Live Connection brings music from stage to screen

Donald reviews an eclectic evening of music composed for video games, hardly a traditional outlet for classical music–and finds a surprising amount of fun to be had.

Video games and classical music training seem like an unlikely match, but that’s what LiveConnections presents to its audience. Their latest unusual collaboration comes in the team of two Curtis Institute of Music graduates: soprano Elizabeth Zharoff and double bassist Xavier Foley in a concert at World Café Live on June 2.

Zharoff and Foley both love video games and were commissioned to create new video game music over the past nine months. The two were joined by pianist Michelle Cann, a gifted pianist and Curtis graduate.

Before playing the video game pieces, the two contributed works from the Classical canon. Zharoff’s voice was smoothly connected in the opera arias she delivered from Rusalka and I vespri siciliani. The “Song to the Moon” aria from Dvorak’s Rusalka for one is among the lushest arias in the soprano repertoire. With her red hair and engaging stage presence, Zharoff certainly looks (and sounds) the part and should be an in-demand Rusalka in the near future.

Classical roots and contemporary use

Xavier Foley, double bassist. Image via
Xavier Foley, double bassist. Image via

In David Orr’s Skyline — A composition grounded in the Americana tradition but also displaying the vigor of the great Barber string concertos — Foley’s nimble fingers on the bass were showcased particularly in the call and response sections with pianist Cann.

Getting to the video game compositions, in the world premiere of Excalibur, Zharoff’s unclear diction (just in this piece) took me out of the piece’s narrative. Temple Run, the other world premiere, however, showed the audience how the game works on the screen. We learn in the game demonstration that the sound effects in the game play a huge role in the composition. Zharoff divided the audience into three parts to recreate the sound effects in a rhythmic fashion. The object of the game is to know when something’s coming or you die – simple as that. If an audience section missed their cue, Zharoff would die. Fortunately, the audience was quite musical and had fun in their respective parts.

A range of influences

In the second half, Zharoff sang five quick, eccentric songs set to iconic video games Dot, Pac Man, Warcraft, Journey, and Tetris, and Foley played cello music from two of the Baroque period’s great composers, Bach and Vivaldi.

Foley always wanted to compose a piece influenced by the Chinese tradition. In his “The Falling Seagull”, the bassist-composer brings this goal into fruition with his child-like energy as he stomped his feet and let his musical imagination run wild. The piece, with its open chordal structure and aggressive pizzicato notes followed by florid bowed passages, did evoke Chinese music.

Elizabeth Zharoff, soprano; courtesy of Bryan Buttler
Elizabeth Zharoff, soprano; courtesy of Bryan Buttler.

As an encore, Zharoff brought out another doozy of an opera aria – “Summertime” from Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess. Here, the soprano’s voice had a rich quality to it that was mostly absent in the other selections found in the program.

Fourte, the All City Orchestra presented by Project 440 opened the concert with a swift classical period movement. The quartet is comprised of four well groomed young string players who are products of the School District of Philadelphia: Shannon Lanier & Julia Welsh (violins), Felicia Chen (viola), and Fernanda Rocha (cello).

As a child, I never was one to find myself playing video games. At this time, I much preferred to watch Disney movies and visualize myself being the next incarnation of Walt Disney. However, hearing Zharoff and Foley interpret what the medium means to them in a musical context gave me a newfound appreciation in terms of its contribution to our culture. Who knows, I may need to check out the app store and see what I’ve been missing.

For more information on Live Connections, visit the Live Connections website.