PROM 21: GAMING PROM – FROM 8-BIT TO INFINITY | London, Royal Albert Hall

A standing ovation from a (nearly) sold out Royal Albert Hall is a historic success for a Proms first: a concert of video game music. While movie soundtracks have long been able to rely upon lush orchestral scores, video games initially had to wait for the technology to catch up. Now we experience aural vistas every bit as imaginative and transportative as the extraordinary visual worlds.

Journey (2012) was the first video game to be nominated for a Grammy, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra gave us an amazing performance, with principal cellist Richard Harwood capturing the haunting, desert-swept melodies of Austin Wintory’s score.

It seems perverse, then, for most of the concert to be taken up with orchestral imitations of non-orchestral scores. Hildur Guðnadóttir and Sam Slater’s original score for Battlefield 2042 (2021) is an ingenious digital collage of sounds from metal, glass, sand, and human voices. Who wants to hear an orchestral interpretation of this (other than the arranger, conductor Robert Ames)?

It’s delightful to hear woodwind played into a distortion machine, to simulate the retro synth warbling of Pokémon Red on Game Boy (CHAINES), or a full orchestral imitation of the startup noise for a ZX Spectrum. But this preoccupation with gimmicks cost us the chance to enjoy world-beloved orchestral works for video games, and also the chance to revel in the beauty of true 8-bit synthesisers. When one of these kicked in briefly for a new work based on Tim Follin’s 1987 theme, Loading Chronos (Matt Rogers), the result was absolutely spine-tingling.

There seemed to be a laborious quality to the conducting and playing, with more than a few lapsed notes and rhythms. Why could the percussionist not hold down even a few bars of a basic 6/8 shaker rhythm? With a runtime heading on towards two hours, made longer by the addition of two patronising live presenters (Louise Blain and Steffan Powell), the decision to have no interval also didn’t really help proceedings. But, in spite of all that, the Proms clearly have a hit on their hands.

Tickets for all 72 Proms are available from just £7.12 on the BBC Proms 2022 website.

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