A Night in Fantasia

Spending a Night in Fantasia

Games and Anime find a new voice, a musical voice that Animefringe was content to just sit with and absorb like a Totoro-shaped sponge.

by Tim Henderson

It's a fairly commonly held opinion that while many fine and fantastic albums exist in this world, there's a certain something about an effectively executed live event that simply sweeps forward and leaps above anything that a shiny silver disc or mp3 file could ever capture. Don't get me wrong; I love my Spirited Away soundtrack dearly, but for all the benefits of being able to play it whenever I wish, a chance to lose myself in an actual temporary moment surrounded by a full orchestra would easily take priority over the soundtrack.

When I'm listening to the radio while working during the day and I hear a song that I like, it's a fairly safe bet that a time will eventually come when a chance will present itself to see the band responsible for the song in a live setting. Not too long after seeing Kill Bill, I wasn't wholly surprised to find myself at a 5, 6, 7, 8's gig. However, when playing Kingdom Hearts (and being impressed by how well an unlikely stylistic fusion was pulled off, while disappointed by the painful gameplay repetition), I never thought for a second that I would be hearing and seeing the main theme, “Hikari” orchestrated in any form other than possibly a school talent contest, or at least, not in Australia.

A Night in Fantasia

However, that's exactly how the Eminence Symphony Orchestra opened 2005's A Night in Fantasia concert. The strings soared, a familiar melody brilliantly filled the hall, and my body found itself caressed all over by a rapid succession of gentle shivers as a strange form of familiarity settled in. The thought of a live orchestra playing a variety of game and anime tunes is cool, that much is unquestionable, but the actual moment when you're sitting there, and the crowd goes silent as the orchestra starts to play, you realize that it's actually for real.

As I wandered around backstage before the event, an occasional violin could be heard repeatedly practicing, readying itself for the event soon at hand. Sound engineers could be seen occasionally buzzing about, different smatterings of people took the stage for rehearsal bouts at various stages, and the video and gaming setup was being busily readied. Props should also go out to Nintendo for actually granting permission to use emulated versions of their games, as it saved the staff some trouble, and this is the sort of attitude I give a nod of approval towards.

Outside, crowds began to gather; eagerly amassing on the venue’s stairs as the staff franticly busied themselves in trying to prepare for the inevitable onslaught of enthusiastic punters. The eager vibe here was overwhelming, and images of castle guards desperately trying to keep a full army at bay sprung to mind as tables were pulled around, ushers set to duty, and the eager mass of bodies was eventually allowed in. Like a tsunami descending upon the foyer, seemingly countless people streamed in and filled the room with the sort of indiscernible excited chatter that always happens at weddings whenever the bride first appears.

A Night in Fantasia

With this year’s event taking place in Sydney's Town Hall, A Night in Fantasia is now three years old. The first performance of this sort took place on the thirty-first of October back in 2003 at the Sydney Congress Hall, simply because, as they put it, "something like it had never been done before." It focused on music from the Final Fantasy franchise, as well as various Studio Ghibli films, something undoubtedly done before in Japan, as well as in America, but as one video company in Australia can hold the rights to Neon Genesis Evangelion, Haibane Renmei and a rather full collection of Ghibli films, this unique combination may sit in quiet confidence as the first of its kind.

Three years later and with experience gained over the years, the event has been broadened to a new easy-to-find location and to include an expanding variety of music from various different video games and anime. The concert now features pieces of music from the likes of Kingdom Hearts, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Halo, Super Mario Brothers, Zelda, Advent Children and a few Ghibli films, amongst others. The night proved to be an eclectic fare of familiar moments presented in a way that was a little less familiar.

A Night in Fantasia

It must have been an interesting job for Eminence Symphony Orchestra to arrange the score for Super Mario Brothers, but as it was performed by an orchestra fully-decked out in baseball caps, it became apparent that it was an effort well worth enduring. Trying to imagine a tune that is most commonly heard as a mobile phone ring-tone in these days played by a full orchestra was an activity that occupied my mind during most of my trip down to the city, and I have to admit that I wasn't very good at projecting the end results at all. But oh, what might normally be quickly associated with a midi keyboard proved to be ever so remarkably different. Novelty was certainly played on, and a little retro Super Mario Brothers was even played (albeit poorly) on the main projection screen, but it was the music that ruled the moment, like an iron fist clenching a brightly colored spotty mushroom. Similar to seeing your favorite characters from Final Fantasy VII going from being blocky and chibi to rendered in extreme detail, this moment was very much like seeing an old friend after years of separation, and as such, it was really, truly incredible.

Throughout the two halves of the concert, the video projection screens wavered between giving a view of the stage and displaying various relevant video snippets. Custom clips from Neon Genesis Evangelion and World of Warcraft popped up, stills from the forthcoming The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess scrolled by at a gentle pace to create an effective ambience, and footage reminiscent of the primary E3 trailer for Metal Gear Solid 2 played out to some very familiar music from the game. The Metal Gear Solid 2 track did suffer a little from an audio imbalance that had the drums drowning out the strings a little too forcefully, and as such, it was probably the low point of the night. At the same time, it was also the only performance that I really had any significant issues with of any kind, and the impression left by the remaining majority easily washed over any brief sense of disappointment. After all, when music ranging from Halo, Final Fantasy VIII, and even Fruits Basket was pulled off so memorably, it's easier to pick out a single low point than it is to pick out a solitary highlight.

A Night in Fantasia

All of the pieces were specific, and use of the orchestra varied appropriately. Chief Conductor Philip Chu appeared very young, but he moved and directed his musicians without any apparent sign or nerves. The young Concertmaster, Hiroaki Yura proved to have a surprising degree of recognition behind him. This man has played in front of the likes of Japan's Prime Minister Koizumi, performed with the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, and he was the winner of the 7th Etoh Toshiya Competition for Young Violinist in Tokyo, which had over three thousand participants.

A number of guests filled a variety of special roles over the night. Riley Lee, the first non-Japanese man to attain the rank of 'Grand Master' in Shakuhachi, played that very instrument on a number of occasions, including a rather centric moment in a piece from Onimusha. Sayuri Hayashi took to performing on the Shamisen, and Narelle Yeo lent the orchestra her soprano vocals when the standard choir wasn't fit for the duty.

A Night in Fantasia

When walking into an event like this for the first time, it's hard to know what to expect, even though you feel like you should know. It's harder than seeing a rock band that you like for the first time, or just seeing a more traditional orchestra session, for that matter. All I knew was that anime and video game tunes were going to be performed. Perhaps it comes down to the fact that witnessing old and new favorites alike coming alive is something that you can't prepare for, and that the crowd is a major part of what makes such a night so special. Most of the people in the audience seemed to be there as gaming or anime fans, but a couple of women whom I was seated next to were there as fans of classical music. There was a great feeling of harmony among everyone who was present at the event, and an eager crowd reaction that could be described as electric. People talked to each other freely at the appropriate intervals, and they paid respectful silence when the orchestra was playing. The theatre was close to being at full capacity, but a bond of common interest kept people from stepping on each other's toes. I've never been asked where I got my Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth shirt from so many times before in my life.

Musically, it was hard not to fantasize at points during the set. The lineup of compositions was wonderful and diverse, and the concert went on for over two hours. However, it's hard not to form a wish list in the back of your mind. Games such as Shenmue, and anime such as Haibane Renmei and Escalon filled my mind and occupied my thoughts at a couple of intervals, although I was still perfectly happy when a performance of “One Winged Angel,” lifted from Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, brought the concert to its official close.

However, there's always time for an encore. Strings rose in successive sharp stabs, filling the air with an epic atmosphere that forced everyone to stay put exactly where they were, backs pressed into their seats as the choir belted forth in short, intimidating bursts: Escalon. This was an absolutely awesome moment, even without the added value of seemingly having my mind read, and the applause that followed was sufficiently loud, loud enough to secure us a reprise of “One Winged Angel,” just to make sure that everyone would leave the event on a strange high. Anyone who has completed Final Fantasy VII or even just seen a trailer for Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children knows that this is a fantastically epic-implying and menacing track, and the effect of having it played live was the very definition in itself of why live music can be so appealing.

A Night in Fantasia

As people began to gradually filter out, the atmosphere seeped out of the room and surrounded the entire vicinity around the building. The musical high saw CD sales go by at a rocketing rate, people continued to hang around the foyer, and many of the key musicians found themselves behind a couple of desks singing autographs. After hanging around awhile to congratulate those involved, and to bask in the warm glow emitted from everybody in the room, I tucked my hands in my pockets and slowly trudged outside. It was a warm night. It had just turned Daylight Savings, thus the late hour kept its charm while losing its weight. The sky was misty, the streets crispy clear, and with an undisturbed view of the streets in front of me, I walked along them towards Central Station, blanketed by a soft layer of filtered light originating from only a few stories up in the air. It was a soothing sight, and just about as good as I have ever seen Sydney looking. Perfectly describable as Fantasia, and a mark of a perfect ending as I continued putting one foot in front of the other, humming “Hikari” under my breath for the entire length of the journey home.

For anybody interested, while nothing can really compare to actually being there, it's worth mentioning that surrogate options will be made available. Last year’s concert is already available on CD, and both a CD and DVD of this year’s event are due to be released in the near future. More than anything, however, if you're in or can get to the Sydney area, then I'd recommend booking a ticket for you and a friend for the 2006 concert that is currently scheduled to guest star Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle musician, Kimura Yumi.

A Night in Fantasia

When one door closes, another opens, or something like that. Questionable sayings left aside, Animefringe is closing its doors forever at the end of this month, but A Night in Fantasia is still young with a hopefully prosperous future in front of it. We caught up with the event’s Co-Producer and Director of Audio Visual, Jacky Fan, to find out more about the event, as well as its future. Please join us as we sit down chat on the inflatable purple Animefringe couch for the first and last time.

Animefringe/Tim Henderson: In the front of the 2005 program for A Night in Fantasia, you put the reason for its existence down to nothing like it having ever been done before. Given that it can be taken for granted that both Japan and America would have seen Final Fantasy concerts in the past, is this just an Australian first, or is the fusion of both games and anime that you provide is truly unique?

Jacky Fan: Originally, the past two ANIF concerts were heavily Final Fantasy and Studio Ghibli orientated. This year, we decided to broaden our horizons and go with a mixed bag to suit a larger audience.

These kinds of concerts have been done before, but we can safely say that we are the first ever symphony orchestra in Australia to take on something as daring as this. Classical and orchestral music have always been seen as a high art form for the more cultured -- so with that in mind, other Australian orchestras stick to the conventional.

I feel that ANIF 2005 really broke new ground in orchestra. This concert was possibly the first in the world to cover such a wide range of genres. We believe our concerts are a celebration for underappreciated music, which is why our performances are so unadorned -- we feel that the focus should be the music itself. I suppose these ideals are what make us unique in comparison to our American counterpart, Video Games Live (www.videogameslive.com), which is much more heavily funded, but [its origins are] at least two years after we first started ANIF. What makes us different compared to other groups, such as VGL are the ideals. We don't want special lighting and laser effects, as it will divert the attention away from the orchestra itself.

A Night in Fantasia

You could say that Eminence [Symphony Orchestra] is like Nintendo, and VGL is like Microsoft. I'm sure you can somewhat see the connections between these contrasts.

AF: Final Fantasy and the works of Studio Ghibli are respectively just about the biggest names in gaming and anime in general. How hard was it to first attain the rights to this music? Where there any hurdles with putting the intellectual properties of two different companies together in the way that you have?

JF: Attaining scores from both of these companies took quite long and a lot of convincing. Square-Enix proved to be very hard to discuss negotiations with, and it ended up with us sending staff over to Japan to make negotiations. Nobuo Uematsu is rather easy going. He was a musician, and indeed, he gave his support to us, but with Square-Enix corporates between us, it all ends up being 'the big corporation,' and we were at the bad end of the stick. End result, we've got the scores, but it cost us an arm and a leg.

As for Studio Ghibli, since we were in Tokyo at the time, we arranged for meetings with Ghibli. They were slightly more laid back. I must say though, their office have a rather large amount of cats roaming around freely outside. Quite an amusing sight.

A Night in Fantasia

In regards to the combination of the two company's musical scores, they seem fine with the idea. I don't recall any disputes over this issue.

AF: A Night in Fantasia, having just seen its third year, has sprawled out to include a wider variety of music from a variety of different games and anime, including a couple of titles from America. What exactly inspired this decision?

JF: This was rather interesting. The idea came partly from me after the 2004 concert in October last year. I started to question Hiroaki as to if we could have a concert catering for a larger audience. The titles were generally inspired by me, the rest were chosen by Hiroaki and a few other people. I have a strange predilection in buying video game soundtracks, regardless of whether or not I've played the game. Subsequently, this led to a very unique playlist for this year's ANIF. Of course, Katamari Damacy didn't reach the playlist for obvious reasons. “Brothers in Arms” from Halo was more a request from an old high school friend of mine. The story of how we chose the playlist goes on into forever, and I would probably have to write a book to properly cover it.

AF: Were there any additional difficulties that came with doing things this way? Which companies were the most helpful in their participation?

A Night in Fantasia

JF: There was generally more running around and more communications between different companies as opposed to the original two for our past two concerts. All companies we worked with were rather easy-going and very friendly to us. Eminence Symphony Orchestra cannot thank them enough! Vivendi, Sony and Atari went out of their way for us, as well in acquiring other miscellaneous rights to video source and such. Overall, we wouldn't have had such a great concert this year without their help and support!

AF: I never would have imagined that Super Mario Brothers music could work so well performed in the way that it was. When exactly did the thought come to mind that such simple and catchy tunes could work in an orchestra?

JF: Simple! The scores were there already. It was simply the process of rearranging the tunes for an orchestra. The thought came to us naturally. What would a video games concert be without Mario?

AF: I imagine the musical scores were difficult to get. Was Nintendo helpful here?

JF: Nintendo of Australia got us into contact with Nintendo of Japan. They were very helpful!

A Night in Fantasia

AF: Just out of curiosity, is there any chance that you will also be dipping your hand into the other end of the platforming pool and pulling out a tune from a classic Sonic game in the future?

JF: So you are one of THOSE people, eh? WE MUST KUNG FU FIGHT! *laughs*

Well seriously, I do not know any main Sonic tunes off the top of my head but I do recall one of the level tunes from Sonic the Hedgehog greatly resembling 'Together Again' by Janet Jackson. Boy, I miss my Sega Master System II.

AF: Any tidbits about the future of A Night in Fantasia that you feel like dropping for any ears that may be listening?

JF: I really don't want to give out any spoilers but maybe when I'm authorized to do so, I will. All I can tell you at this point is that we will also be having ANIF in Melbourne next year. I've been told that there is a rather large fan base down there for us already.

A Night in Fantasia

Did I also mention that Kimura Yumi is coming down next year? *nudge nudge*

AF: Considering that Madman Entertainment is based in Melbourne, along with Manifest, I suppose that makes perfect sense. So what exactly was the driving force between deciding which pieces saw video or game footage as a visual accompaniment, and which ones simply used the projection screen to show the orchestra?

JF: The decisions were all based on the licensing we were able to obtain for the visuals. Madman Entertainment was extremely helpful, and so was Sony Electronic Entertainment. If you were there on the night, you might have noticed that there was a piece from Fruits Basket. We had visuals from the anime for that, but we ran into some technical difficulties. I wasn't very happy because it didn't get shown.

As for the production of the video footage: I led a team of post-production editors. They were the makers of the wonderful video footages you saw on the night. We ran into problems with the Ace Combat 5 videos, and I was able to capture some of the game cut scenes from the game and make a video on the night before the concert. Thanks to Sony for giving us permission on this title. It wouldn't have been the same without it!

A Night in Fantasia

AF: There were some pretty impressive guest musicians at the night. I particularly enjoyed Riley Lee's Shakuhachi, and am certainly eager to see Kimura Yumi next year. What is the process of organizing to have such musicians at the event? Is there anyone that you're personally keen on trying to rope into the event in the future?

JF: The organization for these special guests usually includes arranging travel and accommodation for them. All this comes out of the company's pocket.

I would really like to see Kenji Kawai down here one day. He is, after all, my favorite musical composer!

AF: Was there anything about the event that you were particularly pleased with?

JF:”The Unsung War” from Ace Combat 5. I received amazing amounts of extremely positive feedback for that piece from people who hadn't even heard of the game before! I'm really proud of this piece.

I also would like to mention that if our volunteers weren't there, this concert wouldn't have happened. They helped us so much. A non-profit company such as Eminence Symphony Orchestra will always need support from such energetic people, such as our volunteer team! Kudos to them all!

A Night in Fantasia

Away from my co-producer duties, I was also very proud of my Audio Visual team. They were excellent, especially Anthony. Disregard the fact that we didn't have enough time to capture gameplay footage for Super Mario Brothers, resulting in me having to play the game live. I'm sure you would understand the stress and pressure involved in a live-production with an audience of a thousand watching you miserably fail at an old NES classic.

AF: Yes. Erm, the closing question seems quite appropriate then. I know that people have commented on this almost non-stop and without remorse, but your Super Mario Brothers skills really were in desperate need of improvement, particularly with so many people watching. Is there anything you wish to say in your defense?

JF: It was a wardrobe malfunction.

AF: Thanks for your time.

JF: My pleasure.

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