Correction to This Article
An Aug. 3 Business article referred to Clear Channel Communications as a concert promoter. Clear Channel sold its live-entertainment division last year.
Mario's New World: Symphonies

By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, August 3, 2006

It's hard out here for a gamer.

Atari looks to be on the verge of bankruptcy, the Entertainment Software Association just announced it was downsizing the E3 trade show, and Sony seems to think the world is going to happily pony up $600 for a PlayStation 3 when it comes out this fall -- though I'm drawing a blank on whether the company has actually shown any games for the thing yet.

The latest item that has me wondering whether it's possible for the entire video game industry to jump the shark, if that's still the phrase, is the strange fact that there are not one but two new production companies trying to make a business out of live video game music performances, with orchestras performing soundtrack music from Nintendo game the Legend of Zelda and other such classic works from the canon.

I mention this because one of them, called "Play: A Video Game Symphony," is rolling into the area right about now and will be appearing at Wolf Trap tomorrow night.

Under the direction of a guest conductor, the National Symphony Orchestra will perform about two hours' worth of soundtracks from hit games -- your Marios, your Halos, your Sonic the Hedgehogs -- as game highlight clips play on Wolf Trap's large video screens. Wolf Trap says tickets for the event are selling at a steady clip, even with the crazy summer heat we've been having lately.

One of the most entertaining things about this new mini-industry of video game music performance might be the squabbling going on behind the scenes. The two companies putting on these productions -- Jason Michael Paul Productions and Mystical Stone Entertainment -- pretty much hate each other and are engaging in a fair amount of trash talk as they fight for the same gigs. They are, you could say, locked in mortal kombat , yuk yuk.

Each accuses the other of stealing a good idea and of confusing the market. One says the other is too cheesy; the other says its competition is too stuffy and not enough fun. (We're getting the allegedly stuffy production.)

This all started with a couple of what were supposed to be one-off concerts. At the request of game publisher Square Enix, "Play" producer Jason Michael Paul organized a concert in which the music for its Final Fantasy series was performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2004. When the concert sold out in three days, Paul, who has a background in marketing, figured it might be profitable to take a video-game-themed show on the road.

Another outfit, headed by video game music composer Tommy Tallarico, put together a show at the Hollywood Bowl, which it called "Video Games Live." When that show sold well, concert promoter Clear Channel, a partner of Mystical Stone, saw dollar signs and quickly put together a nationwide tour last year. But ticket sales weren't strong, and much of the tour was eventually canceled, including a scheduled stop at Nissan Pavilion.

Now, "Video Games Live" is taking a different and more methodical approach by, for example, holding concerts in cities at the same time as game or comic book conventions. VGL has upcoming performances scheduled in Chicago and Indianapolis -- timed with Wizard World and Gen Con, respectively.

Where Paul's production is a straightforward music program, his competition is aiming for more of a festival environment. The "Video Games Live" show features laptop giveaways, a Frogger showdown between players plucked from the audience, lasers and a guy in a Tron suit. Tallarico, who heads his own video game music studio, said he wants "Video Games Live" to be seen as a new kind of event, sort of as Cirque du Soleil was a few years back.

"We wanted to design a show for the non-gamer as well," he said.

"I'm a huge fan of Beethoven, but if I go to a local symphony and I'm watching Beethoven, I get bored," Tallarico said. "Video games are all about visuals; they're all about excitement; they're all about having fun."

Paul, for his part, complains that "Video Games Live" has hurt his business, and he finds the competition's approach annoying. "My whole goal is to keep the arts alive in a way that is classy," he said.

"We were on the verge of taking over the market," Paul said. "But because of the confusion they caused in the marketplace, I've had to scale back my vision. I can't afford a cancellation."

The "Play" program tomorrow night will feature music from the Elder Scrolls game series, the hit franchise from our local guys at Bethesda Softworks. Some of that title's designers are planning to attend tomorrow night's show.

The Elder Scrolls orchestral score -- like much of the other music on the program -- is actually quite good. Composer Jeremy Soule said this week that he is working on some more music for the game to be included with an upcoming addition to Oblivion, the latest entry in the Elder Scrolls series. An avid gamer, Soule recently finished playing the action game Prey, for which he composed the music.

Soule said he hopes the video game music performances will educate some parents and significant others that game music isn't just a bunch of bleeps and bloops. And that's a two-way street -- the National Symphony Orchestra is also hoping that it may win a new young fan or two in the audience of the show.

The NSO's associate conductor, Emil de Cou, said in a cheery phone interview that he's looking forward to the "Play" performance, which he dubbed "a weird, cross-generational cyber blind date" between young gamers and the older musicians of the NSO.

"The arts really do need a kick in the butt, and this helps shake things up," he said. "Maybe I'll buy an Xbox after it's all over."

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