- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 6, 2006

Play! A Video Game Symphony,” staged at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center by the National Symphony Orchestra and the Master Chorale of Washington, cleverly if somewhat prosaically introduced traditional classical music lovers to the near-operatic world of video gaming. Simultaneously, the program exposed their children and grandchildren, many for the first time, to the glories of live symphonic music performed by real professionals.

The event highlighted new, classically influenced music from an unexpected quarter that delighted its legion of young fans while astonishing oldsters who’d never really heard this stuff before in all its plummy goodness.

Dreamed up by producer Jason Michael Paul and conducted by an ebullient Arnie Roth, “Play!” can scarcely be called a “symphony” in the traditional sense of the word. It’s really a random suite of video game themes and motifs performed live against a big multiscreen backdrop alternating between live camera pans of the orchestra and chorus and snippets from the games themselves — the latter, alas, too infrequently. But much of the music, ranging from a nostalgic but slightly musty reminiscence from the “Super Mario Brothers” series to the score for an as-yet unreleased game, was surprisingly sophisticated, if a little heavy on the percussion.

Who would have thought — except for kids — that video game music might show up on a summer NSO program? But the cheap sound effects of the first arcade games, like “Pac-Man” (both Mr. and Ms.) and “Donkey Kong” and their equally primitive graphics, have long given way — courtesy of DVDs and today’s powerful microprocessors — to fantastic new worlds of adventure. An inspired fusion of computational power and imaginative art, today’s video games conjoin medieval heroics with fantastic 3-D scenery and near-operatic musical structures to transport players into a parallel universe of astonishing complexity.

That’s what Friday’s concert was all about, and there were winners all around.

The promoters are making money by turning video game music into an attractive commodity. Orchestras like the NSO drew, on Friday, the type of youthful demographic they’d never attract to a Brahms festival. And the largely young audience, musically damaged from birth by a constant force-feeding of lousy, over-amped post-rock via cable and in the mall, got to hear actual music of some complexity performed by professionals.

This reviewer overheard one excited teen yakking into his omnipresent cell phone during intermission. “Yeah, the whole thing is awesome. The orchestra is awesome. Seriously, you should be here.”

NSO publicists, take note.

The largely Japanese cast of composers is notably indebted to Western symphonic music and opera. Character leitmotifs abound, as indeed they should in character-driven fantasies. Music penned for “Final Fantasy VII” and “VIII” by renowned game composer Nobuo Uematsu was clearly influenced by such classical composers as Eric Satie and Karl Orff, but also employed Verdian and Wagnerian operatic methodologies.

Mr. Uematsu is clearly in a class by himself, although he is a long way from achieving the status of a 21st century Beethoven. But other composers also excel in this limited, cinema-like format, including Koji Kondo (“The Legend of Zelda”) and Jeremy Soule (“Elder Scrolls” and the upcoming “Prey”), and they are clearly working within Western cultural traditions. After nearly a century of atonality, this is refreshing.

Events like Friday’s concert prove that large audiences will materialize for a symphony performance when the orchestra is playing something they really want to hear. We’re hesitant to announce a trend here. But perhaps concerts like “Play!” for all their inherent hucksterism, will at last help reunite symphony orchestras with their natural audience. It’s certainly worth a try.



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