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'PLAY!' Merges NSO with Nintendo

Aug. 4 show at Wolf Trap will feature video game scores performed by the National Symphony Orchestra.

If any parent ever wanted to interest a child in the orchestra, “PLAY! A Video Game Symphony,” coming to Wolf Trap Friday, Aug. 4, might prove to be the opportunity. Of course, the same goes for any child wishing to convince parents that video games are a valid pastime of legitimate cultural import.

The show will feature the National Symphony Orchestra performing interpretations of video game soundtracks, from classics like Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda to newer games like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowmind.

“PLAY!” is the brainchild of 29-year-old Jason Michael Paul, who grew up playing video games and went on to produce concerts with the likes of the Foo Fighters, George Clinton and Elton John.

“When I started working with Pavarotti and the Three Tenors,” he said, “that furthered my creativity to do this kind of show.” Paul began his career at a marketing agency, handling corporate entertainment clients that included Square Enix, the video game company with which he partnered to produce the country's first video game concert series. “Dear Friends — Music from Final Fantasy” toured the country in 2004 and ’05.

“It was something that had been going on in Japan for some time,” Paul said of video game concerts. The initial performance, he said, “had amazing success that no one could have predicted.” It sold out in three days.

This time around, he said, he has created a “more ambitious and bigger program.” The show has gained permission and licenses from seven or eight major publishers to perform several hours’ worth of music. As a result, each two-hour show on the tour follows a different set list.

ALL OF THE CONCERTS open with a fanfare produced specially for the show by the composer of the Final Fantasy score, and each features guest composers. The “PLAY!” debut in Chicago featured an electric guitar performance by Akira Yamaoka, the composer and producer of the Silent Hill video game and movie, and a piano solo by Koji Kondo, who composed the score for the Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Brothers.

The concerts feature clips of the games on overhead screens, loosely choreographed to accompany the music and interspersed with live shots of the orchestra.

Paul said scores were chosen based on the games’ popularity, the feasibility of translating their music to symphony and the support of the publishers. He said his own personal favorite game soundtracks include Super Mario Brothers, Final Fantasy and Castlevania, which “PLAY!” just recently acquired the rights to perform. Castlevania will debut in Toronto.

The Super Mario Brothers standard, said Arnie Roth, the show’s conductor and musical director, “is rhythmically more complex than it seems on the surface. It’s a very tricky little rhythm to get an 80-piece orchestra to perform in synch.”

At 52, Roth is not a video game connoisseur himself, although, he said, his children familiarized him with some of the games. “I’m coming at this project more from the standpoint of bringing what I can to these scores with these fabulous orchestras,” he said.

A different orchestra performs each show, and the debut in Chicago was performed by the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra, for which Roth is the director and conductor.

Roth, who has produced eight movie soundtracks, collaborated with scores of musicians and won a Grammy for his work with Mannheim Steamroller, was also the conductor and director for Paul’s “Dear Friends” tour.

He said Paul spoke with him about putting together the “Dear Friends” show before he knew of Roth’s affiliation with the Pops. “I decided to take a chance on this,” he said. “Having heard some of the scores, I knew the music was very high quality.”

Roth said he has been particularly impressed with the World of Warcraft score and is especially fond of the arrangements that he helped work out for the Legend of Zelda and Kingdom Hearts.

IN MANY of the older games, the music was presented in the simplest way possible, as a single melody of beeps and boops. “The idea is to expand it out and create a new piece that showcases these themes,” said Roth. He gave the example of a tune from Final Fantasy that was originally delivered by “one tiny voice” but under his direction becomes a “screaming, big band” performance.

“The orchestra is the star of this show,” he said. “Video game enthusiasts very much know that that’s what this is about. It’s a concert.”

Paul said the merging of these two genres that many may consider disparate draws a wide demographic to the shows. “That’s really the beauty of this project,” he said, remarking that the audience includes everyone “from the 5- or 10-year-old kid who’s just crazy about video games to the older classical music aficionado who will go to any show the National Symphony performs because they have season tickets.”

“Our mission is to elevate the notion that video game music is something that can be respected and appreciated,” he said.

<1b>— Mike DiCicco