As I approached the DeVos Performance Hall January 29th, I noted my drastic lack of formal attire. With my jeans, tennis shoes, and backpack, it wasn’t clear I was about to attend a symphonic concert. But to my relief, I wasn’t the only one, for this concert was no ordinary Grand Rapids Symphony concert. The concert was Play! A Video Game Symphony, and gamers from children to adults came to listen to their favorite gaming themes.
The whole concert experience felt more democratic in nature; there was no assumed dress code for the event, though some chose to wear gaming T-shirts to show their pride. Gamers cheered loudly for their favorite games, starting the concert with continuous, uproarious cheering through the first piece, various Super Mario Bros. themes. Eventually the audience bridled their their enthusiasm at appropriate moments to listen, but their participation illustrates the communication between both parties, the performers and the audience. With the symphony’s increase in live performances to film, this indicates the symphony’s attempts at both broadening the scope of their audience and perforating the line between high culture and low (pop) culture.
Aiding in this democratization was Andy Brick, encouraging the audience to be vocal about their love for this music. Not only was he the conductor for the evening, a video game music composer and conductor of the Play! Symphony tour from 2006-2010. He took time to introduce each piece and the game the music was attached to, and illustrated the sense of pride and celebration of the gaming artform. It’s hard not to get elated when the conductor himself sang along to the Dragonborn theme from Skyrim.
The music itself was thrilling, bring a full scope of textures and a richness to the music that. Having a full orchestra only amplified the mood and atmosphere of the pieces, especially the creepy tones to the Castlevania and Metroid themes. The video game footage playing on three large screens above the orchestra (which also cut to live footage of Brick and performers throughout as well) also helped set the mood and illustrated the artistry of both the music and game. The Legend of Zelda piece might have had the best combination of music and visuals. Beginning with the opening Zelda theme and beautiful images across the open plains of Hyrule, the experience was transcendent.
I suspect the Symphony will keep expanding the standard classical limits and integrate the popular arts into their performances. If their work is anything like Play!, breaking the high/low culture barrier will prove fruitful indeed.
Driving down to Detroit, anticipation for the Sigur Rós concert was quelled by assigned readings and reflection. Remnants of a lecture lingered in my mind concerning the decline of the city, robbed of its vitality with the decline of industry in the nation. But within the city, a gilded stage remains, The Fox Theater, the destination of my friends and I for our eventful night.
There are many acts that are radically different seeing live than listening via an album. My Brightest Diamond’s set last year comes to mind; full of masks, theatricality, and raw talent, Shara Worden elevates her music to beautiful performance art. The same might be said for Sigur Rós. With the elegant theater stage set with an opaque screen separating the performers from the audience, the concert began. Projections of light and images illuminated the screen, eventually culminating with a large shadow of a man lit to mythic proportions. That man would be Jónsi, wailing on his guitar with a violin bow, blasting sound to fill the room. At the apex of their second song in, the veil dramatically dropped, and the concert really began.
With a large encompassing screen in the back and small lights on the stage, Sigur Rós combines visuals and music as effectively as I’ve ever seen in a large show, often connecting the two in terms of creates a cohesive atmospheric effect. The visuals always supported and added to the narrative effect of each song. Whether it be the slow plan up of revealing to be a mountain, a colored wave of light mirroring the surface of water, or the actual music video to the track itself, the production values illustrated themselves as more than just eye candy, but inherent to the performance itself.
The music was grand in every sense of the word; epic in scope and breadth, nuanced and mixed for clarity and precision, and performed to fill the auditorium to the brim with luscious sound. One highlight of the night included the performance of “Brennisteinn,” a heavier, metal-inflected track off their new album coming out this June. Another was a drifting vocal solo by Jonsi to finish a song, hitting a high note for over a minute with an almost beguiling sense of grace and serenity. With a mix of old favorites and newer tracks, one length encore was enough to make concert attendees fully satisfied.
Needless to say, my friends and I left the theater elated. One mentioned it was the best concert he’d ever been to, while another mentioned it exceeded his already high expectations. Driving back, the night ended with the remark that every human being should see a Sigur Rós song performed live. Leaving the lusciously decorated Fox Theater into the disparate Detroit cold, I lamentably, yet heartily agreed.