The lights dim. The players take the stage. A screen looms large over them, lit up with bright pixels depicting a young elfin boy in green. Many in the crowd are dressed like their digital hero. A stirring motif – very familiar to the audience – fills the air, and they roar. Yes, in the middle of the song. At a classical concert.
Tonight's near-sold-out return engagement of The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses – Master Quest tour offers fans of the video-game series another chance to delight in the melodies that have coloured their lives for the past 30 years. For the rest of us, entry to the event offers a glimpse into a genre of pops programming that is outgrowing its niche status, as orchestras across North America face the challenge of attracting new members.
The concept of performing live arrangements of video-game soundtracks can be traced back to Japan, where games are a revered pastime (and art form, depending on whom you ask). The sound of the industry would be near-unrecognizable if one's reference point were the bleeps and bloops of eight-bit Nintendo games – modern titles, often fantasy or sci-fi, have multimillion-dollar budgets that allow for orchestras to create lush aural backdrops for the adventures of enchanted elf-boys, medieval assassins and gun-packing space commandos. Award-winning Hollywood composers have crossed over to write music for games, including John Debney (The Passion of the Christ) and Hans Zimmer (most recently, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).
Crossover among classical music enthusiasts is a harder play. It's an unfortunate gulf that is wider than need be, in part because of the presentation of video-game symphonies. At times, they have more in common with a rock concert than a staging of Mahler. There is a litany of things that could turn off traditionalists: the hooting and hollering, the snacks and drinks, the character cosplay and musical easter eggs. Zelda executive producer Jason Michael Paul is known to bound on stage early in the evening to pump up the crowd and assure all that noise is much encouraged. The genre – there have also been live performances of songs from the Pokémon and Final Fantasy series – is still healthily perpetuated by fandom; in Toronto, Symphony of the Goddesses is able to pack them in on a fourth trip here since 2012 with little to no traditional advertising.
But there is no denying that attending a show is unbridled fun, which is a welcome symptom of the audience makeup. It skews young for the most part – thirty– and fortysomethings reliving fond memories, diehard gamers come to worship, teens and adolescents newly introduced to Zelda (and their attendant parents and grandparents). You would be hard-pressed to find as many grade-schoolers going gaga for a flute solo anywhere else. Put another way, they are the audiences traditional orchestras are dying to transform into lifelong patrons.
The Toronto stop of the touring production is being performed for a second time by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, a group that is comfortable playing concerts with such flair. Just last week, they put on a pops show called Dancin' Thru the Decades, which featured a temporary dance floor between the first row and the musicians – on a movable lift, of course, so as not to disturb the sightlines of less raucous attendees.
Many classical organizations, including the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, have found some success with less traditional programming. The live scoring of popular films such as The Lord of The Rings or The Birds actually follows a similar premise, where more fast-paced visual material may necessitate musicians learning to follow an arrangement's click track. In that regard, the technical spectacle of attending a Zelda show lies a little less in the musical expression, a smidgen more in the physical endurance of the near-two-hour set.
Every minute of it is enjoyable, even the ones drowned in woooooos! March 19, 8 p.m. $30-$115. Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, 1 Front St. E. 1-855-872-7669 or ticketmaster.ca
The Symphony of Goddesses also stops in Montreal (June 25), Edmonton (Sept. 21), Calgary (Sept. 22) and Vancouver (Sept. 23).