Super Mario goes classical

This summer, thousands of bands and fans jumped onto a cultural bandwagon that started up almost 20 years ago. Eight-bit bleeps from the ’80s have evolved into more than a marginal genre, and music from video games is now drawing a larger crowd than ever.

Two programs of video game music arranged for a symphony orchestra swept America over the past few months. Play! A Video Game Symphony and Video Games Live went on tour and performed for sold-out audiences. Play! even went overseas to Europe and drew enormous crowds in Stockholm and Vienna.

The Mann Center in Philadelphia hosted Play! in late July. The one-night event treated a large crowd to music from games such as Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid. Arnie Roth conducted the Mann Festival Orchestra and Chorus in a solid set of performances from over 15 years of games. Play! drew a crowd through the wind and the rain, and despite the dreary weather, the whole audience cheered for every piece the orchestra played and every announcement Roth made.

Roth has an impressive reputation for conducting orchestras and video game music. He serves as the music director of the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra and has experience with many different musical styles. After spearheading the 2004 debut of Dear Friends in Los Angeles, Roth took the program of Final Fantasy music on tour and then worked to create Play! with JMP Productions.

When Roth walked onstage to the wild cheers of the audience at the Mann Center, his confident stride, white suit, and ponytail echoed the concert’s youthful atmosphere. The orchestra wore relaxed apparel, and the usual shirt-and-tie-for-a-symphony attitude was not felt anywhere in the audience. Video game music appeals to a markedly young crowd, but many middle-aged couples also came to see the slightly unorthodox orchestra event.

The performers did not have to learn difficult repertoire, but some edges were a little rough. The orchestra members lost each other sometimes, but the concert as a whole was very solid. Sometimes one could see the boredom in the faces of the players, but the ecstatic audience always rewarded them with resounding support. The principal trumpet had a blast with his solo in the “Marble Zone Theme” from Sonic the Hedgehog because of audience cheers, and the chorus received rapturous applause for their performance of the sinister “One-Winged Angel” from Final Fantasy VII.

Three large screens placed above the orchestra displayed video feeds of the performers and clips from selected games. The producers chose to show a lot of coverage of the musicians, which effectively emphasized the orchestra facet of the concert and highlighted an ensemble that many in attendance may never have seen live before. Play! succeeded both as a celebration of video games and a showcase of the orchestra.

Play! wanted to appeal to all kinds of fans, even if the tunes from games like Battlefield 1942 and World of Warcraft felt obligatory and dull. Probably the best selections were from Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, Shenmue, and Chrono Trigger. The world premiere of music from the brand-new title Prey and the encore performance of music from the upcoming Blue Dragon gave the concert even more excitement.

As the self-proclaimed “ultimate tour to the fans,” Play! gave all the attendees free passes to download the popular soundtrack from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and played video recordings of messages from superstar video game composers Nobuo Uematsu and Koji Kondo. This type of attention given to the audience made the concert worthwhile and rewarded those who traveled a long distance to see the performance.

With techniques like these, Play! has attracted and kept huge crowds. It will travel to Toronto at the end of September, and Video Games Live, the other large symphony program tour, led by Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall, will travel to Brazil and continue to visit many cities across America. These orchestral programs show the great possibilities of video game music, and the evolution of video games as art has drawn other performers around the world. The London Symphony Orchestra has put together great albums of arranged music from the Dragon Quest series and recorded music for the hit game Xenosaga.

Video games draw artists other than orchestra musicians, too. The Foo Fighters and Godsmack have music in Electronic Arts’ NFL Madden ’06, and the rapper Papoose wrote music exclusively for that title. Film composer Danny Elfman, of Edward Scissorhands fame, wrote the theme for Fable, a role-playing adventure game. Michael Giacchino, who scored the music for The Incredibles, composed the soundtracks to the Medal of Honor series of games.

Recently, the three major console giants — Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo — have all realized the potential for the music in their games. Sony sponsored tours of game music including the PS Dual Play, and Nintendo had fresh bands play on the Nintendo Fusion Tour. Microsoft combined the popularity of Incubus with its blockbuster Halo series to create a well-received event where gamers could play against on-tour musicians.

Sharon Shapiro, senior director of promotions and sports product marketing for Sony Computer Entertainment America, told The Financial Times that she saw the Playstation as “a way of life entrenched in the consumer’s everyday experience.” As video game music grows in popularity, this way of life will be tapped by more bands and orchestras. The Video Games Live tour is already scheduled to make the American rounds for many months. The art form is taking root and spreading, and soon we can all forget about those old bleeps.