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Review: Play! A Video Game Symphony by Jacqueline Ristola

Monday, April 22, 2013

As I approached the DeVos Performance Hall January 29th, I noted my drastic lack of formal attire. With my jeans, tennis shoes, and backpack, it wasn’t clear I was about to attend a symphonic concert. But to my relief, I wasn’t the only one, for this concert was no ordinary Grand Rapids Symphony concert. The concert was Play! A Video Game Symphony, and gamers from children to adults came to listen to their favorite gaming themes.

The whole concert experience felt more democratic in nature; there was no assumed dress code for the event, though some chose to wear gaming T-shirts to show their pride. Gamers cheered loudly for their favorite games, starting the concert with continuous, uproarious cheering through the first piece, various Super Mario Bros. themes. Eventually the audience bridled their their enthusiasm at appropriate moments to listen, but their participation illustrates the communication between both parties, the performers and the audience. With the symphony’s increase in live performances to film, this indicates the symphony’s attempts at both broadening the scope of their audience and perforating the line between high culture and low (pop) culture.

Aiding in this democratization was Andy Brick, encouraging the audience to be vocal about their love for this music. Not only was he the conductor for the evening, a video game music composer and conductor of the Play! Symphony tour from 2006-2010. He took time to introduce each piece and the game the music was attached to, and illustrated the sense of pride and celebration of the gaming artform. It’s hard not to get elated when the conductor himself sang along to the Dragonborn theme from Skyrim.

The music itself was thrilling, bring a full scope of textures and a richness to the music that. Having a full orchestra only amplified the mood and atmosphere of the pieces, especially the creepy tones to the Castlevania and Metroid themes. The video game footage playing on three large screens above the orchestra (which also cut to live footage of Brick and performers throughout as well) also helped set the mood and illustrated the artistry of both the music and game. The Legend of Zelda piece might have had the best combination of music and visuals. Beginning with the opening Zelda theme and beautiful images across the open plains of Hyrule, the experience was transcendent.

I suspect the Symphony will keep expanding the standard classical limits and integrate the popular arts into their performances. If their work is anything like Play!, breaking the high/low culture barrier will prove fruitful indeed.