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Major performing arts centres putting video game music in the spotlight

Written by on May 25, 2024

TORONTO — The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is forgoing the usual classical staples by the likes of Mozart and Beethoven this weekend for a radically different repertoire drawn from video games “World of Warcraft” and “Assassin’s Creed.”

The unconventional show is the latest to tap into the growing popularity of putting game soundtracks in a grand orchestral setting, often with visual components such as lighting and game footage.

The TSO show is a presentation by Game On!, a touring showcase that features songs from 14 titles including “World of Warcraft,” “The Elder Scrolls” and “Assassin’s Creed,” with customized video game footage to match.

Principal conductor and music director Andy Brick says he’s picked pieces that lend itself well to an orchestral interpretation, such as the already expansive, Chopin-sounding “Cohen’s Masterpiece” from the first-person action game “Bioshock.”

“It’s really important to us that the music that we’re choosing from the various games that we’re showing has something the orchestra can really dig into,” said Brick, originally from the Chicago area.

While some video game music is already symphonic to begin with, other pieces require radical translations, says Brick, who brings the second of two shows to Roy Thomson Hall on Saturday.

Some of the genre’s most famous melodies are fragmented because they are often designed to play at specific in-game locations or interactions with a character.

“The music doesn’t always necessarily (go from) point A to point B to point C,” Brick explains.

“We need an arranger who can actually recreate the music in a linear way.”

That’s where Brick comes in.

The Game On! concert features the entirely electronic track “Situation Critical” by composer and audio director Derek Duke for the e-sports shooter “Overwatch.”

To maintain the spirit of the original, Brick says he consulted Duke while translating the digital arrangement into one for analog instruments typical of a symphony orchestra.

“I actually picked up a spreadsheet of every single note and phrase that I was modifying or orchestrating so that (Duke) could see exactly what I was doing,” he says.

Other Game On! pieces, including songs from “The Witcher 3,” “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” and “Guild Wars 2” were easier to rework, says Brick.

A similar show planned for Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra will perform the “Final Fantasy” soundtrack on Jan. 10 and 11, 2025.

The orchestra’s senior manager for artistic planning says “Final Fantasy” — composed by Nobuo Uematsu — works especially well for NAC’s inaugural video game concert.

“I think the integrity of the music and the fan base around the music in particular is just so rich and so perfect for a concert hall setting,” Burt says.

She says she’s curious to see what kind of crowd “Final Fantasy” will attract.

“The audiences are becoming more and more multi-generational. People are attending as families,” she says of their overall audiences.

Carleton University musicologist James Deaville says these shows can bring in a much-needed revenue boost for companies struggling to regain ticket sales and audiences that slumped after the pandemic.

“I think (video game concerts) generally livens up the offerings and shows that they are attentive to a younger generation,” says Deaville.

However, he doubted these kinds of events would lead to season subscriptions from younger generations.

“From what I know, they tend to be one-offs and there’s not necessarily a strong correlation between subscriptions and participation in these concerts,” he says.

The performing arts sector was hit especially hard by pandemic restrictions that temporarily shuttered music halls and capped attendance. Financial woes forced the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony to cancel its 2023/2024 season.

Deaville notes orchestras are also increasingly performing contemporary music and pieces by Canadian composers.

“You find that people got used to getting music for free during the pandemic, and it’s been hard to get people into the hall,” Deaville says.

Branching out into commercial fare certainly isn’t new — so-called “pop” series have long been a staple of symphonies eager to reach beyond core supporters.

The head of the production company behind another video game music tour says most people who catch “Stardew Valley: Festival of Seasons” are experiencing live orchestral music for the first time.

The concert tour, based on the farming simulation game, features new arrangements of music performed by a chamber orchestra, along with lighting and visual displays to immerse the audience. It played to sold out crowds in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver earlier this year.

“It’s really a chance for the community to all come together,” says Gaetano Fazio, CEO of the production company SOHO Live.

“We’ve heard comments online, and we love hearing them, that going to the concert was like being in a room with a thousand friends.”

Video game music has become as much a part of current music consumption as pop, jazz and hip-hop, says Brick.

The Grammy Awards introduced a category highlighting the genre in 2023.

Brick predicts the gaming and symphonic worlds will intersect even more as video game music evolves further and orchestras open up to more types of fare.

“It’s going to take a little time because we need to see in the video game industry a continued maturity of the composers, orchestrators and arrangers to be producing music that is consistently at a very good quality,” he says.

“That’s happening without a doubt.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2024.

Alex Goudge, The Canadian Press