It was certainly far from the typical symphony crowd that packed the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in Atlanta on Saturday night. Sure, glancing around you would see the typical arrangement of suits, ties and dress shirts. But a disproportionately high number of those so attired also sported long, pointed ears. Granted, you might not even notice that next to those boasting green tunics with chainmail shirts, flowing pink dresses, and a sea of 3DSes flipped up, feverishly exchanging Street Passes.
Of course, The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses was far from your typical symphony. All the elements were there, to be certain – the full force of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, a chorus, four movements, an energetic conductor. However, to those in attendance, many of whom had journeyed from far and wide to bear witness to the event that marked the 25th anniversary of gaming’s most beloved series, the concert meant so much more than an evening of beautiful music.
The bulk of the symphony was devoted to four movements, each representing one of the major entries in the series. This began with Ocarina of Time before moving on to Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, closing out with the SNES classic A Link to the Past. Each piece was arranged in order to musically relay the narrative of the game, enhanced by an enormous screen behind the orchestra which strung together scenes synchronized appropriately to the music that was playing.
Amidst these four main movements were several additional offerings – side-quests, if you will. Wasting no time in getting right to the heart of the matter, the overture opened with a powerful, driving rendition of the main theme, while scenes of practically every game in Zelda’s 25 year history flowed across the screen. Watching a quarter century of gaming experiences progress as the overture shifted through several more principal Zelda themes immediately set the tone for the evening.
Many other arrangements kept the variety fresh, ensuring that no stone was left unturned when putting the concert together – if there was ever a game that bared the Zelda moniker, it saw representation in some for during Symphony of the Goddesses (CD-i abominations notwithstanding). An arrangement of ocarina themes – some accompanied by the chorus – featured an incredible rendition of the Song of Storms as its highlight. The pleasant, soothing melodies of Kakariko village elicited a huge bevy of laughter as scenes of Link assaulted by armies of cuccoos played out on stage. And, appropriately enough, there was a haunting piece dedicated to the goddesses of Hyrule, with shifting melodies for each deity playing out as the myth of Hyrule’s creation was told.
Of course, these were merely warm-ups for the true main event: the four movement arrangement. Two of these, Twilight Princess and Wind Waker, were already made available on the CD soundtrack included with Skyward Sword. Even still, it cannot be understated how powerful it was to watch the game’s narrative unfold as the music advanced. They were all scenes any fan is intimately familiar with – Midna’s farewell to Link, the descent into Hyrule at the bottom of the Great Sea, climactic duels with the King of Evil himself. But sharing them with an auditorium packed with similarly-minded fans, strung together by such elegant arrangements, really made the entire experience unforgettable.
The two new movements were dedicated to Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past. The former traveled the length of arguably Link’s most famous journey, from a boy without a fairy to the crumbling ruins of Ganondorf’s castle. The arrangement managed to encapsulate the adventure phenomenally, but what was particularly striking was the moody, somber ending. As Navi flew out of the Temple of Time, the music took a turn for the dark and foreboding, capturing the bittersweet end of the game well… especially as the screen faded to a rotating image of an all-too-familiar mask, foreshadowing a surprise later in the performance.
On the other hand, A Link to the Past remained driving and heroic throughout, capturing the essence of high adventure the title was known for. The only 2D Zelda game to receive its own movement, the arrangement stood out both visually and musically. As Link is banished to the Dark World after his failure to best the dark wizard Agahnim, a familiar tune began to swell from the orchestra: the first twelve notes of the Dark World’s theme, repeated with growing intensity as more and more sections joined in accompaniment. Several measures later, when the entire orchestra had built up to a feverish volume and every fan was on the edge of their seat in anticipation, the entire song dropped… only to come exploding back several heartbeats later with a triumphant rendition of the theme.
But perhaps the most memorable moments of the night were saved for last. As a huge surprise to attendees, the orchestra stayed on stage to perform three entire encores that featured a number of surprises. The first, however, wasn’t much of a surprise at all – a strong, driving rendition of Gerudo Valley from Ocarina of Time. Since it’s release on the Skyward Sword-bundled CD, this grandiose take on the theme has quickly become a fan favorite, and it was wonderful to hear it performed live.
The first big shock was a stirring take on Ballad of the Wind Fish from Link’s Awakening. It was a surprise that shouldn’t have been, of course – how could you forget to include a game wherein the goal is to actually build a symphony? The song was cleverly arranged as well: just as Link assembles a band of magical instruments as he progresses, the orchestra slowly added in instruments over time – a sly nod to observant fans. The second surprise, however, caused the entire auditorium to erupt in approval: Majora’s Mask. Not originally planned to be part of the symphony, it was added after overwhelming fan feedback, and the arrangement perfectly captures the dark, dismal tone of Ocarina’s neglected sequel. It was hard not to shiver as Clock Town’s famous melody slowly grew more and more twisted as time passed, just as it did in the game as the apocalyptic moon drew nearer.
And, while it might be an odd thing to say about a concert, the music was only a part of the experience. After all, it would have been easy to simply orchestrate some Zelda music, play it, and people would have been satisfied. But the careful way in which the scores were arranged, combined with the excellent editing job done with the movie scenes played to accompany them, exhibited the sort of passion that went into the experience in the first place. It all combined with an enthusiastic master of ceremonies who came off as truly sincere in his own love of the series to create an atmosphere that felt wholly designed for the fans.
During intermission, as I stood beneath a banner emblazoned with the Hylian royal crest, I found myself chatting with a diverse array of attendees. Some were older adults proudly wearing faded Zelda t-shirts from the 80’s, some were wide-eyed children with Triforce face paint on their cheeks. Some wore suits, while one couple were cosplaying as Linebeck and Vaati (and here I was, having foolishly left my Ganondorf costume at home!). It really sunk into me just how diverse the Zelda fanbase truly is, spanning all ages and walks of life, but all having come this evening to celebrate the series together.
There was one moment during the concert that will likely stick with me for some time. Throughout the show, the audience was silent, save for an excited gasp or a bout of laughter as a lighthearted scene played on stage. However, during an arrangement of dungeon themes from throughout the series, the orchestra transitioned into the palace theme from Zelda II: Adventure of Link. The title has always been the black sheep of the series; an experimental game that many considered flawed, but not at all because of its music. But as those first few notes began to play, the audience erupted into applause. It was a powerful acknowledgment of support from the fanbase for an entry that enthusiasts consider undeservedly forgotten and underappreciated.
It was just a singular moment of proof that showed how devoted a fanbase the Zelda series has fostered – a fanbase, I might add, whose enthusiasm made such a memorable night possible in the first place. As I spent the evening afterward with a group of friends I unexpectedly reunited with at the concert – friends whose love of Zelda brought us together to begin with – it became apparent how powerful this medium can be. Video games are capable of delivering an experience you simply cannot find in other mediums: a degree of interactivity that makes them intensely personal. Music is such an important part of that. For many of us who grew up adventuring alongside Link, these songs are the soundtracks of our childhoods.
When people talk about “gamer culture,” it’s often with a negative connotation. The very concept carries with it images of immaturity, misogyny, and an overall disconnect with the real world. But what is important for us all to keep in mind is that events like this are a part of our culture as well. The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses was a marvelous event that serves as further legitimization of the art of games. When you can come together with like-minded people and be so utterly moved by music that is capable of evoking the memories of such great experiences, that’s something worth holding on to.