The History of GSO
by Matthew Chin, Rob Garner, et al.
Michelle Eng, GSO's Founder.
The University of Maryland's Gamer Symphony Orchestra began humbly in the fall of 2005, the brainchild of founder Michelle Eng. Her inspiration came from Tommy Tallarico's Video Games Live tours, the Final Fantasy "Dear Friends" concert series, and Internet sensation "Video Game Pianist" Martin Leung.
Michelle was a violist in the University of Maryland Repertoire Orchestra, a for-credit ensemble intended for non-music-majors. Michelle recruited UMRO instrumentalists interested in video game music with the intent of starting an ensemble devoted to that music. A half-dozen or so individuals joined up with Michelle, including GSO's current low woodwinds section leader, Randall Perrine, GSO's only remaining founding member.
Michelle, Randall, and the other members began recruiting additional musicians. They ventured to a Terps basketball game that winter to recruit brass players (among them two future GSO presidents, trumpeters Jarred Young and Rob Garner). By the end of the semester, the ensemble had a name and a goal: The Gamer Symphony Orchestra would seek to legitimize video game music as an art form and to use that music to bring new (i.e., younger) audiences to orchestral concerts.
Rehearsals began at the start of the spring 2006 semester, during which GSO became an officially recognized student group. Our faculty adviser since that time has been Dr. Derek Richardson from the Department of Astronomy. (Dr. Richardson also happened to be a friend and mentor to bassoonist Randall.)
Gamer Symphony Orchestra members pose for this early group portrait in a basement classroom of the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center, April 22, 2006. The group's first concert was seven days later.
GSO's first performance took place in a Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center classroom on April 28, 2006. About 20 GSO musicians performed for as many members of Maryland's chapters of Kappa Kappa Psi and Tau Beta Sigma, national band service fraternal organizations. Our first public concert was the next day, at "Maryland Day," the university's annual open house. The orchestra played for a lunching crowd in the Baltimore Room, off the student union's food court. A week later, on May 4, GSO performed in the basement of St. Mary's Hall for members of the Language House. The three "concerts" featured a rudimentary arrangement of the theme from The Legend of Zelda by Rob, as well as versions of "Hikari" from Kingdom Hearts and the Final Fantasy prologue, found online by Michelle.
To this point, GSO had been rehearsing in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center's basement orchestra room on weekends, not knowing they were violating school reservations policy. Once facility staff brought this to GSO's attention at the end of the semester, the ensemble moved its rehearsals to the Armory lecture halls.
Recruitment at summer orientations proved successful, and GSO began the fall 2006 semester with about twice its spring membership. Joining at this point were GSO's first dedicated conductors, Renard Joseph "RJ" Sexton and Greg Cox, who provided musical leadership to the group through 2008 and 2009, respectively.
The 2006 semester included a performance in the Student Union Hoff Theatre as the opening act for the Satanic Mechanics' midnight shadowcasting of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" in October. GSO returned to Hoff for its own concert on December 7. This concert was GSO's first with a vocal component: Brass players sang the opening and closing passages of Halo's main theme. This concert also marked the ensemble's first - and only - attempt at integrating video into a performance.
GSO Performs at UMD's Hoff Theatre in 2006.
Members displaying the original GSO uniform before the Spring 2007 concert.
GSO introduced its first concert uniform for the 2007 semester, a black T-shirt with a Pac-Man lined up to "eat" musical notes. Horn player and early group officer Rachel Kassman executed the design, based on graphical work by Amit Chauhan. (Previously, the group had been instructed to wear video game-themed apparel, "nerd culture" shirts, or Maryland gear.)
Michelle resigned as president in January to concentrate her efforts elsewhere. Then-vice-president Jarred Young took her place.
The spring 2007 semester saw GSO's first "Deathmatch for Charity" video game tournament, the brainchild of Rachel Kassman. The first iteration of the event raised a few hundred dollars for Children's National Medical Center, via Childsplaycharity.org.
The May 2007 concert was GSO's first in the Memorial Chapel. Thanks to a friendship of RJ's, singers from Towson University's Take Note a capella group joined GSO in a revised and expanded Halo arrangement, provided by eventual Music Director Chris Apple, who had joined that semester.
By fall, GSO's membership had risen to about 50. Chris set about founding a chorus within GSO. He and RJ ran rehearsals, sometimes held in GSO's old office in the top floor of the South Campus Dining Hall. (The initial dozen members included some instrumentalists who participated in both the orchestra and the chorus, a practice disallowed for logistical reasons after 2008.) Occasionally, the chorus would rehearse outside the dining hall to escape the office's stifling heat - even in winter. Passersby often complimented the vocalists' rendition of "The Promised Land," from the Final Fantasy Advent Children film.
In spring 2008 GSO had its first performance at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Event staff had to open the second level of seating in the Kay Theatre to accommodate the unexpectedly large crowd, which included representatives from OC ReMix, such as founder David Lloyd. The concert saw GSO's first performance of one of its signature pieces, "Still Alive" from Portal, arranged by Greg Cox. It was a recording of this arrangement that got GSO onto OC Remix (under the title "Live from [SUBJECT HOMETOWN HERE]"). GSO provided OCR with only the second live recording in the site's history, and the first remix from "Portal." Composer Jonathan Coulton posted a link to the recording on his blog, calling it a "fantastic cover."
The orchestra and chorus, added in 2007, filled the Clarice Smith Center's Kay Theatre at the spring 2008 concert. The GSO proved so popular that secondary seating in the theater's upper level had to be opened at the last minute to accommodate the crowd.
In Fall 2008, Matt Maiatico (friend of GSO tubist Chris Davis) designed the GSO’s logo current mascot, a black and white Mii conductor with a Wiimote as a baton. A later GSO member vote named this character "Rasputin". Katie Noble altered Rasputin’s hat in Fall 2009, which was then embroidered on the first appearance of the GSO polos that we see today.
By Spring 2010, the GSO had reached 100 members, who all signed a cordial letter of appeal addressed to the Music Director of the School of Music (SoM) to use CSPAC for rehearsals, which was approved. From this semester, the GSO started performing regularly in Dekelboum Concert Hall, the largest performance venue inside CSPAC. GSO's spring 2010 concert matched the attendance reached the previous year. The ensemble's recording of a Celtic-themed medley of songs from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, arranged by Rob Garner, became the group's second piece to make it onto OC ReMix.
Not yet five years old, GSO boasts 100-plus members, 97 of whom are pictured here, following the group's performance in the Clarice Smith Center's Dekelboum Concert Hall on May 8, 2010. Photo by Nick Piegari.
A sizable recruitment push over the summer saw GSO's roster then top 120 musicians, including 40 singers. The GSO's reputation and renown grew considerably following a Washington Post article in late July about orchestral video game music. The piece, authored by Post Music Critic Anne Midgette (and wife of Greg Sandow) highlighted the Maryland and Magruder GSOs. The article inspired Sarah McRoberts at Damascus High School to form a GSO of her own. (With considerable help from DHS Band Director Charlie Doherty, the Damascus GSO began rehearsals on Feb. 3, 2011.)
Over Fall 2010, there was discussion about a collaboration between the GSO and Tommy Tallerico, the co-founder of the Video Games Live (VGL) travelling concert series. Both parties concluded that VGL should perform a GSO arrangement, made special for the occasion of VGL’s two sold out shows at the Strathmore in February. And thus, “Korobeiniki” aka “The Tetris Opera” was made, which remains a VGL staple.
Left to Right: Tommy Tallarico, former President Rob Garner, Conductor Emeritus Greg Cox, Conductor Emeritus Peter Fontana, and former Music Director and "Korobeiniki" soloist Chris Apple, with the National Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorale at Video Games Live! in February 2011.
While GSO was proctoring charity video game tournaments, the orchestra's arrangements were making a splash in Europe. Months earlier David Westerlund, a noteworthy figure in the Swedish video game music scene, e-mailed the GSO for assistance in coming up with arrangements for a concert to be held at Uppsala University in Sweden on March 12. GSO provided the sheet music for "Still Alive," arranged by Greg Cox; "Super Mario Bros. 2 Medley," by Rob Garner; "Final Fantasy Epic Battles," by Gerald Tagunicar; Final Fantasy VIII: Forcing our Way," by Michelle Eng. The "Level UPPsala" concert was performed by the university's Royal Academic Orchestra under the baton of Stefan Karpe.
On Sunday, April 3, the video game musicians shared the Dekelboum Stage with the UM Wind Ensemble, the first such cooperative instance in GSO history. Director of Bands Dr. L. Richmond Sparks extended the invitation following a scheduling mix-up that resulted in a double-booking of the Wakefield Band Room for a GSO rehearsal and a Lion's Band practice. The GSO performed a preview of its spring concert selection following UMWE's segment.
Spring 2011 marked the fifth anniversary of the GSO’s first public performance. The celebratory concert included a guest banjo soloist, Mark Cromer for “Banjo-Kazooie Medley”, and Grant Kirkhope in attendance, the composer of Banjo-Kazooie. This was also the first concert the GSO used SoM percussion equipment, an effort headed by conductress Kira Levitzky. Geoff Knorr, composer of Civilization V, wanted to work with the GSO to make an arrangement of music from the game for the Fall 2011 concert.
Spring 2012 marked the first semester in which the GSO performed outside of the University of Maryland. Firstly, at Music and Gaming Festival (MAGFest) X, the GSO chorus pulled together an impromptu performance of “The Promised Land” for Nobuo Uematsu, the composer of the Final Fantasy series. Secondly, the GSO performed its Spring 2012 concert at the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of the “Art of Video Games” exhibit. Tyler Modesto was inspired by this concert to start the 8-bit Orchestra at the University of Delaware.
The following semester, David Arkenstone, composer of World of Warcraft, wanted to work with the GSO to create an arrangement of music from the game for the subsequent Fall 2012 concert. At this concert, the GSO launched a successful Indiegogo fundraiser to raise $4,000 for a GSO-owned Tuba. At the Spring 2013 concert, Grammy-award-winning composer of Journey, Austin Wintory, was in attendance for the GSO’s first performance of “I Was Born For This”, the credits theme from Journey.
Despite the successes of the past year, though, the Spring 2013 concert was played with heavy hearts. The GSO remembered David Scherr, an arranger who passed away over winter break. David’s two arrangements, “Banjo-Kazooie Medley” and “Super Mario World Credits” were played in his memory. The tuba he played had his name engraved in the metal and was contributed to the GSO.
After the semester ended, Chris Apple, Ayla Hurley, Rob Garner, and other GSO@UMD alums founded the Washington Metropolitan Gamer Symphony Orchestra (WMGSO) in Rockville, MD as an outlet for GSO graduates and other community musicians to come together and perform video game music. As such, Fall 2013 marked the shift for the GSO to become a primarily undergraduate ensemble.
President Joel Guttman and Vice President Zoe DiGiorgio appeared on National Public Radio as guests on the “Inescapable Melodies: The Legacies of Video Game Music” episode of the Kojo Nnamdi Show on November 14, 2013. The Magruder High School GSO guest performed in the GSO’s Spring 2014 concert to celebrate their fifth anniversary. Spring 2014 also saw the inaugural performance of the Baltimore Gamer Symphony Orchestra (BGSO), headed by emeritus conductress, Kira Levitzky. The following year, GSO had the honor of returning to the Smithsonian American Art Museum to perform as part of the “Watch This! Revelations in Media Art” exhibition, making it first time the GSO put on more than one full-length concert in one semester as the GSO used a different setlist there than they did for the official Spring 2015 concert on campus.
Fall 2015 and Spring 2016 marked the 10th year milestone for the GSO’s foundation and first public performance respectively. Alongside the celebrations, in Fall 2015, the GSO started livestreaming its concerts on Twitch.tv and saw the first appearance of the official unofficial mascot, Rodriguez, the yellow rubber ducky. In Spring 2016, GSO alums as well as members of WMGSO and BGSO performed alongside the GSO@UMD during its encore, “Dragonborn” from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. BGSO founder and GSO@UMD emeritus conductress Kira Levitzky conducted the 200+ member encore performance.
Most recently, the GSO has indulged in other outside events and achievments. GSO helped celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Pokémon series by performing an extra helping of arrangements from the Pokémon franchise in the Fall 2016 concert. Additionally, in coincidence with the UMD League of Legends team winning the B1G 10 championship in collegiate League of Legends, the GSO performed a 12+ minute medley of music from the game to help commemorate the occasion at the Spring 2017 concert.
Over the past eleven years, the GSO went from being a few people talking about video game music in a basement to a renown 120+ member symphonic orchestra and chorus that continues to promote orchestral video game music, raise money for charity, and inspire people from all over to start their own video game music ensembles. If the trends over these years are any indicator, the GSO has a lot of to look forward to in the many years to come.