A couple months ago, the latest run of The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses was coming to a close through my neck of the woods in Salt Lake City. Being a longtime Zelda fan clear back to the original NES games, I had to go see this show in its current form and see the orchestra play my favorites, as well as new pieces from Breath of the Wild, not to mention a surprise encore with music from Link’s Awakening. The shot itself was simply spectacular and moved me as a gamer who has spent most likely years of my life playing these games and conquering an infinite number of Hyrule’s from the clutches of Ganon. We got the opportunity to speak with one of the conductors for this run, Kevin Zakresky, about his experience with the show and his thoughts on the music.
BC: What got you into music and specifically drew you to orchestral works?
Kevin Zakresky: Like a lot of conductors, we start music lessons when we were young. I was a piano player when I was a kid, had piano lessons, went away to music school to be a pianist and sing some. And then I sort of found my way into leadership roles while there. I think every orchestra conductor has a different path — some people go through playing piano for ballet and then they conduct the ballet, or they played piano for the operas so they could start connecting the operas. I was a choir conductor when I was young, so I started doing rehearsals with choirs and started at least leading musicals and small orchestras. Then [I] thought, “Well, I could go study this at a university at grad school.” I kept doing conducting.
Did you play Zelda as a kid growing up?
No. In fact, I have an identical twin brother and he played all the games from when we were kids. I play piano, so I would be at the piano all day and he’d be at the Nintendo all day, and he just thinks it’s hilarious that I play Zelda [music] now for a living.
Was there any kind of interest in gaming at all, or were you all just focused on music at the time?
Yeah, it was just music. I mean, fortunately Zelda has really some of the best cinematic music that there, and not just video game but 20th century music. He’s [Koji Kondo] a wonderful composer, so it makes it an exciting adventure for me. But you know, to this day I’ve never played it. I’ll have to try it.
How did you end up getting the gig for this run of the tour?
I directed the choir in Vancouver in my hometown two years ago, and I just gave the producer my business card and said, “you know, I’d love to conduct it, because I was so sort of enraptured by the music and I thought it would be such a cool thing to take part in.” Within a few months, I got a call that they needed me up for something, and I joined the team, as you do.
When you first came on, did you listen to any of the prior symphonies, or did you go listen to any of the music that’s been made over the years?
Oh, gosh yes! All of it. I had to get a good idea and also I made sure that my friends played Zelda in front of me so I could have seen it. So I watched some of the versions, and fortunately I have a friend Michael who still had the different game systems so that he could show me Zelda through the ages. I do recognize some things, because I was a kid in the ’80s and the ’90s, so it’s hard to avoid Zelda. My niece loves the Wind Waker — she’s seven and she dresses up like Link for Halloween every year, so of course, I saw a lot of Wind Waker when she was growing up.
Listening to the old NES, SNES, and N64 tracks, what were your takes on listening to those tracks being done during that time with that tech?
Well, obviously I had heard the music updated for modern symphony orchestra first, so when you go back and you listen to it, it is less impressive going from modern to classic than going the other way. So a lot of people hear “The Ballad of the Wind Fish or they hear “Link to the Past”, and when they hear it redone they get very excited and nostalgic about it. You can tell, though, that that the composer’s vision was maintained in the arrangements. That thrills me as an orchestral performer to get to hear it done right.
Is there any particular song that you enjoy playing from this run?
There are certain things that sort of take you away. I do like the finale of the symphony a lot, so the tunes from “The Time of the Falling Rain”. That movement is quite a wonderful end to the show, and so as a conductor, I’m excited about all the movements leading up to it — but there’s something about that one ending. And then actually this year I was thrilled by the new arrangements coming from Breath of the Wild, because just when you think “How could a composer innovate any more?” The melodies in that piece are quite new right and quite fresh-sounding. I was impressed! I thought that new melody is something quite striking. The arrangement that we’re doing does it service, but even if you just sit down and play at the piano, it is quite demure-sounding.
So I’m just always impressed by the innovation musically and the arrangement that we do as it has more Japanese sounds in it, which I also really like. There’s a lot of taiko drum in the Breath of the Wild arrangements that we’re doing. That is so thrilling to me, because the music has a sort of Hollywood feel to it in many ways, but just sitting down and playing at the piano — there’s something distinctly Japanese about it. And now that I’ve been to Japan this year, I feel as though I appreciate it even more, because I heard a lot of music while I was there which then I could see being an influence upon composers. You understand their influences from the West, but then you don’t until you start to study other Japanese music. You don’t hear you know how it could sort of be infused with the Western orchestration like Mr. Kondo does.
I know you played a ton of shows in Canada, because you’re from Canada and you’ve been in different orchestras there. How is it taking this show up there as kind of the hometown boy coming back?
Well, conducting it in Vancouver is really nice because everyone on stage is my friend from school, so that’s sort of a treat. I know people throughout Canada, but I don’t know all the musicians like I do in my hometown. So that’s kind of a nice treat — I mean, it’s still a lot of work it needs to have to put it together. But it’s sound it’s nice to do with friends and share this really great music with them.
What do you have planned after the Zelda tour is wrapped up?
In four weeks I’m premiering an opera with my new opera company in Vancouver, putting on the show at the end of January. Baroque Opera, the opposite of a Zelda symphony — [a] small orchestra of 10 people, harpsichord in a ballroom for a 100 audience, not 2,000 — and it’s gonna be exquisite. A different thing; it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. My original training isn’t in big orchestral music, it’s in Baroque music and choral music from grad school. I studied that style of classical music, not the big orchestral works. But here I found myself falling in love with big gorgeous orchestras playing Koji Kondo’s music.