The Zelda Symphony is a live performance of pure, unadulterated nostalgia

Condensing a legacy of nostalgia and memories that spans across over 30 years of the video game industry into a single evening’s orchestral performance is no small feat, but that’s exactly what The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses sets out to do. What originally began as a small-scale experiment following the release of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword in 2011 has blossomed into one of the premiere musical events that gamers around the world can experience first-hand for themselves.

Earlier this month at the City National Civic in San Jose, CA, I attended one of the symphonies and had the chance to speak with the Executive Producer, Jason Michael Paul, who has been in charge of bringing the music of the franchise to life for the past five years. This particular arrangement was beautifully conducted by the talented Kelly Corcoran and performed by the Skywalker Ranch Orchestra and Chorus.

As a lifelong fan of the series, experiencing an entire symphony dedicated to honoring Shigeru Miyamoto’s creation was nothing short of exhilarating.

A Legendary Performance

The lights dimmed and the swell of music erupted through the hall as images displaying classic Zelda games flashed across large screens. The orchestra was performing an opening medley of sorts, featuring the iconic theme song that soared through the series dating all the way back to the original The Legend of Zelda game on the NES.

Video accompanied the music, showing how the games have evolved over time, with the core of its music retaining the signature style and sound it’s been known for. After the opening, the performance was separated into a variety of movements. Things started out with the least-known games in the franchise, such as the handheld DS and 3DS titles, and more obscure tracks. Granted, the quality is still there, but it was lacking the nostalgia of the bigger releases.

Then the movements started for games like A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, and Wind Waker. Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Aonuma appeared on screen to tell us about what inspired the series and its music over the years. When “The Great Sea” track from Wind Waker played, I couldn’t help but smile. When the flute chimed in with the intro to the “Hyrule Field” music from Ocarina of Time, I got goosebumps.

Music is such an integral part of The Legend of Zelda franchise, some games in the series even commoditize it as an item, an ability, and a gameplay mechanic in and of itself. But even then, the show is much more than that. During each movement and song of the symphony, visuals appear on-screens to display the moments from the game that correspond with the tracks, taking you back both in terms of the audio and visual experience.

Everything about the performance in terms of its power, its accuracy, and the quality of its sound was phenomenal. However, I do wish that this particular symphony had been at a better venue. I had seen the concert once before a few years prior at the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco and was blown away, but the acoustics and aesthetics at San Jose’s City National Civic paled in comparison to the wondrous music on display. It resembled an auditorium you might find at a local high school more than it did a professional symphony hall.

Luckily, that didn’t detract from the amazing music in and of itself.

Living Up To The Legend

Working with Nintendo on such a monumental undertaking as adapting a beloved franchise that’s known not just for its game design excellence, but its soaring scores of musical prowess, is more than a little stressful. In fact, Nintendo hardly ever works with anyone when it comes to branching out with its established first-party content.

“My role is to make this concert appear as if it were a first-party Nintendo production,” Jason Michael Paul, Executive Producer of the Zelda Symphony, explained during our interview. “I want to come across as being authentic, not just with all of the content, but also with how the story is told. I want it to be as if Nintendo is here telling this story.”

A big reason why Nintendo was able to trust Paul likely has a lot to do with his experience. Prior to the Zelda Symphony, he also worked with Square Enix on Dear Friends: Music From Final Fantasy, as well as various other companies, including Nintendo, in the medley-style arrangements for PLAY! A Video Game Symphony.

"Dear Friends in 2004 was my first game project and it was actually the first ever stateside game music concert," Paul said. "I have no intentions of going anywhere else right now. I've done all the heavy lifting with this project, over 200 shows worldwide, and things are just going really well. Prior to this with PLAY!, I was featuring Zelda, Final Fantasy, Metroid, Kingdom Hearts, Chrono Trigger, and others."

Notice how every franchise he listed is a Japanese property? My gut tells me that’s no coincidence. The way that the world’s different cultures interpret and tell stories through film, animation, and music is distinct, and for the sake of creating a gaming symphony those are the franchises that click best for many.

“I speak, read, and write Japanese and culturally I’m very connected,” Paul explained. “This is no knock on Western franchises, but I just tend to gravitate towards the classic style. Western game development is, for the most part, a newer phenomenon. I grew up playing Japanese developed video games – that’s my jam.”

More Than Just Music

Anyone that’s a major fan of The Legend of Zelda, or even just video games in general, knows that the music is just as important as any other element. Gameplay, the narrative, the visuals, the musical aspects, and everything else come together to create one cohesive work of art, which is what makes video games such a special form of entertainment. It takes all of the elements from the best forms of media – books, film, art, music – and combines it all together. In that way, the music from our favorite games is much more than just music. Each song is attached to a memory of a particular experience that evokes an emotion that’s unique and special to each individual.

“This is a concert by the gamers and for the gamers,” Paul proclaimed. “We’ve been able to perfect it because this is the show that I would want to watch.”

When I listen to Zelda music, it not only takes me back to those moments when I played the games for the first time, but it also lets me indulge in the present as well. The Legend of Zelda Symphony may be overflowing with rich and powerful nostalgia, but that’s far from the only thing it offers. The performances themselves are just as magical as the games that they emulate.

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The images provided were either taken by Jordan August at previous Zelda Symphonies or accessed via the official website and are not representative of the particular venue and event that I attended as courtesy of Jason Michael Paul Productions