Since 2003, Thomas Böcker has produced the Symphonic Game Music Concerts, an award-winning series of performances which bring together two seemingly incompatible worlds: video games and orchestral music. These concerts present a different kind of classic – from Nintendo themes to scores from Square Enix’s Final Fantasy video game series – bringing out the latent compositional depth of video game music for new audiences to enjoy. The music of Final Fantasy, composed by Nobuo Uematsu and Masashi Hamauzu, has resonated particularly well. So much so that Böcker has produced the Final Symphony concert series since 2013, which showcases the best-loved themes from the games.

Thomas Böcker © © intuitive fotografie köln / Philippe Ramakers
Thomas Böcker
© © intuitive fotografie köln / Philippe Ramakers

Bachtrack caught up with Böcker to discuss the processes behind his successful video game music concerts.

AK: What is your music background and how would you sum up what you do?

TB: I am self-taught. As it often happens in life, I never planned on becoming a concert producer in the first place, but was brought into the industry through my passion for the subject. I grew up in a classical music-loving family. Also, I was surrounded by home computers such as the Commodore 64 and Commodore Amiga, and developed an interest in video game music in my childhood. In my early 20s I learned about Japanese orchestras performing similar soundtracks live in concert, which I found fascinating. I was waiting for something to happen in the West too, but when such hopes were disappointed, I decided to produce one by myself in co-operation with the Leipzig Trade Fair. They accepted my proposal for presenting an opening ceremony for the Games Convention in 2003 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus; the first ever video game music concert outside Japan.

My tasks are multifaceted. It is me coming up with the concept of a new programme, such as which game(s) it is based on, coordinating and discussing ideas with the composers and arrangers, the artists, the writers. It is also me negotiating with the right holders, orchestras and concert venues, as I am promoting some of my concerts myself on the one hand – with my agency Opus 3 Artists being responsible for bookings from orchestras – and them self-presenting on the other.

With such a complex process and with such results, I see our work as new, original work – even though we are using existing IPs.

What is the format of a concert?

My concert projects Final Symphony I and II, Symphonic Fantasies and Symphonic Odysseys are following the premise of not using any screens showcasing footage from games, as we believe the music stands for itself and is good enough to be the main attraction – the focus of attention. This makes us stand out from the competition, because with Final Symphony I and II, for example, we are using a format quite similar to classical programmes, including symphonic poems, piano concertos and even a 45-minute symphony in three movements by Jonne Valtonen, which is based on iconic scenes of the original games. In concert, we are re-telling these musically. As the stories resonate well with our audience, and as the melodies are so well-known and beloved, our attendees are highly focused, listening attentively to grasp every nuance of the music played. To me, it is important to offer a genuine experience: at classical venues with no amplification of the orchestra, in natural environments, with the orchestra’s musicians being watched and followed as they bring the scores to life. 

To give you an idea of the original music and the orchestrated version take a listen to these two clips.

Before:

After:

How long does it take you to put together a programme for a concert?

That depends on the concept, but self-funded projects like Final Symphony take about a year to develop. Researching the games themselves takes several weeks, and creating scores keeps the arrangers busy for at least six months. Therefore, each entirely new production means a huge investment in terms of finances and time.

Which orchestras do you work with?

I am very proud of my excellent relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra and I also value greatly my relationship with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra whom I have worked with for about 10 years now. Other orchestras include the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, the Beethoven Orchester Bonn, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Auckland Philharmonia and many others.

How many people have played and still play the game Final Fantasy?

The Final Fantasy franchise celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, with more than 130 million units sold to date. Final Fantasy VII proves to be one of the best-selling parts of the series, with more than 11 million units sold. Due to its popularity, developer Square Enix is currently producing a high definition remake of said game. The most recent Final Fantasy in the main series, however, is number XV, which was released at the end of last year.

What is your audience demographic?

Most of our attendees are 18-36 years old, and with our entirely Final Fantasy-based concerts we are getting close to a 50:50 male/female ratio. Video game music fans are very loyal, with some of them coming to almost all of my productions; this can often entail travelling the world. One gentleman from Finland has attended Final Symphony performances at least five times now. Talking about impact and influence: that person has now decided to become a concert producer of video game music himself.

How do audiences react to the music?

During performances, it is so quiet you could hear a pin drop. When the concert ends, the reaction is comparable to a rock concert. When composer Nobuo Uematsu comes on stage, you can clearly see and hear that he is game music’s most iconic figure.

Ginette Decuyper, a member of the first violin section in the London Symphony orchestra, described the audience’s reaction when the orchestra performed as part of the Final Symphony series: "Hearing the tunes they love and have grown up with from their favourite games being given the dimension that the LSO gives to their music can really bowl them over. You don't often see grown-up men brought to tears at regular classical concerts!"

Meanwhile Prescilla Garland, who runs a successful Twitter account devoted to video game music, was equally as gushing about the video game concerts, saying in a documentary on the series: "If we didn’t have these video game concerts, I’d be devastated. I’ve experienced this type of music live now and I need more. It’s almost like I need it… to be lost in the game, in the music in the melodies."

Have you ever worked on an ongoing basis with a concert hall to take an audience on a journey over several years, moving that same audience from pure game music to a concert involving pure orchestral music?

It is a concept I am still working on, as it certainly needs a brave orchestra management to take this step. What I can say is that we are currently developing concerts with music from games and classical as an appetizer. Granted, there is still a clear focus on game music fans; what I would like to see in the future is orchestras including video game music to their regular programmes, combining, for example, Sibelius, Strauss or Prokofiev with Uematsu. I think there is something to learn and enjoy for all generations.

We recently had an older audience – compared to what is usually the case – at a concert of mine in Munich. It was very touching to talk to some of the attendees, who were really surprised by the quality of the arrangements. I am certain that such open-minded people would love to hear more of this music if they get the chance to.

What are you working on now? Are there any other games that you have in mind for the Merregnon treatment or can’t you say? Can we expect new productions from you in the near future?

At Merregnon Studios, we hope to bring even more performances of our existing programmes such as Final Symphony to the world, and we are making great progress in that area. The main focus at the moment is of course Paris and London, where we will have our next concerts with the LSO at the Philharmonie de Paris on 17-18th June and the Barbican on 20th June: Symphonic Selections in Paris and Symphonic Odysseys in Paris and London. It is a great honour to have composer Nobuo Uematsu in attendance at all three performances. He even agreed on joining pre-concert talks, where people get the chance to ask questions, too. It is all about the involvement of a young audience as I previously talked about; I want my concerts to be entertaining and educational. For orchestra managers, it is the best chance in years for reaching young and interested people.