For some 40 years, Tommy Tallarico has had two passions — music and video games.
Nothing too surprising there. Plenty of people coming of age in the late '70s and early '80s spent much of their free time either accompanying the Stones or Aerosmith on air guitar or pumping quarters into "Space Invaders," "Frogger" or "Pac-Man" at the nearest video arcade.
But how many parlayed those passions into playing video-game music accompanied by a symphony orchestra? Now that's a select group.
"I wanted to make a statement to the world that this is something serious," Tallarico, 46, says over the phone from his home in Orange County, Calif., recalling the inaugural performance of "Video Games Live" in 2005, when he was joined onstage at the Hollywood Bowl by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "Everybody thought I was completely insane and figured that nobody would show up. ... Well, 11,000 people showed up for that first show, and all of a sudden, I wasn't so crazy."
Saturday night at the Meyerhoff, Tallarico and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will present "Video Games Live," a sound, light and effects show moving video-game music off screens and onto the concert stage. With music spanning the entire video game chronology, from "Pong" and "Tetris" to "Halo," Tallarico, the creator and host of "Video Games Live," promises that fans and skeptics alike will be blown away — skeptics by the realization of the range of music accompanying today's video games, fans by how good that music sounds when played live by a full orchestra.
"I kind of like to describe it as having the power and emotion of a symphony orchestra, but combined with the energy of a rock concert," Tallarico says, "mixed together with all the cutting-edge visuals and technology and interactivity and fun that video games provide."
While this is the first time the BSO will host "Video Games Live," it's far from the first time the orchestra has performed a night of video game music. Several times in recent years — and often to coincide with Otakon, the huge Japanese pop-culture convention held every summer at the Baltimore Convention Center — the symphony has performed a concert of music from the "Final Fantasy" canon. (They won't be doing so this year because Otakon 2014 is scheduled for Aug. 8-10, when the BSO is on break.)
Clearly, this is symphonic music aimed not at the typical concert-orchestra fan. And that goes a long way in explaining not only why the BSO is happy to be performing video game music, but why similar shows are popping up all over the country. Just next month in Washington, D.C., a show called "Pokemon: Symphonic Evolutions" kicks off a tour that will include future shows in Philadelphia and elsewhere.
"It definitely brings in a wide audience, and in many cases a younger audience," says Matt Spivey, the BSO's vice president of artistic operations. "But it's also interesting to see that a lot of the fans of these video game shows aren't necessarily just 9- and 10- and 12- and 14-year-old kids. ... We see everything from younger kids up through adults who are in their 30s, 40s and 50s, people who are really avid fans of this music."
That shouldn't surprise people. Much as movies employ sophisticated symphonic soundtracks to tell their stories — try imagining "Lawrence of Arabia" without Maurice Jarre's soaring score, or "Star Wars" without John Williams' majestic soundtrack — video game scores have become far more complex musically.
"We're not talking about little 16-bit blips and bleeps anymore," Spivey says. "We're talking about fully scored symphonic compositions that are written by conservatory graduates."
The music is going to sound immeasurably better and far more powerful played live at the Meyerhoff, assures BSO percussionist John Locke. "It's like it just leaps out of the computer," says Locke, who last week was already busy practicing for Saturday's performance. "It's nice, because the sound's all around you. No matter how good a sound system you've got on your computer, this is gonna be better."
Tallarico, who will be taking "Video Games Live" on a tour of China immediately after the Baltimore show, promises Locke isn't overstating the case. His show's highlights, he notes, include an opening musical montage moving from "Pong" through "Dragon's Lair" (some 25 years of video-game history) in six minutes, a segment where one lucky audience member gets to be a human "Space Invaders" rocket up on the stage and a number where the score from "Tetris" is re-imagined as a complete Russian opera.
And if you doubt Tallarico knows how to put on a show, consider this: His cousin is Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, who taught him a little bit about performing in front of thousands of people.
"Growing up, I would watch him from the side of the stage," he says. "And to me, whenever I would see him onstage — and I was only 7, 8, 9 years old — I would see him perform in front of 30,000, 40,000 people. And to me, it was always, 'If he can do that, that looks like a fun job. That's what I want to be when I grow up.'"
Nowadays, Tallarico sometimes finds himself playing the same stages cousin Steven once prowled. And while "Video Games Live" may not attract Aerosmith-size audiences, Tallarico says he's still livin' the dream.
"It's not really a rivalry, because I'll never be on his level," Tallarico says.
"But I always remind him that he was the inspiration."
"Video Games Live" is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. There will be a "Guitar Hero" contest and a costume contest at 6 p.m. Tickets are $28-$168. Information: bsomusic.org.