I went to Play! a few months ago and realized that what was an extremely geeky interest of mine 10 years ago (when even video games were geeky enough), has turned into a huge and accepted industry. This is exciting and hopefully a sign that VGM is being taken even more seriously as part of the industry. Though, I must say that although it was fun being around 2000 geeks in the audience and listening to some of my favorite tunes in orchestral clothing, the impression I left with was not very good.
I'm a professional musician myself, and I can be fairly critical when it comes to music. I don't try to argue the quality of music from an objective eye, since that rarely leads to any fruitful discussions. If you like a song and I don't, fair enough. Good for you. But I do feel strongly about music-making. If you go on stage and play a crappy song, you should at least deliver the goods like you believe it's the best shit you ever did. And the Play! Symphony Orchestra was about the blandest, most uninspiring orchestra I've ever heard. The musicians were fairly young I noticed, but that's no excuse. They looked like they were bored to death sitting there. Conductor Arnie Roth was basically just keeping time and did nothing to enhance the music. The guy has my respect for what he's done to make a thing like a video game symphonic concert go on tour, but I'm afraid this orchestra and this music didn't show him from a good side.
Everyone will have different opinions on how the set list was composed of course. I felt it was OK, I didn't care much for Oblivion, Guild Wars, Battlefield and a few other "new" games. I'm a retro person and enjoyed the C64 Medley, some Sonic and of course the Mario/Zelda stuff. And we got some FF7 at the end. Fine. The arrangements were decent enough, about the same as the Orchestral Game Concert series with Tokyo Symphony in the 90s. The problem with orchestrated arrangements of video game music, is that very often the music is not orchestral by nature. Take the Mario theme. It's simple, catchy and fun, in its various sound chip versions. Dressing it up in orchestral flavor is a bit too rich. The arranger tries to downplay this by adding lots of annoying percussion, but it fails to impress me. I'm not saying it can't be done, it's just not the ideal material. Anyway, it would work a hell of a lot better if the musicians would breathe a little more life into their notes. Zelda works a bit better since especially from A Link to the Past and onwards, the music is very orchestral within it's sound chip limitations.
I'm sad to be rather negative about this, since VGM has been a big interest for me, even alongside my classical education. A big charm of VGM is the memories attached to it, and the gameplay experiences you had while listening to the music. This is part of the reasons why so many people go to a concert to enjoy a VGM concert. But this charm can also be deceiving. Like retro goggles, we have fond memories of music even though the music itself can be mediocre. Giving it the orchestral treatment can reveal a lot of the shortcomings of the original composition (especially if the arranger has no real connection to the music in the first place. Something I think happens a lot).
Not to put too many angry fingers at the music that I actually love, I must say that the whole experience of Play! would have been much enjoyable if the orchestra had been better. Spotify has a Play! album up, with a different orchestra playing (a Czech orchestra I believe), and it sounds 10 times better in my ears.
Finishing up with a video of someone who puts love in what he does, great arrangment, great musician, great music to begin with - this is how it's done: