With Plenty of CS Students, Gamer Symphony Orchestra Gears Up for an Electric Semester

The student-run ensemble prepares for their first performance of the semester next Saturday.
By Marcus Fedarko

Perhaps you've attended one of their performances. Perhaps you've heard about them secondhand. Perhaps you've heard of them in hushed whispers only as “that one group that performs video game music," and you still aren't sure if they're even real. Whatever the case, the fact remains that within its almost ten years of existence at the University of Maryland, the Gamer Symphony Orchestra (GSO) has captured student attention and participation on campus and it has redefined the norms of collegiate music ensembles.

Founded by violist Michelle Eng in Fall 2005 and advised since Spring 2006 by Astronomy professor Dr. Derek Richardson, the GSO's repertoire is drawn exclusively from video games. According to the group's website, its stated focus is on “performing orchestral arrangements of video game music and using that music as an educational tool.” The Orchestra is a student-run organization: “From the arrangements to the music selection to reserving concert halls to running rehearsal, everything is headed up by students,” writes Bryan Doyle '15 (BS, Computer Science), a clarinetist and a conductor for the group this semester. “I think that is one of the great things about GSO: every student wants to be there, and they are really passionate and have a great time making fantastic music with even better people.”

The Orchestra's hundred-strong members represent a wide variety of majors from across campus—and, in addition to instrumentalists, the ensemble features a choir of around 30 singers. “I had never performed with [a choir] before,” notes Leanne Cetorelli '18 (BME, Music Education), a bass clarinetist in the GSO. “It adds a whole different layer and texture to the music, and even though there's an added difficulty associated, there are more opportunities available to us as well.”

To be sure, video game music is a very diverse genre. “Even in individual games, there are many musical styles, so we really get to expand our abilities,” writes Doyle. The depth and emotive potential of the repertoire is significant, even with (or, perhaps, as a result of) its focused scope: “Some of the music we play has such great connections to our childhood, and it can really evoke strong emotions. Even without having played the games, you can still feel the story and the emotion through the music.”

Though the academic semester may be moving toward its end, the GSO's performance season is just beginning. This semester the group will be performing music from the Halo, Legend of Zelda, and Portal game series, among others. The ensemble will be giving a “sneak preview” of their Spring Concert from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. next Saturday, April 25, in Dekelboum Concert Hall in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, followed the Saturday after—May 2—with their main Spring Concert from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., also in Dekelboum Hall. Lastly, the GSO will perform at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC on Saturday, May 9, from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. as part of the Watch This! Revelations in Media Art exhibition. The GSO has performed at the Smithsonian in years prior, and Doyle notes that “it's a great honor that [the GSO has] been able to do before, and it's great to represent our university and the medium of video game music at such an amazing venue.”

Almost ten years since its founding, GSO remains remarkably similar: a self-driven and motivated group of passionate student musicians/gamers, performing for the sheer joy of it. “I think my favorite song was the Maria and Draco opera [from Final Fantasy VI] we played last semester,” writes Cetorelli. “It was a very challenging piece to put together, but I remember in the concert it sounded so beautiful.”

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