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The Video Game Orchestra plays a Donkey Kong Country medley at The Berklee Performance Center on Thursday, March 5 in Boston. This was the first performance of its kind — an orchestra playing popular video game compositions — at the BPC.
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Video Game Orchestra

Berklee Performance Center

March 5, 2009

Video game music is familiar. It’s even more familiar when a dark screen flashes the large bulky letters at the same time, or when it’s associated with its mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog. But instead of sitting in front of a television watching an pixelated blue hedgehog in snazzy red sneakers run into gold rings, I’m sitting in a dark concert hall watching a 40-piece orchestra, a rock band, and a chamber choir perform music from not only Sonic the Hedgehog, but also Donkey Kong, Silent Hill, Myst, Metal Gear Solid, and Final Fantasy, just to name a few.

Last Thursday night, Berklee College of Music hosted an audience that ranged from moms and dads with small children to local college students to dread-locked thirty-somethings in Grateful Dead t-shirts. The sold-out show, hosted at the Berklee Performance Center, was a mix of demographics all brought together by a common love: video games. And it was this crowd that, upon the request of producer and musical director Shota Nakama, yelled the opening sounds of every Sonic game — “SEEGGGGGAAAAAAAA!”

The Video Game Orchestra was put together by Shota Nakama, an alumnus of Berklee College who works as a developer at the MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. He and co-director Kari Juusela, Dean of Berklee’s Writing Division, worked with a number of video game composers in order to arrange and perform these songs with a live orchestra. Nakama and Juusela were both present at the performance; in fact, Nakama played in the rock band on guitar. Even more exciting was the fact that a number of the composers themselves were also present. They all seemed surprised when asked to come to the stage and say a few words before their songs, and unfortunately the audience didn’t really get any juicy behind-the-scenes details about the music itself.

The performance began with the epic “Bombing Mission” from Final Fantasy VII, followed by “Theme of Laura” from Silent Hill 2, another driving combination of traditional orchestra and more edgy rock instrumentations. After a deep dive into the past with medleys of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Donkey Kong Country (those catchy jungle drums are forever tied to the game in my mind), we returned to more plot-driven action with a stirring performance of “Snake Eater” from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. The vocalist, Rio Hara, gave a performance that was almost a perfect match to the style and tonality of the original; I could close my eyes and imagine I was playing the video game, hearing the music as I’d originally heard it.

After pieces from Chrono Cross (“Time’s Scar” and “Radical Dreamers”) and “The End Begins” from God of War 2, conductor Yohei Sato took a quick break to let guest conductor Keith Zizza take the stage for the performance of a medley from the computer game Caesar IV. The music was appropriately sweeping and dramatic for a game set in ancient Rome, but I was ready to get back to the more up-tempo and driving sounds of action games.

The rest of the evening was filled with evocative and immersive music from Brothers in Arms, Advent Rising, and Myst, interspersed with more Final Fantasy. But ever since getting my hands on a program, I was waiting for the last piece, a song easily considered one of the best-known pieces of video game music: the theme music of Cloud’s final confrontation with Sephiroth, the “One Winged Angel”. Originally written as a stylistic fusion of Igor Stravinsky and Jimi Hendrix, the Video Game Orchestra played their last piece with gusto, style, and infectious musical pleasure.

The night was a pleasant reminder of the days when spending hours at a video game was even feasible — hearing the music live was an excellent way of remembering and recapturing my gamer days in a compressed fashion. The concert dragged just a little; small speeches were made between numbers, and while the Video Game Orchestra and the composers are excellent and skilled musicians, not all the speakers had quite the right stage presence to garner the audience’s attention. But no wrong can be said of the musical performance — these excellent musicians, recruited not only from Berklee but also from the New England Conservatory, swept me off my feet and into the land of video games.