Tommy Tallarico remembers the skepticism that greeted his idea to put on a concert of video game music.
"Everyone thought I was insane," said Tallarico, who has been composing for video games for more than 23 years. "I was told that people who go to the symphony don't play video games, and people who play video games don't go to the symphony. So who the hell would ever come to such a thing?"
In 2005, Tallarico debuted his production of Video Games Live at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "11,000 people showed up for that first show," he said. "All of a sudden I wasn't so crazy."
Today, Video Games Live is a flourishing touring production that performs up to 50 shows a year. With Tallarico as host and guitarist, it comes to St. Petersburg on Friday for a concert with the Florida Orchestra and the USF Chamber Singers.
The set list changes from concert to concert, but it always includes music from popular series such as Mario, Zelda, Final Fantasy, Halo and Warcraft. "If I had to pick one, what gamers consider the best video game music, it's from the games Final Fantasy," he said. "The scores are by a Japanese composer by the name of Nobo Uematsu. He's kind of like the Beethoven or John Williams of the video game industry. His music is very classical."
Friday's concert will also include music from games like Kingdom Hearts, Sonic the Hedgehog, Pokeyman, Tetris, Skyrim and Super Smash Bros, "a very big game that people will be psyched to hear about," Tallarico said.
The staging is suitably razzle dazzle. "It's not just a symphony on stage playing video game music," Tallarico said. "What makes it special is that everything is completely synchronized to massive video screens, interactive elements with the crowd, special effects, rock 'n' roll lighting. I'll bring people from the audience on stage to play a video game while the orchestra is playing the music and changing it on the fly depending on what the people are doing on screen."
Video Games Live draws a young crowd, which is music to the ears of symphony orchestra managers desperate to broaden their audience. "I would say that 70 to 80 percent of the audience will be in their 20s," Tallarico said. "But you don't need to know anything about video games. The best emails we get after the performance are from the nongamers. They can't believe how great it is. I get it now, they say, now I see why my kid, my boyfriend is into video games. I get those all the time."
Tallarico, 44, grew up in the '70s playing video games with his father in Springfield, Mass. He first got hooked on Pong, one of the early video games. "Me and my dad were over at his friend's house, and the guy had a Coleco Telstar (game console)," he said. "It was mind blowing. The next day we got one. It became a big family thing. Playing video games was something my folks did with me."
Before Video Games Live became his main thing, Tallarico was a prolific composer of game scores, with more than 300 titles to his credit, including Earthworm Jim, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and Sonic the Hedgehog. The success of his concerts is based on the strong, almost addictive hold that role-playing games have on fans.
"People are playing video games 10, 20, 30, even 40 hours a week, and the music is in your face," he said. "And when you play a video game, you become that character. Therefore, the music to that game becomes the soundtrack of your life."
Video games and violence have been a hot topic since the school shooting in Connecticut. "Video games are getting a bad rap," Tallarico said. "They've become the new scapegoat for violence, like comic books were in the '50s."
Tallarico keeps violent images out of his show. "We don't show any of that," he said. "You don't need to. Even the M rated games, like Halo or Metal Gear Solid or God of War, are beautiful on their merits without showing violent content. I want this to be a family show."
For several years, the gaming business has been in a slump, with retail sales off. A poor economy hasn't helped, with games with a physical disc going for $60, but the real problem has been the rise in popularity of Angry Birds and other games made for smartphones and costing 99 cents to download.
Tallarico isn't especially concerned. "It's a cycle," he said, pointing out that the release just before Christmas of Call of Duty: Black Ops II "did more business in the opening weekend than Avatar (the blockbuster movie) did" in a comparable period.
What's the coolest game he has seen lately?
"Red Dead Redemption is un-flipping-believable," Tallarico said. "You're a gunfighter. You can be a good guy. You can be a bad guy. You could literally play the game forever. It's one of these immersive sandbox games, they call them. The music by Bill Elm is incredible."
Joshua Bell to perform
The Cleveland Orchestra, under music director Franz Welser-Most, performs at 8 p.m. Monday at Van Wezel Hall in Sarasota. Joshua Bell is the soloist in Beethoven's Violin Concerto, followed by Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique. $40-$70. (941) 955-0040; scasarasota.org. Bell plays a recital Feb. 22 at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.