During his Video Games Live! concerts this weekend in South Florida, Tommy Tallarico says he'll invoke a classic that should unite two generations of video gamers: the arcade gem Space Invaders. On a vast projection screen suspended above a full orchestra on stage, the familiar two-dimensional alien spaceships will zigzag left and right as the digital pew-pew of lasers penetrates a wall of pixelated vessels. The orchestra will reproduce this 8-bit soundtrack, but the spaceships will be piloted by a lucky concertgoer, who will be invited onstage and handed a video-game controller.
"They'll have a two-minute timer to finish the first screen of Space Invaders, and then the music gets faster and faster, do-do-do-do-do-do-do," Tallarico says, imitating the glitchycrawl of the spacecrafts. "It's pretty incredible, it's totally off the cuff. Everybody just goes nuts about this stuff."
The co-creator of Video Games Live! and a music composer for 312 best-selling video games (he holds the Guinness World Record, so, yes, he has counted), Tallarico says his touring show will combine interactive play with soundtracks from 18 video games, electronic percussion, synchronized laser lights and a rock-concert vibe. Audiences generally comprise twentysomethings, children and parents who played video games as kids, all uniting in nerdy revelry to celebrate a lifelong hobby.
"Yes, it honors the video-game industry, but it also legitimizes a gamer's love of being," says Tallarico, 46, whose concert will visit the Adrienne Arsht Center on Friday and the Kravis Center on Saturday. "When young people think of an orchestra, they expect everyone to wear stuffy tuxedos and hear 'Shhh! You're not even allowed to cough.' But this is a classical orchestra playing contemporary video-game pop. If Beethoven were alive today, he'd be a video-game composer."
Tallarico is onstage for most of the songs, usually brandishing a Gibson Les Paul covered in Spider-Man logos, performing songs from popular franchises — "Final Fantasy," "Sonic the Hedgehog" and "Metal Gear Solid" — but also newer titles, including "World of Warcraft," "Halo" and "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim." He'll also project a rock-star showmanship he says is reminiscent of his cousin, Steven Tyler, and a childhood spent backstage at Aerosmith concerts, where he witnessed the singer's "graciousness" and "love of waking up every morning feeling like a rock god."
The genesis for Video Games Live! began when Tallarico was 10. On Saturday afternoons he would wander into video arcades with his portable cassette deck, recording each machine's cacophony of bleeps and bloops. He spliced these field recordings into a crude soundtrack of remixed sounds and, after charging a nickel a head, performed in friends' bedrooms using a broomstick for a guitar. The video-game publisher Virgin Interactive hired him at age 21 as a game tester, but after noticing that soundtracks were often low priority for programmers, Tallarico volunteered to compose his own. In 2005, he staged the first Video Games Live! concerts. They have since been performed in cities from Beijing to São Paulo.
Tallarico will be accompanied by the 70-piece Craig Turley Orchestras, an Orlando-based company that pairs touring concerts with professional orchestras. For Video Games Live!'s pair of South Florida dates, Turley says he hired musicians from Lynn University in Boca Raton, the Miami City Ballet Orchestra and Miami Beach's New World Symphony.
"All the other concerts we do — Rod Stewart, Il Divo — those are 'look-at-me' concerts. This is a 'play-me' concert," Turley says. "This is a show for the gamers, and it exposes young people to live symphony orchestra, and the music they create is exciting."
The video-game concert formula is one that works for the Adrienne Arsht Center, says its vice president and programming director, Scott Shiller, who was surprised when the data the venue collected on ticket buyers skewed younger and more fanatical than other Arsht programming. For the first video-game concert the center hosted in December 2012, "The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses," Shiller says 73 percent were first-time ticket buyers, compared to 80 percent for its second concert, "Final Fantasy: Distant Worlds." The core demographic: men between 25 and 35. Both concerts sold out.
"The biggest thing for the Arsht Center is to drive them in while they're younger, not older," Shiller says. "The gaming console is so a part of everyday life, and a program like Video Games Live! tears down the barrier between video-game-music creators and consumers by letting them interact with each other. I think that integration is so much more powerful."
Visitors to the Arsht and Kravis centers can also partake in a pre-show gathering in each venue's lobby, which will include playable video games, a costume contest with prize giveaways and a post-show meet-and-greet with musicians. Awards also will head to gamers who score during the concert's interactive portion, which includes "Space Invaders" and "Guitar Hero," Tallarico says.
"My generation and younger has video-game music on their computers and iPods, so it's hardly an underground art form," he says. "Our concert is the Lollapalooza for those fans."
Video Games Live!
When: 8 p.m. Friday, May 16, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts; 8 p.m. Saturday, May 17, at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts
Where: Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; and Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach
Cost: $35-$195 at Arsht; $20-$100 at Kravis