Video Games

Tears, cheers and elf ears punctuate soaring ‘Zelda’ symphonic performance

A look at the Aug. 21 Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses show in San Francisco.
A look at the Aug. 21 Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses show in San Francisco. Special to The Bee

Sunday was likely a night of firsts for Fresno’s Saroyan Theater. I doubt the 50-year-old concert space has ever housed hundreds of 20-somethings – some donning green cloaks, elf ears or even blue fairy costumes – huddled together to fight back tears while an orchestra performed below a screen showing footage of a Nintendo 64 game.

The international tour of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses, a traditional orchestral performance of songs from the venerable “Legend of Zelda” video game franchise with multimedia twists, filled the Saroyan on a rainy night. The throng was quite a bit younger than the traditional symphony crowd – probably 95 percent appeared to be younger than 40 – and the environment reflected that. Nostalgia overflowed through our mouths as joyful screams and woos when video game title screens for 1998’s “Ocarina of Time” and 2000’s“ Majora’s Mask.” Some symphony purists may find yelling during an orchestral performance rude, but the musicians and conductor Kevin Zakresky fed off the rock concert atmosphere, thus adding a little something extra to a fantastic musical performance.

Symphony of the Goddesses didn’t immediately grab me. It began with an introduction from executive producer Jason Michael Paul. At one point, he told the crowd “we only come here because of you,” which was probably sincere, but many took it as a sort of “why am I stuck in this wasteland you people call Fresno” comment and reacted with sarcastic laughs and general noise. We millennials can be a little oversensitive.

The first few songs did well to cement the iconic “Zelda” theme song, but the video footage showed a lot of disjointed fight scenes from various games that didn’t really work.

The performance found its stride by the third or fourth song, though, as the footage began to tell short stories along with the longer musical pieces – similar to what you’d see in Disney’s “Fantasia” or “Fantasia 2000.” The highlight of the night came at the end of the first act, when the orchestra and accompanying choir gave a stunning performance during the “Ocarina of Time” montage. The music and video folded to tell the story of how Link, the green-clad hero, labored to save Princess Zelda (who, in that game, actually ends up saving him) from the evil Ganon. We were shown the final boss fight, which like so many Japanese games and Anime features a dramatic “oh he’s not dead yet, this isn’t even his final form!” moment. The drama of that battle, both on the screen Sunday and in the hearts of those of us who waged it nearly two decades ago, paired beautifully with the symphonic performance.

18There have been 18 main titles released in the “Legend of Zelda” video game franchise since its creation in 1986.

The second and final act featured a similarly powerful performance centered around 2006’s “Twilight Princess,” but the finale fell a bit flat. A medley of the various game themes or the “Ocarina of Time” piece would have left us with a greater high.

The songs were sometimes broken up by recorded video presentations from “Zelda” (and “Super Mario Bros.”) creator Shigeru Miyamoto and composer Koji Kondo. They didn’t add much to the overall performance, but it was nice to seem them onscreen to give their blessing to the symphony.

I had forgotten just how musical the “Zelda” franchise was – not only with its great score, but also in the gameplay itself. In many of the games, Link must play some sort of instrument to perform functions and move forward in the plot. Symphony of the Goddesses plays into that theme well.

As a whole, the daring production worked. Aside from the first few songs, the video and music synced up well. Zakresky, who typically conducts traditional orchestra and choral performances, did well to hype up the crowd in between songs. At one point, he produced a replica baton of the one that Link uses in “The Wind Waker” and held it to the sky like a sword, which drew a mighty cheer from the audience. The video production would also occasionally switch to cameras on the stage to show the musicians when their instrument was features. This produced another highlight when one percussionist clearly knew his on-screen time was coming and twirled a drumstick while looking directly at the audience – all while maintaining the beat with his other hand. Again, not something you’d see in a typical symphony.

Hopefully a successful, well-attended multimedia performance will bring “Zelda” back to town or attract similar tours (one centered around the “Final Fantasy” franchise made the rounds in 2015) in the future. There’s clearly an audience for them.