‘Serious’ orchestras are taking on music more often connected with the screen — big or small. Paul Little finds out why.

At the end of the month the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra will file into Auckland Town Hall, tune up and play the theme from Super Mario Brothers along with music from other video games, Aliens, Star Wars and Game of Thrones.

In April, the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra performed with the Auckland band Leisure, devoting a whole concert to their music.

What's going on? Beethoven and Brahms not good enough for them?

In fact, orchestras have always enjoyed occasionally getting their, ahem, groove on, with music outside the standard classical repertoire but the trend is experiencing an international boom, focused not just on those genres but also the unlikely likes of video game soundtracks.


The APO was the first local outfit to venture into this territory.

"We did an incredible concert with Final Fantasy[a sci-fi/fantasy game franchise] a couple of years ago," says CEO Barbara Glaser. "There was an overture, a piano concerto, which was all music from the game, and then a Final Fantasy symphony. We had a completely new group of people and some of them were in tears, they were so moved."

The NZSO's previous video game work includes recording the soundtrack for Titanfall2 in 2016.

Although this is his first time conducting such a concert, Gordon Hamilton, himself a composer, is as comfortable with the music of Grand Theft Auto as he is with Messiah. It's work he rates highly, and he's not at all surprised that composers are producing major music for apparently minor media.

"Composers have always flocked to where the audience is," says Hamilton. "Today the audience are playing video games, watching HBO, going to the movies. So, there's a need for it. When music was mostly heard in churches, then composers worked in church."

As well as waxing rhapsodic about the revolutionary qualities and technical inventiveness of Koji Kondo's music for Super Mario Brothers, Hamilton cites James Horner as a major composer.

"He's more famous for Titanic, but the suite from Aliens is a massive artistic statement with incredible special effects pushing the orchestra into very interesting avant-garde territory. Pianists play inside the piano with bass drum mallets. The violins are playing high and out of time. He creates sounds that sound like they're coming from software but are actually produced by the musicians."

Lucrecia Colominas, the NZSO's head of artistic planning, says non-classical audiences are already accustomed to symphonic sound. "We are probably not that conscious of how much we all consume orchestral music outside the concert hall," she says, adding that the relationship of the consumer to the music is a key factor in programming concerts.


"I am personally not a video game player," she says, "but there's a lot of emotion to music that we all create, whether in video games or to situations in life. In this particular case, I assume a game fan will immediately imagine and have an emotional response."

The question is often asked: will this programming lure a new audience to experience the classical repertoire? Maybe it's the wrong question.

Glaser foresees parallel audiences developing, and that's just fine with her. "We'd love people who come to a video game or film or David Bowie concert to come to a normal concert, but if they don't, it doesn't take away from the fantastic thing they've experienced. I'm not of the mind they have to convert or it doesn't mean anything. It just means lot to have them there experiencing what a fantastic asset Auckland has in the APO."

Hamilton has a slightly different view. "A lot of the scores for games, films and TV are turned into suites which are completely logical and enjoyable and stand on their own," says the conductor. "They could easily be programmed in a concert of otherwise 'normal' repertoire and occupy a slot at the beginning of a concert. It would be a way to include some music of today."

Meanwhile, the APO continues to develop in new directions without, reports Glaser, having to face down any fuddy-duddy pushback from traditionalists. Coming up next month is a salute to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong with Australian trumpeter James Morrison, and a gig in October will extend the notion of crossover to TV talent shows, in the form of Gold Coast-based Maori trio The Koi Boys, who impressed on The Voice in Australia.

"I saw them in Rotorua a couple of years ago and they are a class act," says Glaser. "It will be new because we'll have arrangements especially done and get to reach another different audience. That's exciting for us."