Maestro meets Mario

The Baltimore Sun

It seems like an odd marriage: Mario, with his plumber's hat, goomba-stomping shoes and delightfully clunky theme music, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with their suit tails, bow ties and classical repertoire.

But the two will come together Friday when the BSO performs a night of music from popular video games. Called PLAY! A Video Game Symphony, the concert features theme songs from games such as Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fantasy and others. Vignettes from the games will be shown on large overhead screens to accompany the music. Arnie Roth will conduct, and the Handel Choir of Baltimore will provide vocal accompaniment.

Listening to video-game music in front of your TV is one thing, said Jason Michael Paul, the show's producer. Seeing it performed live by a full symphony orchestra is something else entirely.

"It sounds awesome," said Paul, 31. "It's amazing to be in the audience and hear that music, and that's what it's all about."

Paul conceived the project several years ago and organized a symphonic show built around Final Fantasy in Los Angeles in 2004. It sold out, and encouraged by the response, Paul took it on the road.

At first, Paul he had trouble selling the show to orchestras around the country. Even now, it can still be tough to get them to book it, he said.

"It's always a challenge," he said. "They're used to playing standard repertoire - the classics. When you bring in something new, it's a challenge. It brings them out of their comfort zone."

But BSO officials saw PLAY as a smart addition to their programming schedule. In recent years, the BSO has brought in numerous such shows. The goal is to appeal to a younger audience that traditionally dodges the symphony, said Kendra Whitlock Ingram, the BSO's vice president and general manager.

Ingram saw PLAY in Chicago and wanted to bring it to Baltimore. The show is a hit with kids in their early teens, 20-somethings and their parents, too, she said.

"You think kids are not interested in symphonic music," she said. "It's boring, it's complicated, it's sophisticated. But the people who listened to these games all know this music well, and the audience is surprisingly quiet and incredibly attentive. It really shows off the orchestra and exposes us to people who might not necessarily come."

When Paul first organized the show several years ago, he sat down and relistened to scores from early video games (going back 25 years for Super Mario Bros.) Hearing that music again was a nostalgia trip, Paul said. He was the first kid on his block to have a Sega Genesis, and he spent countless hours in front of his TV, controller in hand, pushing buttons.

"There's a lot of memories associated with it - a lot of staying up late, my dad telling me to go to bed, and then, of course, me going to bed and seeing him stay up hours and hours playing games," he said. "I remember my dad being super tired because he stayed up really late."

In the past, Paul has reached out to the original creators of some of the theme songs and invited them to see PLAY. It was a real eye-opener - for them and him.

"They're very humble people," he said. "They don't really know how famous they are, but when we have shows and invite them, they get a huge kick out of it. They're amazed at how responsive the crowds are to their music. It's a highlight for them to be able to come to a show and hear their music performed by such a great orchestra."

After meeting people including Koji Kondo, who wrote the music for Zelda and Super Mario Bros., Paul got a sobering look into the world of Japanese video-game composers. Unlike soundtrack writers in the U.S., Kondo, who is an employee of Nintendo, receives no residuals for his work, Paul said.

"It's kind of interesting," he said. "Think about how much money these games have made throughout the course of time - millions and billions of dollars, yet he's probably collecting a salary, which I'm sure is fine, but it's not major."

Before taking PLAY on the road, Paul worked as a concert promoter for internationally touring musicians, such as opera singer Luciano Pavarotti. With those kinds of tours, the performer is often far removed from the crowd. Symphony halls offer shows like PLAY a level of intimacy larger venues can't, he said.

"That's what I like about this show - you feel really close to the artists and the beauty of the music," he said. "Nothing beats it. There's no amplification. You don't need it."

If you go

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presents PLAY! A Video Game Symphony at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $30 to $60. Call 410-783-8000 or go to

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