I was very lucky to take in a performance of PLAY! A Video Game Symphony on Monday night at the Orpheum in downtown Vancouver. It fused together the remarkable musical scores of the games, as played by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, with the voices of the Vancouver Bach Choir and images from the games themselves, played on three massive overhead screens.
Touring conductor Andy Brick did much more than wave a little baton around. He was a well-informed guide along the history of composing for games, encouraging the crowd to hoot and holler if they were so inclined. He also did a wonderful job of acknowledging the groundbreaking composers of the various pieces, some of whom had actually made it into town to be present for the concert.
Of course, there’s no other way to open an evening like this: you have to start off with the theme from Super Mario Brothers. Brick put a little swing into it, and you could see how much fun everyone was having. There were all sorts of scenes from the game I’d forgotten about, like how Mario can grow super huge and smash through stuff, or the part where he’s swimming underwater on a manta ray and collecting a ton of coins.
One small quibble: I would have liked to hear some of the special effects played as well. You know, like “ba-ling ba-ling ba-ling” when you’re hitting the overhead block to get coins.
Then it was into the dramatic swooping strains of the music for Harry Potter: Chamber of Secrets, Silent Hill, Civ 5 (this was actually the world premiere for this piece of music), Kingdom Hearts, and the oh-so-familiar landmark tune from Legend of Zelda.
I should add that I didn’t know all of the music, or even some of these games beforehand — I like video games but I’m far from being a gamer. The crowd was right into it though. Some serious gamers had clearly put down the Mountain Dew and Cheezies and ventured out of the basement to attend, which was quirkily neat to see in the lavish surroundings of the Orpheum. Mad props for some of the amazing costumes I saw.
After the intermission, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the music for Sim City 4, which had actually been composed by Brick. He said he had been told to make it “monotonous but not boring.” I believe he succeeded admirably, injecting some thrumming rhythms underneath riffs infused with just enough energy and fun.
The wistful strains of a violin marked the Halo theme, before we rounded the evening out with classics like Sonic the Hedghog and Castlevania, wrapping up with the theme from World of Warcraft.
The orchestra was as full as I’d ever seen it, with probably 60 or 70 musicians on the stage. At times, they were much louder than the approximately 40 singers from the choir, who could be heard straining on some of the high notes. If the VSO were to stage this again, I wonder if they could either put a microphone near the singers, or if there’s a better place to put them rather than behind the orchestra. Option B would be tough though, as the stage was so full.
All in all, a pretty darn enjoyable evening. It’s too bad it’s just a one off for the VSO, as I think it’s a great example of how it is trying to be both populist and popular, expanding the list of who goes off to an evening at the symphony.