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Videogames and the Symphony: a review of the MSO’s Symphony of Legends

MSO

Photo credit: Lucas Dawson photography

“Is this even a real orchestra?”

It was a joke, obviously, from Scott Kurtz, one of the three hosts for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Videogames Unplugged: Symphony of Legends concert last Thursday. Behind the joke, though, lay the sting of needing to justify this strange event, the collision of mass and niche cultures, of videogames and orchestras, of digital culture and elite musicians.

“Oh yeah, these instruments are photoshopped,” replied Kris Straub, another host for the evening.

For this brief moment early on in the programme, there was an admission of the uncertainty and interest that surrounded the idea of a symphony orchestra playing videogame music in concert. Why would a real orchestra want anything to do with games?

Take for example, this curious 2010 essay in The Age by Richard Mills, the artistic director for the West Australian Opera and consultant for Orchestra Victoria. In it, Mills places videogames and orchestras in direct opposition. For Mills, a videogame is “something ordinary, something that can be done by any reasonably intelligent person with a modicum of application and training,” while “our theatres and halls deal in the currency of the extraordinary—anybody who stands and delivers professionally on those stages has a remarkable talent, nurtured by years of training.”

That the MSO would chose videogame music as the subject of one of their regular Pops concerts is an encouraging sign that those in cultural institutions are more willing to look outside their closed walls, but it does not signify an end to the old suspicion between cultural forms.

Rather, based on the night itself—a generally energetic and enjoyable concert—it suggests that things are going to get weirder before they become more normal.

Maybe this is not a bad thing. Would you want a concert of videogame music to be unremarkable? Perhaps not, but while the MSO event was generally enjoyable, it did contain more than a few moments of peculiarity. Chief among these was the extended series of performances from SoulCalibur V that ended the evening.

SoulCalibur V is one of a special kind of videogame that spends an inordinate amount of energy on bouncing breasts. Its fictionally-proportioned female characters are either clad in absurdist string bikinis or ‘demure’ angelic costumes, both equally designed to titillate sexually immature minds.

It is ridiculous. It is leering. It was projected onto three enormous screens in front of 5,500 people and a world-class symphony orchestra.

The man in the row in front of me (who I think was accompanying his young son, wearing a Mario hat) burst into hysterics when SoulCalibur V came on screen. Two young women giggled uncomfortably behind me as the displayed sequences went on for five, ten, maybe fifteen minutes. I sank into my seat, furious with embarrassment. What was this?

Photo credit: Lucas Dawson photography

This was clearly no regular MSO performance, though the professional playing and musicianship was as reliable as ever. In addition, three hosts had been flown over from the United States—Wil Wheaton, an actor of Star Trek, Stand By Me and Toy Soldiers fame, and Scott Kurtz and Kris Straub, of webcomic fame—to introduce the pieces. “We’re really famous in America,” the hosts joked in their introduction.

As far as the music is concerned, it was, for the most part, a reliably good performance by the MSO and their guests, led by conductor Philip Chu. The Concordis Chamber Choir in particular performed excellently through a night of demanding choral work, coping well with the unusual vocal effects common to the music of videogames, from the faux-gregorian chant of Halo to the muscular grunts of Skyrim. The percussion section of the MSO also had an unusual responsibility for the evening, with the atypical, rhythm-heavy orchestration of scores like God of War and Uncharted lending a rarely granted spotlight to the section.

The programme itself was a pleasingly wide selection of videogame music, featuring many previously unperformed scores and very recent games. It is unusual in the classical world to get performances of even 15-year old pieces, so to hear excerpts from games like Uncharted 3 (2011) and Diablo III (2012—forthcoming) was remarkable. The artistic vision behind the night was, for most purposes, exemplary.

After interval, the MSO returned with Christopher Tin’s Grammy Award-winning “Baba Yetu”, from Civilization IV. The music was as exuberant as always, and the Concordis Chamber Choir did justice to Tin’s bouncy, energetic writing. However the somewhat slow tempo of the performance and the faint vocal soloists detracted from what could have otherwise been the standout performance of the night.

The venue of Plenary Hall at the Exhibition Centre was a fitting location for the concert, being a middle ground of sorts for the orchestra, as well as a regular performance spot for some of the orchestra’s more ‘public’ performances. The familiarity of the orchestra with the space, however, means that the audio feedback that was an unwelcome feature for almost all of the performance was unforgivable. A low hum arrived early in the performance and gained in volume until it all but destroyed the subtlety and lightness of the performance of Gary Schyman’s “Pairbond” and “Eleanor’s Lullaby” from BioShock 2. Sadly, it did not leave after the interval, as might be expected, and continued to be a nuisance, albeit in diminished form, for far too much of the evening.

Mixing issues were also a problem, with the percussion (and for the music of Assassin’s Creed II, drum kit) being too loud. Equally, setting the MSO to score a live battle of SoulCalibur V players was problematic—the game’s own music blared across the MSO’s performance for part of the match, leaving the actual musicians onstage redundant in the face of amplified recordings.

An interesting feature of the performance, however, was the sheer number of premieres and new arrangements. As Andrew Pogson, the MSO’s assistant artistic administrator and the creative force behind the event noted in an interview before the night, videogame music isn’t created to be performed in concert. Thus, entirely new suites and arrangements were created exclusively for the MSO, and the evening saw the premiere of music from games as diverse as Gravity Rush, Starcraft II, Skyrim and SoulCalibur V. That the concert will surely constitute a large percentage of the MSO’s premiered works for the year (let alone its late 20th and 21st century music) is worth remarking on in itself.

The MSO has good track record of Pops concerts. But elements remain of an elite culture looking down its nose at the things it has to do in order to reach new audiences and create mainstream, tentpole events. Recall Clive James showboating around the stage at the MSO’s Cinema Paradiso night in 2006, doing exaggerated impressions of the films the music was from to embarrassed titters from the audience. Or think of conductor Anthony Inglis’ pillorying of two youths who arrived late to the front row of the John Williams concert last year.

Indeed, if anyone in the audience was left wondering at what the musicians of the MSO thought of SoulCalibur and the other games on display, some gentle mocking of the music surfaced in the encore performance of Harry Gregson-Williams and TAPPY’s Metal Gear Solid suite. The Metal Gear Solid music is the style of Ennio Morricone without his knowing parody—all absurd female choirs, guitars and military snare drums. In response to its bombast and earnestness, and the crowd’s enthusiasm, a Cellist theatrically spun his instrument like a double-bassist in a rockabilly band, while a violist adjacent responded by stretching in faux-bravado to match the ridiculousness of the music.

“Is this even a real orchestra?” I am reminded of Kurtz’s joke from earlier in the night. Wheaton’s response to the question was telling. What better way to measure the authenticity of an orchestra in Melbourne, 2012?

“Oh, Philip,” he said, theatrically motioning to the conductor. “Would you please give us a little something from Beethoven?”

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    Posted April 25, 2012 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    It was a good night, but I agree there were some musical problems. The percussion in AC2 was definitely too loud, the vocalists in Baba Yetu underpowered and in the Skyrim theme the choir and the orchestra got out of sync for a few awkward moments.

    I didn’t notice the game music competing with the orchestra in the Soul Calibur match, but I’m not particularly familiar with that score so maybe that’s why. I did like the concept of having a match played with a live orchestra accompanying it, though.

    Always awesome to hear Ko Otani’s magnificent Shadows of the Colossus score, although it would’ve been a nice contrast to have one of the less bombastic tracks.

    Pity Journey had only just come out – some of the themes from that would’ve been lovely.

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