, and also sip spirits. One thing of note that was wonderful was that instead of the normal five-minute-to-curtain chime, we were treated to the ringing of the bells of the bell tower of Termina from Majora’s Mask. Details make all the difference, folks.

Upon settling in, we were treated to an Intermezzo or Entr’Acte of sorts, with the playing of Great Fairy Fountain in its entirety. Incredible work by the harpists as immediately I was brought back to every game selection screen since A Link to the Past. Airy and ethereal, the theme allows you to become fully immersed again into the world of Zelda. Another nice touch of detail for the musical program. It’s as if to say, “We had a break, but now, let’s get back into the game. Figuratively and literally.” Very nice work.

Movement III told the tale of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. The choral arrangement of the Title Theme was brilliantly arranged to begin. This segued into the full treatment of the theme in the style of the game and it cascaded over us, with layer upon layer of sound building to the moment that the Scherzo truly began. Hyrule Field marked the build to the main part of the movement, with flashes to Ordon Village, a playful turn by the wind section, with a trumpet call to a choral section which was really well arranged. Then a return to motifs from the Title Theme, which transitioned to the King of Light and Shadow section which was really creepy with the long-bowed string section under a choral part which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. This went right into a mesh of Fight Against Zant, Boss Beast Ganon, and Boss Ganondorf (Swordfight), which was as satisfying to hear as merely an observer as it was to play through it. Movement III ends with a really wonderful full orchestra treatment of Midna’s Suite, and if your heart wasn’t pounding after this movement, you just aren’t human. An incredible soundscape. 

Movement IV was a huge surprise to me. Conductor Noone told us that this was the first time the Symphony of the Goddesses would be performed in its entirety at the top of the show. My assumption was that they would use the Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword as its basis, because so far, they’ve used the major game releases since Ocarina of Time. Boy, was I ever wrong, and am I ever glad I was. The beginning of the final Allegro was too much for the audience to bear as “Time of the Falling Rain,” from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was played, the audience burst into applause and cheers as the orchestra played, and they never skipped a beat, deftly taking us into the dungeon of Hyrule Castle to free Zelda the first time. What followed was a great arrangement of “Hyrule Castle,” which was as huge and full as I ever imagined it could sound. A beautiful transition led us to a pure treatment of “Zelda’s Lullaby,” beginning with Oboe, handing off to Clarinet, and finishing with Flute before the layering the rest of the orchestra in such a powerful emotional upheaval that it brought tears to my eyes. I smiled in spite of my tears and couldn’t wait to hear what came next. I wasn’t disappointed when I heard strains of “Kakariko Village,” “The Lost Woods,” “Priest” (Alternate Ganondorf’s Theme), and an awesome display of onomatopoeic choral arrangement when Zelda is drawn into the Dark World by Aghanim.  aThe movement hammered to its inevitable conclusion with “Dark World,” “Ganon’s Message,” ”Battle with Ganon,” and “Triforce Chamber.” I was openly weeping at this point as a truncated “Ending Theme” brought us home. The audience applauded and cheered as they immediately sprung to their feet as one, showing their gratitude for a job well done.

With apologies to the late Billy Mays, but wait…there’s more!

A curtain call by Conductor Noone turned into an encore performance of “Gerudo Valley” from Ocarina of Time, which further incited the audience into squees of joy. And to the casual fan, this might not be a big deal, but to the hardcore, this theme is a diamond in the rough. It is the theme to Ganondorf’s homeland. It borrows a lot from Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western motifs, and was a wonderful display for the xylophones and the rest of the percussion section as the piece rushes to the trumpet call that feels like a frenzied chase scene with Spanish Guitar overtones. The sneaky fight through the Gerudo Fortress was portrayed on screen and in music with zeal and brought back the anxiety of playing through the area that was so challenging back in my college days. I was so excited to hear that it made me want to dance. Another eruption of cheers and a standing ovation, and another curtain call.

But wait, there’s more. Another encore.

No video onscreen, and an introduction by Conductor Noone as “so familiar I won’t even tell you what it is.” Just a lush arrangement of “The Ballad of the Wind Fish,” all the way back to The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. It was a rather ethereal treatment of the music, more beautiful that could ever be reproduced on a Game Boy back in the day. Granted, it was a rather sedate way to end the night, but after all the cheering and sensory overload, it was much like ending the evening with Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale.” It was gorgeous, beautiful music, but it was a little more obscure than the conductor describes. I know why it was included, because the themes in Link’s Awakening are all based around music and magical instruments, and this was the end credits to that game. Like I said, I get it, but not everybody did. Still, it was beautiful, although I would put it as first encore and end with “Gerudo Valley.” The audience ate it up anyway.

Wow. As Frankie Valli would say, “Oh what a night.” This concert was a love letter to 25 years of Zelda fans, and they got it so right. I had an amazing time reliving memories that I associated with each of the games, some bad, some great, but all unforgettable.

Hearing this music arranged this way just made the memories wash over me in waves. I still remember getting the first The Legend of Zelda as a reward for making straight As in third grade. I remember scouring issues of Nintendo Power for news about delays for Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Seeing the gold cartridge peeking through the package was like getting a glimpse of a Wonka Golden Ticket. Secretly dialing long distance to Redmond, Washington for tips on Nintendo’s Power Line for A Link to the Past. Buying Ocarina of Time before I ever owned a Nintendo 64. Hanging out with one of my best friends all summer to beat The Wind Waker. Waiting in line at Gamestop to pick up my Nintendo Wii so I could rush home, set up the console as quickly as possible, just to pop in Twilight Princess and be too tired to play. And finally, playing through the entirety of Skyward Sword with my wife watching every moment. The only thing missing is playing a Zelda game with my kids, and the circle would be complete. Experiential memories will do that…they bring back the kid in you, evoke emotions that you experienced as a nine-year-old and could only replicate with the latest iteration of Zelda. I know some people may scoff or pity me for having those feelings, but it’s probably because they don’t have that kind of connection to hold on to. Really, I feel sorry for them.

If there was any complaint of overlooking a detail, it would have to be the lack of a program. No overpriced collector’s program at the swag counter, and no Playbill or generic program handed to us as we enter. It’s a shame, really, since all the other details were so well-thought out and handled with such a fan’s and completionist’s eye. There’s my only suggestion. And really, it’s just to have swag to hoard on my part. For those who have no idea about the music, it wouldn’t give them an excuse to hate or dismiss it with one phrase descriptions…if they had a program to refer to. I dunno. This was a concert for fans that really don’t need descriptions or explanations, but for the people who spend their time placing asterisks on anything associated with video games, why give them an excuse to keep the hate alive? Even as a fan, I went back and listened to some of the music in its rudimentary forms and made notes of what might be in the concert. I guess some folks can’t be bothered with a little research.

The concert was amazing, and my wife and I are thinking about going to Austin in June for another listen. Who knows? Maybe the few quibbles I have will be addressed, maybe not. Who cares? It’s freaking Zelda, man. I lived this music through playing the games. It is like the soundtrack to my childhood.