PSO presents 'Video Games Live' to turn on new generation

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Imagine the sounds of video games as music to a parent's ears. Or a young gamer begging to see the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

The role player delivering new audiences to classical music and bridging the gap between gamers and the uninitiated is "Video Games Live," a hybrid presentation that combines a live hometown orchestra (here, the Pittsburgh Symphony with the Mendelssohn Choir), video-game images on a giant screen, synchronized lighting and effects and audience interaction.

For the first time, Pittsburgh audiences attending the Heinz Hall shows this weekend will join more than 500,000 people who have already seen the many incarnations of the show.

In February, "Video Games Live" played to 100,000 people to open the Taiwan International Music Festival.

"It was a big outdoor show in the nation's capital and the government actually brought us, so it was a free presentation for everyone," explained co-creator and video-game composer Tommy Tallarico. "Brazil does the same thing. We're huge down in Brazil, and the government helps to subsidize the whole thing because they see the value in getting young people interested in the arts and culture."

Shelly Fuerte, the PSO's artistic administrator, experienced "Video Games Live" during a stint with the San Diego Symphony. When she returned to Pittsburgh, the show was already on the organization's radar, she said, noting that PSO president Larry Tamburri would hear about its success when meeting with other orchestra leaders.

"It's more than just bridging the generation gap," Ms. Fuerte said. "I don't think the older generation knows that kids are really interested in serious music, and the music from [popular video game] 'Halo' is orchestrated and has a chorus -- it's not just bleeps and bloops. Gamers know the quality of the music and they go crazy when they hear it done live, but it's the non-gamers who are really blown away by the whole presentation."

She told of a San Diego Symphony staff member who was a Broadway fan and complained about having to go to "Video Games Live" because of a work obligation. "He came up to me at intermission and said, 'I eat my words. I've been blown away.' "

At recent Pittsburgh Symphony parks concerts, Ms. Fuerte met young audience members who expressed excitement that "wow, they do stuff that's for me, too," with shows such as "Video Games Live," being presented Satruday night and Sunday afternoon, and Friday night's Pink Floyd tribute, "The Machine," also at Heinz Hall.

That reaction fits right in with Mr. Tallarico's vision.

He admits that everyone, including members of the video-game industry, thought he and fellow composer Jack Wall were "insane" when the idea began to take shape during three years of planning. It took that long to create the technology for communication between concert master and musicians, and the synchronization process to combine all the elements.

"Video Games Live" debuted on July 6, 2005, at the Hollywood Bowl, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic playing to 11,000 people. The show has grown and evolved from three shows the first year to more than 60 this year. Each show consists of about 20 segments and represents popular games such as "Mario Brothers," "Zelda," "World of Warcraft," "Final Fantasy" and "Halo."

The violent images for which video games get so much attention are not a part of "Video Games Live." Mr. Tallarico said he takes responsibility for showing the industry in a positive light -- "this is a show for everyone" is his mantra.

Mr. Tallarico, 41, of Southern California, was a pioneer when he began composing music for video games 20 years ago. He grew up in a rock 'n' roll family (Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler is his cousin) and was "pounding out 'Great Balls of Fire' and 'Jailhouse Rock' on the piano from the time [he] was 3." Then in 1977, he saw "Star Wars," and John Williams' orchestral soundtrack changed his musical thought process. Mr. Tallarico began studying the masters and became a devotee of Beethoven.

He believes marrying his two great passions -- video games and music -- is an idea that Beethoven would have embraced, but that classical musicians and audiences of today need a little push in that direction. To that end, the show removes the formality from the proceedings -- no tuxes for the musicians, and displays of appreciation are encouraged.

"I can tell you from being a huge Beethoven fan, from reading his diaries, some of his greatest moments as a conductor, he would write, were when people could no longer control their emotions during a performance and would shout out. He loved that. What composer wouldn't?"

Sales of tickets, which range from $30 to $100 for the Heinz Hall shows, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, are "tracking upward," said PSO spokesman Jim Barthen. He added that the organization is anticipating more of a walk-up crowd as Pittsburghers figure out what to make of this collision of music, art and technology.

Mr. Tallarico said e-mails and letters he receives from nongamers are the most heartfelt because they are most surprised to find themselves connecting to the music and the visuals. "But on the other side of that is we're also helping to usher in a whole new generation of young people to come out and appreciate the symphony and appreciate the arts."

"Any way to reach new audiences," Ms. Fuerte said, "is something very special."

Sharon Eberson can be reached at or 412-263-1960.


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