I Went to Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses at the Sydney Opera House

Oh look, a post that isn’t ludicrously lengthy.

At the end of last month I put to bed a small regret of mine – Half a decade ago I was presented with the opportunity to attend the Sydney debut of Symphony of the Goddesses, a worldwide concert tour immediately following on from the special Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary concerts in Japan and the USA. For reasons I can no longer remember clearly (probably funds), I did not take this opportunity. Naturally I regretted my decision pretty soon after the performance dates arrived and several of my friends raved about how good the show was. I told myself the next time I had such a chance I would not let it pass. But for years, no such chance appeared.

So when, after years of sporadic worldwide tours with varying set lists, the announcement was made that Symphony of the Goddesses would be returning to Sydney harbour this year, no price would have been too high for me to snatch up a ticket. Two years after entering the opera house for the first time to attend the Pokemon Symphonic Evolutions showcase, I was back in the venue’s main concert hall to take in the fully-realised music of one of my absolute favourite media franchises. And what an evening it was.

There are three main reasons I’d go to see an orchestral performance of a videogame music selection – The atmosphere, the craft and the arrangement. Hardly groundbreaking reasons of course, and I’m sure the majority of the people in attendance on the night had similar motivations. Atmosphere is created mostly by said people, whose collective energy and passion tend to elevate an event that otherwise gets by on a uniquely strange blend of nerdiness and class. This department provided the largest point of difference between the Pokemon concert and the Zelda one for me. At the Pokemon event, there seemed to be more themed and/or casual dress in and around the hall, while during the concert the audience reacted loudly to each track and arrangement – especially the more widely recognised ones. While the Zelda show was hardly black tie – and cosplay was there if you looked for it – I definitely noticed more of a conservative attitude to dress code in general. What’s more, during the concert you could tell a crowd favourite by a groundswell of hushed whispers and gasps rather than whoops and shouts. I can’t quite put my finger on the reason for this (perhaps Zelda’s slightly older fanbase, or the fact the concert landed on the exact weekend of PAX Australia in Melbourne) but it certainly lent the atmosphere a more reverential tone and allowed quieter pieces – of which Zelda boasts several – to shine.

Another factor that added to this feeling was the minimal microphone work on stage. Rather than popping up multiple times throughout to engage in banter, chief producer Jason Michael Paul did most of his talking at the top of the show. Conductor Jessica Gethin didn’t speak an audible word to the audience, though her larger-than-life expressions and gestures endeared her to the audience anyway. And the talented group of people she was conducting certainly put on a show worth celebrating. While I’m no classical music fiend, the Sydney Lyric Orchestra did a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of each track away from their home ground in a role usually filled by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Again, no orchestral superfan, but I could hardly tell the difference.

This bunch usually calls the Lyric Theatre home.

All of which brings us to the arrangements. The Symphony of the Goddesses has been doing its thing on and off for half a decade, so most of these have been performed in multiple capacities around the world, though I only recognised a select few of them from the initial 25th anniversary concert CD packaged with the Skyward Sword collector’s edition. This was our setlist, slightly edited from an international version performed in the USA many months ago:

~ ~ ~

~ACT I~

Overture (2017 Updated)

~INTERLUDES~

Dragon Roost Island

Majora’s Mask Medley

Breath of the Wild Main Theme

A Link Between Worlds

~THE SYMPHONY~

Prelude ~ The Creation of Hyrule

Movement I ~ Skyward Sword

Movement II ~ Ocarina of Time

~INTERMISSION~

~ACT II~

Intermezzo ~ Temple of Time

Movement III ~ The Wind Waker

Movement IV ~ Twilight Princess

Movement V ~ Time of the Falling Rain (A Link to the Past)

Finale

~ENCORE~

Ballad of the Wind Fish

Goron City (Breath of the Wild)

~ ~ ~

A meaty selection to be sure. If you’re like me and have only been exposed to the official Zelda symphony via that aforementioned 25th anniversary CD, you’ll probably guess that The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess movements present on that disc are likely the same as the ones above, and aside from a few small additions within, you’d be right. The two excellent pieces provided my only real opportunity to compare MP3 quality with full-on live acoustics like-for-like, which hammered home the benefits of the latter in a very real way. It might have improved the night ever-so-slightly for me if they weren’t presented back-to-back in an already short second act, but that’s a minor complaint if ever there was one.

It’s hard to improve on such a masterful musical illustration, of course.

Even if I had any real complaints to make about them, by the time they played I was already well and truly satiated as a Zelda fan because just about every arrangement in the first act was new to my ears. Not only that, but my two favourite Zelda games had been justly served by the Lyric Orchestra well before intermission time, nearly bringing me to tears inside that concert hall. The Majora’s Mask Medley may as well have been its own “movement”, so comprehensive was its coverage. Managing to sandwich a flourishing rendition of the Deku Palace theme between the Song of Healing, Termina Field and Clock Town tracks, it synced up beautifully with the big-screen visuals from the (superior) 3DS remake of the game to tell a streamlined, Skull Kid-focused version of the narrative.

Skyward Sword, meanwhile, did get its own so-called movement, and somehow gave an even better showing. Covering a significant portion of the story’s major beats, I couldn’t help but be surprised at how much of the criminally underplayed game the visuals were spoiling, but that’s probably because it still feels like yesterday that I was playing it for the first time. I’m led to believe the piece was one of the newer treatments of the tour, and if so then that newness certainly shone through in its ambition. Comprising five of the most important musical pieces in the game – The Legend of Skyloft, The Ballad of the Goddess, The Sky, Ghirahim’s Theme and Fi’s Farewell – alongside hints of other tracks, the piece was almost certainly the highlight of the night for me. Hearing small touches like a sly, well-placed reference to Zelda’s Lullaby (Ballad of the Goddess backwards) added immensely to the flow of the movement, and the ambitious crescendo managed to pull off layering Fi’s Farewell on top of the Ballad to stirring effect. I’d imagine more than one fan in the room was encouraged to bypass the hate and give Skyward Sword a try as a result, and that idea makes me very happy.

Even detractors may agree that when stripped down to its cutscenes, Skyward looks good.

As for the rest of the concert, giving The Wind Waker additional representation in the form of a newer Dragon Roost Island arrangement was always going to be a smart move, as was giving Ocarina of Time three moments in the spotlight – one focusing on the game’s pivotal status in the official Zelda timeline via its creation story cutscene, one a more traditional movement, and one laser-focused on the Song of Time. The crunchy percussion within Time of the Falling Rain – the symphony’s love letter to Link to the Past – was another highlight and my two biggest complaints with the show – the limited presence of Breath of the Wild and the complete absence (save for Link Between Worlds) of portable Zelda offerings on the set list – were essentially addressed in the concert’s encore. The immortal Ballad of the Wind Fish was accompanied by perhaps the best-edited clip of the night, a superb summary of Link’s Awakening‘s trippy dream story, while the brass-driven Goron City theme from Breath came as a triumphant, surprising thirst-quencher to end proceedings following the limited space the newest Zelda game had enjoyed earlier on. Lovely.

It was just so good to hear Ballad of the Wind Fish.

A quick mention has to go to the only spoken words the audience heard during the concert proper – a handful of pre-recorded messages from Zelda series mainstays Shigeru Miyamoto, Eiji Aonuma and Koji Kondo. Seeing Kondo’s face on the big screen drew the biggest reaction of the three, such is the composer’s understandably revered legacy, and hearing his insight (through subtitles) was thoroughly engrossing, but Aonuma’s surprisingly poetic Wind Waker-centred words, wherein he compared the Zelda series’ flow to that of a human being’s real life, hit surprisingly hard for me. It was great to see the three smiling faces putting a proverbial ribbon on the whole show.

Bit of a dead set legend, this guy.

There isn’t much more to say about the Symphony of the Goddesses at this point – I expected a high-quality showcase and I got one. The surprising prominence of my absolute favourite games of the series within the set list was really just a bonus, because it would have been difficult to put together a program that didn’t present me with an emotional rollercoaster and nail the part of my brain that deals so liberally in nostalgia. In the year of one of the best-received yet different Zelda games in videogame history, hearing the iconic sounds of such a sprawling series come together into one coherent whole was reassuring, reaffirming and revitalising. Let’s have some more Zelda, then.

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