December 18, 2018

L.A. Jewish Symphony takes on video game music at the Ford Theatres

Video game music has developed far beyond the cheesy synthesizers of 1980s Nintendo games.

These days, some of the most exciting work being done in classical music can be discovered when firing up a PlayStation or Xbox. Some of these standout compositions will be performed by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS) at its “Let’s Play LA!” concert Aug. 21 at the Ford Theatres.

Before she curated this concert, music for video games was “a genre I knew nothing about,” said Noreen Green, LAJS artistic director and conductor. And when she first heard of classical music being composed for video games, she was incredulous. 

“How could this music be of any value?” she remembers wondering.

Green played a video game composition by Israeli-born Inon Zur for her husband, Ian Drew, the board president of LAJS, which is dedicated to playing music of the Jewish experience.

“He remarked, ‘Wow, this is so much more sophisticated than I expected!’ ” she said. “It’s amazing. They’re like the opera composers of today. The complexity of the music and how it fits into the game is really extraordinary.”

The idea for the concert began when composer Garry Schyman sent Green a video of a stripped-down performance of his viola concerto. Schyman, who teaches screen scoring at USC, also wrote the music for the popular video game series “BioShock,” and using those two pieces, Green started to put together the rest of the evening’s selection.

The concert will begin with a focus on Jewish composers who have had an influence in Hollywood. It will include a tribute to Mickey Katz, the clarinetist and Catskills entertainer, performed by LAJS’s clarinetist, arranger and klezmer expert Zinovy Goro. 

The orchestra also will play Walter Scharf’s “The Palestine Suite” and Elmer Bernstein’s guitar concerto. Both had long careers writing music for the silver screen. Scharf worked on more than 100 films, including Barbra Streisand’s “Funny Girl” (1968) and “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971). Bernstein composed music for more than 200 TV shows and films, such as “The Ten Commandments” (1956) and “The Magnificent Seven” (1960).

The second half of the show will focus on video game compositions, which can rival the complexity of movie and TV soundtracks. The pieces include Schyman’s “BioShock” theme as well as “Zingaro,” his viola concerto (which is not featured in a game).

Max Brenner, a 22-year-old senior at USC, will be the soloist for Bernstein’s guitar concerto. Matthew Cohen will solo in the world premiere of Schyman’s viola concerto.

Schyman’s entry into video game composition happened as a fluke. He was a TV composer when, in 2004, his agent sent his resume to a video game publisher. It turned out Schyman’s college girlfriend’s roommate was an executive at the company; a dozen years later, he continues to win awards for his game scores.

“It earns twice what film and TV earn in any one year, so it’s a huge industry,” he said. Moreover, video game music is being performed all over the world, and “it’s bringing a whole new audience into the concert hall, who would never ordinarily come for just classical music,” he said.

Schyman added that while music for video games may not be the future of classical music, “it’s part of the future.” 

Zur, the Israeli composer, agreed, calling video game music “a great pipeline” for young composers.

While music for film or TV is locked to what’s happening on the screen, much of video game music is interactive, using sophisticated software that instantaneously changes the music depending on what happens in the game. The music can shift to match the mood of the story, and characters in the game are accompanied by their own musical motifs.

“The music can really score each individual player’s experience, so that it feels as if you’re watching a scene in a movie, and yet in fact what you’re doing is you’re taking your own unique experience and having it scored,” Schyman said.

“Movie and TV music has one beginning, one middle and one end. In video games, you have usually one beginning, you have at least three or four or five endings, and you have almost an endless middle,” Zur said.

In some cases, a player can be nudged to make decisions in the game based on the music that is being played. For example, in the game “Prince of Persia,” which Zur scored, the player must choose between saving his lover or saving the world. Until that point, the player’s decisions will trigger either a romantic theme or what Zur described as an “environmental theme,” and the repetition of the music will support the player’s actions.

Two of Zur’s pieces will be performed at the upcoming musical event: the concert suite from “Fantasia: Music Evolved,” which was written for a motion-controlled music rhythm game based on Disney’s animated films “Fantasia” and “Fantasia 2000”; and music from “Fallout 4,” a post-apocalyptic role-playing game.

Zur lived on a kibbutz in Israel until he was 18, but he said his broader heritage inspires his music. For example, his Russian heritage informed his score for the game “Syberia III.”

“I’m weaving it, without even thinking about it, of course, into my compositions. Although I do have a lot of other influences, I must say that this part of me, the Jewish part and the Israeli part, is playing a huge role in who I am musically,” Zur said.

Schyman’s viola concerto “Zingaro” is named for the Italian word for gypsy, but he said he has  been told its second movement sounds Jewish.

“At first I was like, no, it’s just gypsy, but then I thought maybe it is the Jewish part of me coming out,” he said. 

The same could be said for Mahler’s music, he said, even though the Jewish-born composer converted to Catholicism and would disagree that his music sounded Jewish. “It’s like someone who is born in Hungary and comes to America when they’re 20 and learns perfect English. But there’s always an accent,” he said.

This is the 12th year that LAJS is performing at the Ford Theatres, though it took a break last year while the Ford was under renovation. The facility reopened last month.

Since being founded in 1994, LAJS has performed at universities, synagogues, community centers, shopping malls and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It has performed for Jewish day schools, as well as public schools with mostly Latino students.

Jews are often segmented among religious, ethnic, cultural and political groups, but “music unites them all,” said artistic director and conductor Green.

“Somehow music gets into your kishkas. You feel more Jewish when you listen to Jewish music than any other time. Or,” she said with a laugh, “maybe when you’re eating a bagel.”

For tickets and more information, visit