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Major performing arts centers put video game music in the spotlight

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TORONTO – This weekend, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is foregoing the usual classical classics from artists such as Mozart and Beethoven and instead presenting a completely different repertoire from the video games “World of Warcraft” and “Assassin's Creed.”

TORONTO — The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is foregoing the usual classical classics from artists such as Mozart and Beethoven this weekend and instead playing a completely different repertoire drawn from the video games “World of Warcraft” and “Assassin's Creed.”

The unconventional show is the latest development in the growing popularity of integrating game soundtracks into a grand orchestral setting, often with visual components such as lighting and gameplay sequences.

The TSO show is a presentation of Game On!, a tour featuring songs from 14 titles including World of Warcraft, The Elder Scrolls and Assassin's Creed, with matching, bespoke video game footage.

Chief conductor and music director Andy Brick says he chose pieces that were well suited to orchestral interpretation, such as the already sprawling, Chopin-esque “Cohen's Masterpiece” from the first-person action game “Bioshock.”

“It's really important to us that the music we choose from the different games we show has something that the orchestra can really get into,” said Brick, who is originally from the Chicago area.

While some video game music is symphonic from the start, 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 well-known melodies are fragmented, as they are often designed to be played at specific locations in the game or during interactions with a character.

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

“We need an arranger who can actually reproduce the music linearly.”

This is where Brick comes into play.

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

To preserve the spirit of the original, Brick said he consulted Duke when translating the digital arrangement into an arrangement for analog instruments typical of a symphony orchestra.

“I actually made a chart of every single note and phrase I changed or orchestrated so (Duke) could see exactly what I was doing,” he says.

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

A similar show is planned for the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, performing the soundtrack of “Final Fantasy” on January 10 and 11, 2025.

The orchestra's senior manager for artistic planning says “Final Fantasy” – composed by Nobuo Uematsu – is particularly suitable for the NAC's first video game concert.

“I think the integrity of the music and especially the fan base that surrounds that music is so rich and perfect for a concert hall,” says Burt.

She says she is curious to see what kind of audience “Final Fantasy” will attract.

“The audience is increasingly multi-generational. People come as families,” she says of the audience as a whole.

Carleton University music scholar James Deaville says these shows can provide a much-needed revenue boost to companies struggling to revive ticket sales and audience numbers that plummeted after the pandemic.

“I think (video game concerts) revitalize the offering in general and show that they are aimed at the younger generation,” says Deaville.

However, he doubted that such events would lead to season tickets among the younger generation.

“As far as I know, these are more one-off events and there is not necessarily a strong correlation between subscriptions and attendance at these concerts,” he says.

The performing arts sector was hit particularly hard by pandemic restrictions, which resulted in concert halls being temporarily closed and attendance being limited. Financial problems forced the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra to cancel its 2023/2024 season.

Deaville points out that orchestras are also increasingly performing contemporary music and pieces by Canadian composers.

“You realize that people have gotten used to getting free music during the pandemic, and it was difficult to get people into the hall,” says Deaville.

The expansion into commercial areas is certainly nothing new – so-called “pop” series have long been an integral part of symphony orchestras looking to reach beyond their regular clientele.

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

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

“It’s really an opportunity for the whole community to come together,” says Gaetano Fazio, CEO of production company SOHO Live.

“We've heard comments online and we're happy to hear them. It was like being in a room with a thousand friends, like going to a concert.”

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

In 2023, the Grammy Awards introduced a category that focuses on genre.

Brick expects the world of gaming and the world of symphony to overlap even more as video game music evolves and orchestras open up to new genres.

“This will take some time, because we need increasing maturity among composers, orchestrators and arrangers in the video game industry in order to be able to produce music of consistently very good quality,” he says.

“That will happen without a doubt.”

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

Alex Goudge, The Canadian Press