BBC Proms 2022 - Prom 21: Gaming Prom - From 8-Bit to Infinity

August 3, 2022, 11:09 PM · If you've been a reader of my violinist.com blogs for the past six summers, you know I'm a huge fan of the BBC Proms, listening online through the BBC Sounds app across the Pond. Although I can't listen to every concert every day, whatever I do choose to listen to is always a magical treat, featuring fantastic music of all varieties. This year opened with a stunning performance of Verdi's epic Requiem, and the first time I listened to the piece in full. I also enjoyed Prom 2, with John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London playing a cornucopia of British music from Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (a piece I now know quite well from the Proms past and the Philharmonia Orchestra, also based in the U.K.) to Elgar's 'Enigma' Variations, a piece I played with the Augustana Symphony Orchestra in my undergraduate. Prom 9 featured The Two Scheherazades, Ravel's Fantasy Overture and Rimsky-Korsakov's epic orchestral suite, with an incredible harp concerto by Sally Beamish called Hive - a BBC co-commission world premiere that was truly buzzing. Finally, there was a Proms at Battersea for the BBC Young Composers, featuring seven world premieres by young talent all across England that was really inspiring to hear as a composer myself. I always love hearing everyone's unique styles in a composer's concert like that.

Readers of my blog might also know I have delved into some of my favorite video game scores from time to time here, whether they be nostalgic games I loved as a kid (like Super Mario Galaxy 2 or Kid Icarus: Uprising), or favorite games from a YouTuber I liked watching Let's Plays of. (Now, there's a gaming podcast I enjoy listening to - and have had a violin cover played on it in one of the early episodes! - called The Bonus Points, which I'd love to discuss the music from some of their games in the future as a follow-up.)

There's a point to all this preamble... for on August 1st, 2022, Prommers at the Royal Albert Hall in London got a performance of this year's Gaming Prom! I was actually just waiting for my violin student to arrive today, scrolling through the BBC Sounds app on my phone, when I came across this Prom I missed. This was the very first gaming-related Prom ever! Finally, a combination of two of my favorite things: gaming and the BBC Proms! (I mean, I enjoyed Doctor Who at the Proms in 2013, and would look forward to a return in 2023 if it happens...) But still. This was a special moment, and I spent the remainder of my evening listening to the concert. It was performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and conducted by Robert Ames.

The event opened with a BBC Commission: a world premiere of a piece by Matt Rogers (with reference to Tim Follin's score) called "Loading Chronos." This was inspired by a 1987 shoot-'em-up arcade game referencing glitches and using old chip tune synths within the orchestra to bring back that analogue sound. In fact, many of the pieces used these synths, adding for a pretty unique experience. There was one moment with gorgeous strings in B minor, and that classic bVI-bVII-I progression we all know now as a heroic sound. Most of the piece was just for the orchestra, before, towards the end, the strings got down to a soft tremolo, letting the synth join in to add that electronic sound to the mix a bit like a Piano Concerto. These synths were a lovely color alongside the live strings.

Following that, we heard a beautiful arrangement of Koji Kondo's Legend of Zelda theme. I have heard this arrangement before; I believe it's the same one the London Symphony Orchestra put on their 2011 album, "The Greatest Video Game Music." Still, it's full of gorgeous orchestration, with the bombastic strings playing that classic tune we all know alongside snare, and later on, the oboe takes it into a more sentimental direction, which the violins again copy.

We were then treated to a trio of games from the '90s mashed together into a medley: a Tribute to Pokémon, Ecco [the Dolphin], and Secret of Mana. Unfortunately, I don't know those last two soundtracks well, but I loved the Pokémon one, having recently arranged the main theme in a jazzy way at the start of 2020 for a daily VGM-writing project I did. Rather than setting the tune in a bombastic way like the Zelda score, Chaines opts to use cor anglais and oboes alongside that chip tune synth from earlier to mimic each other's sonic palettes, which is such a clever orchestration technique and super unexpected. It really takes you back to playing those original games on the Game Boy. "Lavender Town" with the synths was incredibly spooky, too.

Following that was another trio of Japanese scores: first, Nobuo Uematsu's "Liberi Fatali" from Final Fantasy VIII. This was a straight recreation from that game's opening cutscene, to represent the jump in technology getting to have the full orchestral sonic palette at a composer's fingertips to be used in the games. Sadly, there was no choir for this concert, so the choir part was orchestrated into the instruments - not unlike Ravel writing orchestral suites for Daphnis et Chloe! - but I can only imagine how powerful that ending was in the hall. Yoko Shimomura's Kingdom Hearts was gorgeous as well, taking a magical theme that could have belonged in a Disney film and creating this sweeping orchestral score with strings, harp, and woodwind flourishes. Shadow of the Colossus is another game I don't know as well, but its orchestral score was quite epic at the time of its release.

Next up was Austin Wintory's "Excerpts from Traveller - A Journey Symphony." Journey was a powerful 2012 game that really pushed video game music into the mainstream, and featured a mournful solo cello throughout this medley. It had a lot of somber B minor melodies and heavy strings I noticed as well and was absolutely gorgeous. Following this, we got something completely different: Selections from Battlefield 2042, and the European premiere of this piece! This game launched just last year, with a jarring, gritty electronic score by Oscar Academy-award winner Holder Gudnadóttir (she composed for Joker) and Sam Slater. They took sound effects from the game and used them in the score itself, and it's neat to see how they're electronically manipulated and commentated on by the orchestra. It just goes to show the boundaries for game music (and all media - and music in general!) truly are limitless - this was something separate to the Romantic scores we tend to think of more.

The final piece was a really nice orchestral work by British composer Jessica Curry of tracks from Dear Esther. It was a grand ending to an incredible night of game music. The whole night really did a great job of bringing together my two passions with top-level composers and arrangers coming together to bring this music to the concert hall. From The 8-Bit Big Band winning a Grammy on their Kirby Super Star arrangement earlier this year, to now this, it seems game music more and more is becoming an integral part of music as a whole. I'd love to see more of these Gaming Proms in the future, as there are 40+ years of games to pick from!

I'll be enjoying the rest of the BBC Proms season and possibly reviewing another concert or two - the CBBC concert for children taking us on an ocean adventure seems really cute!; and Mahler 4!! - but for now, I'll sign off here. Thanks for reading, and happy practicing/listening/gaming!

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