Bittersweet Symphony

In the late 16th century, a group of Italian intellectuals calling themselves the Florentine Camerata gathered together to talk about, among other things, contemporary music. They felt that the common practice of multiple singers singing the same lyrics at different times was getting in the way of the public’s engagement with and understanding of the music. The polyphonic effect sounded good, but it made it hard for listener to be “moved by a true perception of the emotional content of a text,” as Columbia music professor Susanne Dunlap put it.

To combat this problem, the Camerata developed a totally new form of musical performance called opera. Characterized by one distinct, highly emotional voice singing at any one time, the opera created the opportunity for a full narrative to be strung together through a sequence of songs. By the early 17th century, opera had become the standard form of musical production for the royal court, a fashionable alternative to the stodgy old style of polyphonic singing.

Fast forward to today and opera, indeed all of classical music, continues is in a rapid decline in popularity among the young. An entire generation associates classical music with fancy dress, stuffy theaters and polite applause. Less than eight percent of subscribers to online resource Classical Archives are 24 and under – nearly 60 percent are over 45. Financial constraints are forcing renowned symphonies around the country to scale back or shut down entirely.

Which is why it’s surprising to see T-shirt clad 20-somethings rubbing elbows with polo-shirt wearing grandparents in a 5,000-person strong National Symphony audience at the Vienna, Va. Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. They’re here to see Play: A Video Game Symphony, a concert that eschews the common symphonic fare of Bach, Mahler and Strauss for pieces by the likes Square’s Uematsu, Nintendo’s Kondo and Konami’s Gregson-Williams. While parts of the audience have never played a game and other parts have never heard a live symphony, they’ve all gathered together to experience another world without fully leaving the comfort of the one they know.

Play is part of a small but quickly growing trend of videogame music performances by professional musicians. Japan has hosted such concerts since 1987, when Dragon Quest composer Koichi Sugiyama conducted a collection of his game music in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. The idea didn’t reach the West until 2003, when the Czech National Symphony Orchestra performed a “Symphonic Game Music Concert” in Leipzig, Germany. Game concerts finally reached America in May of 2004 with “Dear Friends: Music from Final Fantasy,” performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Coinciding with E3, the performance sold out in a single day and eventually spawned the expanded Play concert tour, with music from games ranging from Super Mario Bros. to Blue Dragon.

The melding of a high culture symphonic orchestra and music from the traditionally low culture world of videogames is not always an easy task. “Usually when we first start – when the musicians first get on stage and they look at the sheet music and see Super Mario and Sonic and Zelda and Warcraft – they look a little on the skeptical side,” says Tommy Tallarico, a veteran videogame composer and co-creator of Video Games Live, another popular game music tour.

The hesitance fades at rehearsal, when the musicians realize game music is “more than just bleeps and bloops,” as Tallarico puts it. But the orchestra really starts to catch on once the show begins. “The real magic happens when we play the show … and the crowd is cheering like it’s the second coming of the Beatles or Elvis Presley or something,” Tallarico says. “After the show the orchestra will come up to us and go ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve never heard applause like this ever. … When can you come back?'”

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Indeed, the wild hoots of recognition as the audience hears the sweeping grandeur of Play’s opening Final Fantasy fanfare is unlike anything you’d expect to hear from a crowd at a classical music concert. Likewise for the laughs that accompany a later transition to Super Mario Bros.‘ underwater theme, complete with a montage of swimming animations from Mario games on the giant projection screen above the orchestra. When the familiar Sonic the Hedgehog theme begins during an extended medley, a young boy sitting in the center orchestra section actually gets so excited he turns to his side and high-fives his dad! Show me an 8-year-old who does that when he hears Mahler.

Tallarico says the original idea for Video Games Live came when he was 10 years old, performing air guitar for his friends to the strains of taped Commodore 64 tunes. The actual process of getting the idea out of the bedroom and into the concert hall started in 2001 and finally made it onto the stage at a 2005 Hollywood Bowl premiere that drew over 11,000 attendees.

“We decided we wanted to show the world how significant videogame music is, how special it is,” Tallarico said. “We decided the best way to do that is to create a show that not only videogame fans would attend, but a show that the non-gamer would go to and really be blown away by.”

The key to doing that, Tallarico says, is synchronizing the music to lighting effects and video performances of the game. “Just doing an orchestral performance is great for the fans, but it doesn’t draw in everyone else. It was important to us that we want to draw in everyone else and make it a real entertaining show.”

Does it work? You bet, says Tallarico. “The most e-mails we get, oddly enough, after a show, will be from the mom who brought the neighborhood kids or the grandmother who brought the grandson or the girlfriend who got dragged there by the boyfriend. Those are the letters we get that go ‘Wow, I never knew that videogame music was this powerful. I never knew that the graphics were this amazing. Thank you for turning me on to this thing. I get it now.'”

All well and good, but does the transference work the other way? That is, can a videogame concert get gamers into the classical music scene? Not so much, according to 8-year-old Play attendee Andy Ng. Despite his enjoyment of the videogame concert, especially the Kingdom Hearts medley, Ng said he probably wouldn’t come back to hear the National Symphony perform other classical music. Still, Marilyn Ng, Andy’s mother, considered the show to be “a great way to introduce them to [classical] music.”

If the number of planned concerts is any indication, a whole lot of people are eager for the same introduction. Video Games Live already has 50 to 60 shows planned for 2007 and 100 more being set up for 2008, according to Tallarico. “Videogames have become the radio of the 21st century. … I think you’re absolutely gonna see this grow and grow and build and build,” he says. Videogame concerts might not revive the 21st century classical music the same way opera revived it in the 17th century, but if they don’t, it certainly won’t be for lack of trying.

Kyle Orland is a video game freelancer. He writes about the world of video game journalism on his weblog, Video Game Media Watch.

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