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Arts & Culture

A Different Way to ‘Play’ Video Games

Gamer Symphony Orchestra Brings Music From Electronic Worlds to Life

By Annie Krakower

Gamer Symphony Orchestra with Mario, Zelda and Pokémon characters in the background

The Gamer Symphony Orchestra, the first collegiate ensemble to exclusively perform video game music, arranges songs from favorites like “Super Mario,” “The Legend of Zelda” and “Pokémon.”

Photo courtesy of Gamer Symphony Orchestra; character images courtesy of Nintendo; texture by Pexels

Whether you’re rescuing Princess Zelda, collecting coins as Mario or battling the Covenant in the world of Halo, video game quests wouldn’t be quite as fun without the swells of strings, merry melodies and techno beats providing the soundtrack to your virtual heroism. A University of Maryland club levels up that musical experience.

The Gamer Symphony Orchestra (GSO), the first collegiate ensemble to exclusively arrange and perform video game music, brings the scene-setting songs from the screen to the stage. Since its 2005 founding, the group has crescendoed in popularity, now with 140 members playing two packed concerts per semester. The first of this fall begins at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

“There’s a very strong overlap between people who are into video games and exploring different genres, who also enjoy weird forms of music,” especially among college students who grew up with several consoles, said GSO President Zach Calcagno ‘23.

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Michelle Eng ’07, a former violist for the UMD Repertoire Orchestra, formally merged those interests when she started the club 17 years ago, recruiting a half-dozen fellow members to form a modest group. After its first public performance at Maryland Day that spring, featuring tunes from “The Legend of Zelda” and “Final Fantasy,” the orchestra took off. It eclipsed the 100-member mark just five years later, with all majors—not just music-focused ones—welcome.

“Being a STEM major, I knew I wasn’t going to get a lot of chances to play my instrument,” said violist Emily Hossom ’23, the club’s orchestra conductor and biological sciences major. “(The GSO) seemed like the perfect opportunity of an orchestra that was more relaxed.”

But the gaming focus doesn’t mean the performances are all fun and games. The group, which includes a full orchestra and choir, rehearses twice a week, with all its music arranged by members or alums from their favorite animated adventures (popular ones include the aforementioned “Zelda” and “Final Fantasy,” as well as “Pokémon,” “Hollow Knight” and “Monster Hunter”). They don’t repeat any pieces for at least two years to keep things fresh for the often-sold-out crowds.

As it did for other musical ensembles, COVID-19 took the wind out of the GSO’s performances. The students worked hard to stay afloat, said longtime faculty adviser Derek Richardson, professor of astronomy and a gamer himself, including acquiring special masks for performances and working with campus authorities to resume shows as soon as it was safe. Now that the pandemic is past its peak, the orchestra is more popular than ever; 98 people auditioned this fall, with 42 accepted.

“Sometimes sections are very, very competitive,” Hossom said. “We like to include people that have a real passion for our kind of music and would get the most out of the experience.”

As the group has grown, it’s added charity events to its semester lineups—like Gaming4Life, with donations supporting Children’s National Hospital—and is exploring partnering with teams from UMD’s blossoming esports scene. The GSO has even earned invitations to play at the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center—“bonkers” experiences, said Choir Director Neel Sanghvi Ph.D. ’26, and proof that the fantastical tunes have broad artistic reach.

“What’s kind of baffling to me is that we can have anyone from our college level to, like, 80-year-olds enjoying the music that we’re playing,” he said. “Video game music kind of transcends video games themselves.”

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