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"[In] arrangements where we've taken very old themes - for instance, even Super Mario Bros. - and orchestrated it for full symphony orchestra, [the audience is] hearing it in a new setting for the first time, in a new arrangement. ... It's very challenging, especially when we have the audience there that knows all these themes and knows all this music really well."
In addition to audience expectations, he has to consider the composers themselves, as they may well attend the shows or even contribute as guest composers. They had "Uematsu, of course, for the Final Fantasy music, but a lot of other composers come in for Play concerts. And, you know, they wrote this stuff, and they worked for thousands of hours on these music tracks, so I feel that there's a great responsibility on me to get very close to what they wanted to say in their music. In that way, it's not very different from my conducting a score by Debussy or Brahms or Stravinsky.
On the other hand, I think in many of these cases, we're trying to do many innovative, unique things that were never fully realized." As mentioned before, some of these game soundtracks are MIDI noises from the early '90s, and "[to take] little bloops and bleeps ... and to turn that into a full orchestral suite is a lot of fun, very challenging, and, yet, it has to make sense musically to the audience out there, too. It can't be just kind of a musical joke."
As for the music itself, I asked for his assessment of it as a musical professional. What is it about this music in particular that fills concert halls? While you can talk about videogame music in terms of its relationship to common musical themes in the traditional canon, he says it's a more emotional experience, referring to "RPG games where [the player] actually goes through an emotional encounter, a battle scene, a growing situation, where they actually - whether it's moving to another level with the game or whatever it is - they have these certain emotional ties. It doesn't always have to be music that's associated with a battle or with victory. For instance, 'Aerith's Theme' from Final Fantasy. Here's a character that, everywhere we go, [her] music is perhaps the most beloved music we run into. Certainly, 'One Winged Angel' is hugely popular, but I get emails from people that have used the music from 'Aerith's Theme' to get married to. It [symbolizes] very deep, life-changing experiences for them. So I think what Uematsu-san has done is touch certain basic, deep, emotional cores with people."
More than the simple repetition over the course of gameplay, the music represents "significant marks in their lives. And they bring this music back to accompany them on their life's journey, not just the videogames. And I don't think that's so dissimilar to someone who wants to hear a famous Beethoven theme or whatever it might be. ... There's a particular emotion that people associate with the music, and they want to bring that back. It's reliving that emotion."
I was also interested in his take on the audience at those shows, as I couldn't imagine he'd done a lot of shows with some audience members in full, accurate costumes. "Well, you know, I've talked about what a wonderful hybrid the audience for these shows is. They combine the best qualities of classical audiences, in that they're very disciplined during the performance of the pieces. You can hear a pin drop. They want to hear every note of music. [They're] very attentive, very respectful. On the other hand, they're full of wild abandon when the piece is over or when you announce what you're about to perform." He hearkens back to his first Dear Friends show, when he got eight standing ovations and continues, "As a matter of fact, we just performed with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, and the orchestra was commenting on the audience and how wonderful they were. It really opened their eyes [to the fact] that there is this other audience out there that they should be cultivating."