“I have a few psychics amongst my friends,” says Nobuo Uematsu, revered composer of video game music, via his translator at a pre-concert talk before tonight’s Symphonic Odysseys concert. One wonders whether any of those clairvoyant friends could have foreseen the sheer adulation with which this composer’s music – originally intended as a mere supplement to another media, the video game – would go on to inspire. There are stories from members of tonight’s audience that beggar belief, showing just how far and deep this level of fandom goes. One woman’s children had been played Uematsu’s music by their primary school teacher as they learned to write poetry; one couple had convinced the organist at their wedding to play his music (their wedding was held in St Paul’s Cathedral!); two people told how Uematsu’s music for the Final Fantasy video game series had helped them cope with learning difficulties.

Eckehard Stier © Adrian Maloch
Eckehard Stier
© Adrian Maloch

It’s not surprising, then, that the London Symphony Orchestra’s makeover of Uematsu’s music tonight received nothing short of a rapturous reception. The audience – avid gamers all, mostly young and casually dressed – clamoured for not one but two encores. Their level of enthusiasm reached such a pitch that they jumped the gun with applause on at least one occasion, beginning their acclamation during a dynamic lull in one of the pieces. The sceptic would say that this is a watering-down of the concert experience, a crowd-pleasing exercise that diverts orchestras and audiences from the classical repertoire that should be enjoyed in concert halls. It certainly is a crowd-pleasing exercise, but there’s more going on than that. 

Uematsu began composing for video games in the late 1980s and still writes today. As such, his work for the medium has ranged from tinny 8-bit soundtracks to full-scale orchestral recordings. Tonight’s arrangements revealed the latent structural complexities in even the most primitively instrumented of Uematsu’s creations. “Light of Silence”, from 1995’s Chrono Trigger, for example, boasts a somewhat cheesy sound palette of digital synths and MIDI reproductions of orchestral instruments. Tonight, it received a lush, detailed realisation that brought the piece’s rich harmonies to the fore. Meanwhile “On Windy Meadows”, a piece that comes off as a slice of twee ethno-folk fusion in its original iteration as background music to Final Fantasy XIV, had a rich, swelling string section that swept through the insistent percussion battery. If this was your introduction to live orchestral music, which I imagine was the case with a sizeable proportion of tonight’s audience, then you could do much worse. Mischa Cheung’s lightning-fast piano runs during the “Final Fantasy Concerto” were pleasantly offset by jazzy tonalities in the cellos, and Eckehard Stier’s crisp direction was undeniably entertaining to watch. 

Credit should go to the arrangers of tonight’s programme in the way that they’ve translated this music onto a traditional symphonic orchestra: there are plenty of interesting techniques which add textural nuance to the proceedings. The violins bounced their bows across their strings to achieve an effect akin to falling droplets of rainwater during “Waterside”. Elsewhere, we had bowed cymbals and metallophones in the percussion, and during the “Lost Odyssey Suite” scattered players throughout the string section produced finger cymbals, which they chimed intermittently to achieve a prettily sparling fadeout. Other extended techniques were slightly less successful ­– the cellos’ percussive hitting of their fingerboards in “Windy Meadows” could have been much sharper rhythmically – but it’s good to hear some more experimental playing styles being used to rough up this occasionally saccharine music.  

By the composer’s own admission, these game music compositions were only ever intended to be just that – music that exists purely for fun. Consequently, it is somewhat lacking in emotional depth, sounding not unlike some more syrupy iterations of film music, and bordering on the garish at points. “Waterside”, for example, has an overstated wistfulness that some may find mawkish. But criticisms like this are somewhat beside the point. There’s an eccentricity to this music that’s impossible not to smile at. At one point, the percussionist brays like an ass. Later, he produces a Mahler hammer. Things hit a high point when the London Symphony Chorus blare out a kazoo fanfare during “King’s Knight BGM – Pretty Day Out.” It’s nothing like classical repertoire, but it’s no less accomplished for that. With these lush arrangements of Uematsu’s undeniably complex music, along with the LSO’s detailed and spirited performance, one can easily see this being the perfect gateway drug to the wider world of symphonic music.