Making magic with music: Behind the scenes of the Zelda Symphony
by on October 20, 2017

In the five years it has been touring, The Symphony of the Goddesses has enchanted Legend of Zelda fans around the world.

“I had chills as I was transported as though by magic to the Hyrule of my childhood, swept away by that first wave of symphony,” feature writer Meghan said of the symphony’s recent Australian tour. Thousands upon thousands of fans have attended similar shows and had similar experiences, and “magical” is a more than fitting description of the two-and-a-half-hour show. But have you ever wondered how the magic happens? What exactly goes into putting a concert together and getting ready for the big night? I went behind the scenes at the recent Seattle concert with Symphony producer Jason Michael Paul and his team to find out.

“We usually start coordination with the venue a couple of months in advance,” says Steven Lemke, the Technical Director and Stage Manager. “Also, the orchestra and chorus have to be hired and PDFs of the music sent to them so that they can familiarize themselves with it to prepare for our one rehearsal together.”

One rehearsal. You read that correctly. It’s not feasible for an entire orchestra and accompanying instruments to tour, especially as The Symphony of the Goddesses frequently plays internationally, so a local orchestra is engaged for each venue. It’s something that Conductor Kevin Zakresky considers his biggest challenge when preparing for a show. “I review the music, particularly the new pieces, and make a plan of how I am going to rehearse the orchestra and choir. Because the rehearsal period is just the afternoon of the show instead of the week leading up to it, every moment of rehearsal is precious. A good and flexible plan is essential.”

While Kevin, the chorus, and orchestra are preparing for a performance, Steven is busy working with the venue to arrange video, sound, and lighting. “Some venues have sound and lighting installed while others have to have equipment brought in from outside vendors. Video almost always involves a third-party vendor. Mainly, they supply the projectors and screen as I own my own video suite and remote controlled robotic cameras.” These cameras are the ones used to highlight various pieces of the chorus and orchestra on the big screen in between clips of Zelda scenes and gameplay. Steven’s background is in classical music, and he’s passionate about making the instruments and performers as much the stars of the show as the Zelda games.

Concert day

Concert day is, not surprisingly, a busy day for all involved. Steven is one of the first to arrive at 8am to kick off setup.

“I oversee the placement and hanging of the screen and the setup of the orchestra. Any lighting that needs to be hung or focused is done after the screen goes in. There is a massive amount of percussion in this show which takes up a lot of space, so the layout needs to be very exact to fit everything on stage. The stage hands set up risers, chairs and stands, and start wiring the stand lights while the audio team sets out microphones. Meanwhile, I am putting together the video equipment and cameras. Once everything is set up on stage, I distribute the in-ear monitors for the click track and put out the music on the stands.”

Steven is a master multitasker, but his biggest challenge comes in juggling the conflicting needs of all of the various technical departments. “Everyone has their own goals in mind when they are doing their jobs, and sometimes those goals don’t complement each other. The screen placement doesn’t always make the lighting people happy, etc.”

Because the rehearsal period is just the afternoon of the show, every moment of rehearsal is precious.

For Kevin and the musicians, their day begins in the early afternoon. First up for Kevin is a one-hour chorus rehearsal. This is followed later in the afternoon by a three-hour orchestra rehearsal. In Seattle, rehearsal begins at 3pm. The rehearsal follows the order of the program, with Kevin giving feedback and making small adjustments in between movements. Sometimes he’ll ask a specific part of the orchestra to repeat a few bars, and if there’s time at the end he might ask the entire orchestra to go back and play something over again. “The gods will bless you with great notes,” he tells them as the rehearsal nears its end.

If I hadn’t known that this was the orchestra’s first time rehearsing this concert together, I never would have guessed. I’m in awe of the talent of the performers, because it all sounds amazing, and it wasn’t hard to be as captivated and swept away while listening to them rehearse as I was during the actual performance. Afterwards, I ask Kevin about The Wind Waker’s conductor’s baton and what power he’d like a magical baton to give him. “The ability to fix everyone’s timing,” he jokes.

It’s a full technical rehearsal, so Steven and his tech team are also busy. Steven juggles multiple displays while communicating with staff via radio. He makes it look easy, but later tells me that there used to be several people on several computers doing the same job.

The vibe backstage is calm. Jason Michael Paul is smiling and relaxed as he oversees the rehearsal, and he is excited to have guests such as myself and a small contingent from Nintendo of America backstage. His team has been doing this for a long time, and it’s clear that they know what they’re doing. It’s something that they’re still passionate about after all this time, thanks in part to the tremendous impact that their show has on the Zelda fans who come to see it. They talk excitedly of the marriage proposals they’ve seen, of amazing cosplay, and of fans who travel great distances to attend concerts. Steven says that the fans provide him with so much inspiration.

“People have grown up with the characters in the game,” adds Kevin, “And the music has become part of the soundtrack to their lives. It’s fun to see their reaction when they hear a full live orchestra playing the music that they grew up listening to on computer-generated versions through tiny game console speakers.”

Rehearsal ends close to 6pm, and there is a break before the performance begins at 8pm. Most people leave to get dinner and/or coffee, and the performers change into their stage clothes. Steven runs around on stage changing dozens of batteries and ensuring that everything is perfect before he too take a break. Outside the venue, a line begins forming at the box office.

Show time

Attending The Symphony of the Goddesses is a very special time to be a Zelda fan. Thousands of excited, fellow fans are gathered together, many in costume. We mingle in the lobby, and long lines for concessions and merchandise quickly form. As it comes time to take our seats, the audience is buzzing. Then the first notes pipe up, and we are swept away in magic and nostalgia. This was my second time attending the symphony — the first being in Sydney in 2013 — and it was just as magical as the first.

“People have grown up with the characters in the game, And the music has become part of the soundtrack to their lives.” – Kevin Zakresky, Conductor

The concert ends with an encore. “The encore is not a maybe,” Kevin had instructed the orchestra during rehearsal. “It is for sure.” And as the delighted fans begin to make their way home, Jason and his team hang around to meet them and sign autographs. On some nights, the team might unwind after a show with a cup of tea or a good glass of red wine, but that wasn’t going to happen this night. Instead, they made a three-hour-odd drive to Portland, OR, and prepared to do it all again the following day.

Shona Johnson
Shona is one of Zelda Universe's webmasters and has been running Zelda fan sites since 2001. She's an aspiring fantasy author, an avid reader and gamer, and loves bringing her favorite characters to life through cosplay.