Video Games Live returns to Chicago! – Review

It’s no secret that I’m a big advocate and supporter of what Video Games Live is trying to do. Video Games Live not only showcases video games and their rich history of fantastic musical scores, but it also brings audiences out to experience what for many of them is their first symphony orchestra concert. The efforts of Video Games Live have helped to underscore the impact that video games have had on modern art and culture.

But what about the concert itself? I’ve been to several of their shows over the years. In previous reviews, I gave praise to Video Games Live performances, but has anything changed? Is it still worth seeing? I took a few friends — all music teachers and/or performers — and went to Video Games Live at the Chicago Theatre this past weekend to check out their show. Read on to find out what I thought!

Right off the bat, you come to the realization that Video Games Live is no ordinary symphony event. You don’t walk in to a crowd of people simply taking their seats, ready to listen to and critique one ensemble’s interpretation of certain musical compositions — something I’d grown accustomed to after years of music school. No, instead you walk in to a festival-like atmosphere. In the lobby, people line up to buy Video Games Live merchandise, compete in a Guitar Hero: Van Halen tournament for the privilege of performing on-stage during the concert, and even strut around in homemade costumes resembling video game characters ranging from Fire Emblem‘s Ike to Final Fantasy‘s Sephiroth. Even inside the auditorium, people were up and about, engaging in conversations with total strangers about video games and music, at least until a collection of fan-made tribute videos came on screen to everyone’s delight. Video Games Live has a completely different aura surrounding it compared to other orchestra concerts — one of excitement.

Even with all the pre-show festivities, the focus of a Video Games Live show is to exhibit the history of video game music, and they wasted no time in doing so. Newly appointed Video Games Live conductor Wataru Hokoyama, along with the Metropolis Symphony Orchestra and Oriana Singers, led the audience down memory lane via their “Classic Arcade Medley” to open the concert. Other fan favorites will almost always be performed at a Video Games Live concert, such as themes from Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Halo, and Final Fantasy. Fans have heard these themes through sound cards and television speakers, but most have yet to experience them through the lush, resonant sound of a live orchestra. In this day and age of deteriorating music standards such as compressed digital files, hearing an orchestra and choir perform right in front of you provides an aural experience you can’t get at home. It gives Video Games Live a sense of authenticity, and allows you to appreciate music compositions for the beautiful and artistic creations they are.

I won’t divulge too many specific segments of Saturday’s show, simply because they may not apply when Video Games Live arrives in your area. Video Games Live’s co-creator, Tommy Tallarico, has amassed a repertoire of over sixty segments that they can perform, less than a third of which can be performed at any given show. On top of that, new segments are being added all the time. As a result, Video Games Live avoids becoming dull and repetitive — you’ll never see the same show twice.

Musically, I was very impressed with the quality of Saturday’s concert. I can be quite critical of symphony orchestras, and I know the Metropolis Symphony Orchestra isn’t exactly the cream of the crop in terms of Chicago ensembles. That said, this was the same organization tapped to perform Video Games Live the last time VGL was in Chicago, and they absolutely raised the level of performance from two years ago. The only aspects that deterred from the performance were the occasional tempo discrepancies due to the seeming lack of a click track, and the imbalance from all the amplified musicians being a tad loud. I consider these minor issues, since I’ve seen Video Games Live use click tracks before, and I’m sure they adjust amplified volume levels for each individual concert. The orchestra and choir themselves were superb, allowing the audience to simply enjoy the music without having to worry about execution.

Of course, the Chicago-based performers aren’t the only ones putting on a show. Tommy Tallarico continues to entertain as the host of Video Games Live by raising the audience’s level of excitement and participation, serving as a human encyclopedia for the history of game music, and even making the occasional on-screen call to special guests via Skype. On top of that, he’s no slouch on guitar, as he wails through each solo with ease, precision, and a dominating stage presence that has become a selling point for the show. Joining him is VGL’s new conductor, Wataru Hokoyama, best known to gamers for composing the score to AFRIKA and orchestral arrangements in Resident Evil 5. As the third conductor I’ve seen atop the Video Games Live podium, Wataru has a certain finesse in his conducting that evokes the great response from his orchestra. I’m excited to see what kind of impact his presence will have on the performance levels of Video Games Live shows to come. Last but not least, Laura Intravia is quickly becoming a rising star in the Video Games Live family. Her contributions have grown beyond her signature “Flute Link” segment thanks to her excellent flute technique, professional vocal training, and arranging experience. The professional music teachers and performers I brought with me to the show thought she was so good, they thought she had to be “flute-syncing” — I had to struggle to find flaws to eventually prove them wrong!

Finally, the entire show is augmented by synchronized video montages and lighting effects that appropriately accompany each segment. You’ll see footage from your favorite games that help to emphasize the programmatic aspects of each musical piece — all those characters, key moments, and vivid memories alluded to by each song will find their way onto the screen. The lighting certainly sets the mood for each piece while simultaneously immersing the audience in the experience by flooding the auditorium with color. My favorite has always been the pitch black auditorium that starts the God of War segment, before the lights engulf the orchestra with reds and oranges that evoke the emotions and wrath of Ares. Other times, a sea of calm, blue light would submerge the entire room and audience. This rush of visual and musical sensation is quite fitting for Video Games Live, as video games are a unique medium that actually serve as a conglomerate to combine various art forms and appeal to all your senses. The crew does a fantastic job of melding all of this together for each and every performance.

You can’t go wrong by attending one of Video Games Live’s shows. They’ll have music for all ages, featuring yesteryear’s Mario, Mega Man, and Sonic, as well as today’s hits such as Halo, Metal Gear Solid, and Assassin’s Creed. Unlike formal concerts and even unlike other video game concerts, there’s a fun atmosphere before, during, and after the show thanks to the competitions, comedic video tributes, and the meet and greet with the performers. Tommy and co. continue to do a great job of hyping up the crowds and giving audiences an evening to remember. Without a doubt, this is the absolute best way to enjoy video game music as a standalone artform. Be sure to check out their list of tour dates and see when Video Games Live will be coming to your area, as you won’t want to miss it!

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About the Author: Christian Ponte

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