Hands up if you’ve ever played the video game “Halo.” Now keep your hand up if you’ve ever played a Shostakovich symphony. If you still have your hand up, you obviously have eclectic tastes – or maybe you’re a member of the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra.
After tonight’s concert at the Pantages Theater, the symphony’s 90 musicians will have not only played the score to “Halo” but also “Street Fighter,” “Sonic,” “Super Mario” and a host of other video games in a multimedia concert that brings laser lights, big-screen projections and live gaming to the symphonic experience.
And that’s not all: “Video Games Live” is just part of a season that goes from Shostakovich and Brahms to contemporary American composers, double bass solos and new conductors. It’s a sign of big changes ahead for the orchestra.
“It’s part of our outreach. We’re trying to do things differently,” said Harvey Felder, who’s in his last two years as music director of the TSO. “It’s a great opportunity to bring something new to Tacoma audiences.”
“Video Games Live” is definitely new – at least for Tacoma. The show, developed and conducted by iconic video and film composer Tommy Tallarico, has been touring for seven years since it debuted at the Hollywood Bowl with the L.A. Philharmonic. Since then, it has taken theaters around the country and world by storm, selling out to crowds that include both young gamers (who wouldn’t normally go within shouting distance of a Beethoven symphony) and their parents, who were the first generation to grow up on games such as “Donkey Kong” and “Space Invaders.”
The Tacoma concert is a collaboration between the symphony and the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts.
Wearing headphones to keep to the click track, Tallarico leads local orchestras such as the TSO through a score of music from “Legend of Zelda,” “Pokemon,” “Warcraft,” “Missile Command” and more, keeping pace with the games as they’re streamed onto a big screen on the stage. There are laser light effects, flute and keyboard soloists, in-concert Facebook photo tagging and intermission cellphone voting on which score will be played next. Audience members are even invited to come on stage and play the game live, as the orchestra shifts in real time to keep up.
“It’s like being inside a video game,” said TSO executive director Andy Buelow. “This is probably going to be our best-selling concert of the year.”
If all this sounds a million miles away from TSO’s usual Tchaikovsky, think again. Video game scores have the same essential success component as traditional classical music: a memorable melody, Tallarico said. Listening to a concert of them is no different than a 19th-century audience hearing Beethoven conduct his own music.
“The ‘Mario’ theme is one of the most downloaded ring tunes on the planet,” claims Tallarico, whose scores include “Advent Rising,” “Spider Man” and Disney’s “Aladdin,” and who himself got hooked on classical music through the “Star Wars” score.
Video game music goes even further than film scores in terms of personal engagement, the composer said.
“When you play a game, you become that character,” Tallarico said. “This music becomes the soundtrack to your life. You can’t do that with film music. People get more emotionally attached to it.”
In case you were thinking Beethoven and company wouldn’t think much of laser lights, Tallarico said that what every composer wants is for people to know their music. Many of them tried special stage effects to get it – such as the 17th-century idea to combine theater, elaborate sets, pretty costumes and music and call it opera, or the live cannon fire that Tchaikovsky called for in his “1812 Overture.”
“If Beethoven and Tchaikovsky were alive today, they’d be video game composers,” Tallarico says.
Tonight’s show, though, isn’t just a one-off for the orchestra to hit up younger crowds. The whole season goes way outside the traditional classical box, mostly because Felder is finally getting to fulfill a bucket list before he hands over the baton.
One of the items on the list is contemporary music that has had only one or two playings. Coming up at the Nov. 18 concert is a work by Derek Bermel, who blends world music, funk, jazz and classical in his writing. Other composers this season are Roger Zare and young Tacoma composer Alexandra Bryant. There’s also Italian modernist Nino Rota, whose “Divertimento” features the TSO’s principal double bass player Chris Burns as soloist – more out-of-the-box programming.
“I’ve been lobbying for this for a long time,” Felder said of the new music. “It’s now or never.”
Even the warhorse staples that make up the major part of each main series concert offer something new: Shostakovich’s edgy, despairing Symphony No. 5, written in satirical defiance of the Soviet government, is a huge and challenging work for both orchestra and audience. Brahms’ massive Fourth Symphony hasn’t been played by the orchestra since it turned professional in 1993-94.
Both works are part of the concerts in February and May that feature new conductors as well. Called “See Change,” they’ll be conducted by two of the four finalists for Felder’s position, Sarah Ioannides and Paul Haas. The remaining two finalists will conduct concerts in next year’s season.
Of course, TSO’s season still includes perennial favorites such as Handel’s “Messiah,” the holiday “Sounds of the Season,” a chorus concert and a pops piano show. But included in the mix is a brand-new Family Series, kicking off this year with “Peter and the Wolf” in January.
“We’re trying to broaden our audiences into any demographic we can,” Buelow explained. “We want … audiences to experience all the different things we do.”
And who knows? That teenage gamer might end up loving Shostakovich or Rota, and their grandma might get a new respect for “Halo.” Check out the Facebook page and find out. ‘Video Games Live’
Who: Tacoma Symphony Orchestra, directed by Tommy Tallarico
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma
Cost: $39-$94thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/arts