Listening Review: Gamer Symphony Orchestra (5-4-13)


By on May 10, 2013

At the end of 2012 I had the pleasure of attending a concert at the University of Maryland by the Gamer Symphony Orchestra (GSO), the first collegiate, student run orchestra in the country to produce and perform music from video games. I wrote some words at the time about the concert, if you’d like to read them. Being what looks like to be a semesterly thing, this last weekend the group convened once again to perform pieces from various games. So how’d it go?

The last time I had walked upon the UMD campus it was deceptively warm for the season, but still few people milled about its grounds on that Saturday afternoon. This time, being near the end of the school year and the perfect weather, it seemed like the entire campus was bustling with activity. Photos were being taken by parents of their loved ones who looked like they had just finished giving recitals, and students and families were clogging the sidewalks. I overheard a couple of students talking about jungle gym-like that had been brought in for some end of the year event, and I even noticed two elderly gentleman tailgating…something in the parking lot. And before I knew it, I was back at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center and finding a seat for the show.

That's Guile

It Goes With Everything

Walking briskly up a few awkwardly long, carpeted steps towards the Dekelboum Concert Hall, I spied a nice seat just behind the person mixing the audio where I could see the entire orchestra. Although I had to listen to a row of undergrads behind me worry about how they weren’t the mayor of the cafeteria on Foursquare (if only my life had worries such as this above others), my seat was front and center, and it was nice. The lights soon darkened, and all of the students about who were too full of energy from the thought of not having to be in school soon were silenced. It was time to listen to Guile’s Theme.

They say that Guile’s Theme goes with everything, a longstanding internet belief, so it is not out of the question that it would also go with a small jazz ensemble. Performing a relaxed version of this theme you might know and love, the group took time to vamp and give each member a few bars to solo. Unfortunately, the balance among these solos could have used some work, but I am unsure of who to actually focus this comment towards. This issue seemed mostly like it was a mixing problem, as some solos (flute in particular) stood out really well. But it might also have something to do with the hall itself. In the end, though, it is true: Guile’s Theme works everywhere, and that is not up for question anymore.

After this, the orchestra proper came on stage to perform what ended up being my favorite piece of the concert: Kid Icarus Medley. Having grown up playing this game in a time before the internet, I recall drawing detailed maps for the dungeons and having pages of codes written down to outline my inching progress to defeating Medusa. Of course, you could always put in “ICARUS FIGHTS MEDUSA ANGELS” and go straight to the end, but if you did that you were a fool and a charlatan! Pro tip: in the early levels, farm hearts so you can actually afford some of the items. That’s how you beat this otherwise tough game. ANYHOW, putting strings to melodies that have been ingrained in my brain for two decades was the best. The starting music for that game is iconic, and when the dungeon theme came through I worried about being turned into an eggplant. It was great. A couple of moments here and there the piano and strings fought each other a little when they had the same notes, but it wasn’t terrible. I enjoyed this piece so much.

This guy is the worst

Next was a medley from Banjo-Kazooie, complete with actual banjo and kazoos for the main theme. It was fun to see a kazoo armed choir attempt the melody, and if Belá Fleck has taught me anything, a banjo and an orchestra can sound pretty great together. Although I don’t recall anything from Rusty Bucket Bay (my favorite music in the game, oddly enough), quite a bit from the game showed up in this medley, and it was fun. At points when everything was happening, I was unable to hear the banjo, which is too bad, but otherwise pretty enjoyable.

Once the banjo and kazoos were finished, the following piece played was the ending music to Super Mario World. I have it in my notes that it “definitely is the SMW credits.” What I mean is that the piece is a little repetitive. And that is not the fault of the group, they played just fine, but the music itself is about four minutes of the same thing over and over. When you are playing the game, it’s not as noticeable because you are learning that the jerk under Cheese Bridge in Soda Lake you kept dying from is named Torpedo Ted and the dinosaurs on that spinning wheel of doom at the end of each fortress were named Reznor. This was a good rendition of the music and written well, but ultimately not as fun to listen to as I might have hoped.

Lastly, for the first half of the concert was piece entitled Dragonborn from Skyrim. This piece encapsulates what one might expect from game whose atmosphere is basically vikings + dragons: driving hits from bass drums and timpani and guttural shouts from the choir. This is a piece you might be familiar with if you have followed or played Skyrim, and this performance reflected it well. I could have done with a bit more timpani, but I can usually say that always about everything, so maybe that was just me.

This ol' fortress

After the Break

When the lights turned low after intermission, the audience was presented with what probably was the most impressive piece overall: Megamen 3 Epilogue – Protoman’s Whistle Concerto, an arrangement of the ending theme to Megaman 3. What makes this so great is that it was performed, like the original, with just two parts: here a piano and someone whistling. The whistler was spot on and had great inflection in his notes as he just whistled them right out. It was pretty epic, and my lack of words on the performance really just reflects that.

Next was I Was Born For This from the PSN hit Journey. The soundtrack from this game was actually the first video game soundtrack to be nominated for a Grammy, and its composer, Austin Wintory, actually worked with the group to make the arranged. He also was in attendance and spoke. Quite cool. Unfortunately for me, I have not had a chance to play Journey yet (and I have attempted to avoid any spoilers about the game as a result), so prior to this performance I had not heard this piece. I cannot give an accurate critique on whether or not it depicted its source properly, but it was interesting to listen to. A mostly female choral piece, its drawn out melodies and slow builds reflected the name “Journey” as I image the game to be.

Third in the second half was the Kongcerto, a medley of tunes from Donkey Kong 64. The GSO’s last concert included an arrangement for piano from the game, as well, so it seems to be a fount of inspiration for the group. The Kongcerto, however, was fully orchestrated, and even included some nice finger snaps when appropriate. Like Guile’s Theme, the solos here were a little hard to discern, and I would have enjoyed some more chimes, but otherwise it was a fun piece full of music from a game where you went crazy attempting to find all the bananas and Lanky Kong why are all your bananas the hardest to get?! ARGH!

With just a few pieces to go, the group played Super Smash GSbroS, a mashup of the opening themes from the three Super Smash Brothers titles, complete with the overly excited announcer. As a fan of the games, this was certainly fun to listen to. Although there was a little hiccup between the snare on upbeats and the rest of the orchestra here and there, overall it was very fun.

The penultimate piece performed was a medley of music from World of Warcraft. The program says that included were “excerpts from Nordrassil, two of [David Arkenstone’s] Tournament pieces, Aftermath, Bloodsail, Vashj’ir, and Surrender the Booty.” Personally, I could only pick out Nordrassil themes, but considering my main was a Night Elf named Pickleaxe, that probably makes sense. The rest was certainly in the vein of WoW music, themes you might have heard for hours but never had sink in because you were too busy waiting for your Warsong Gulch battleground to start.

Last, but not least, was a performance of music from Shadow of the Colossus which had many, including myself, nodding their heads, tacitly thinking, “AWWW YISSSS.” Hearing the battle music from the game was a treat. It was a great piece to go out on. It was described before the performance that many in the group really enjoy performing the piece and that they had done so several times in the past. that was evident while playing, as everyone seemed to really be in to what they were doing. Nice job.

Dekelboum Concert Hall

In my last review of the group, I had a few suggestions about what they might do to help fix some of the minor issues that seem to crop up during performances. Mostly it all boiled down to practice, practice, practice, which is hardly any advice at all! Having seen two concerts now in the same hall from the same group, though, I think some of the balance issues and the like may be a function of the hall itself. Dekelboum Concert Hall is a pretty large hall, whose interior reaches a couple of stories. Its cavernous domain may simply eat up sound in a way that is unpleasant to the performance. Higher sounds/pitches that cut (flute, violin, etc.) generally come through to the listener just fine, but both times I have had issue with hearing lower registers, bass drum, and timpani. Both of these times, too, I have sat nearer to the back of the hall, so that may very well be the issue. I need to listen to more performances there to get more samplings of its acoustics in an effort to see if my hypothesis is correct. So if you happen to play in the group and take umbrage with me saying you might want to put some more volume in your notes, I apologize. It may very well be the hall gobbling up your sound.

Back to the Real World

After the performance I put myself as far away as possible from the folks worrying about Foursquare, which basically meant leaving the performing arts center and running wildly, arms flailing and akimbo, to my car. Like the concert in December, I thoroughly enjoyed what I heard and am glad I live close to a group that routinely performs music from a pastime so close to me. Keep up the good work, Gamer Symphony Orchestra!


After writing this whole thing I remembered that I wanted to answer one of the questions supplied in the back of the program for this concert:

What arrangements would you like to hear from GSO?

Two things come immediately to mind: Valkyria Chronicles and Xenoblade: Chronicles. I would PAY real money to hear music from these games live.