1.10.2022 SCORE: Orchestra Game Music @ Musiikkitalo, Helsinki

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I seem to be getting a reputation as a journalist who enjoys the local game music scene, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about it. In fact, one of the all-time best shows I’ve ever seen was put on by Underscore Productions in Lahti back in 2016. Under the name of SCORE: Orchestral Game Music, the collective put on a performance of a collection of game music scores, medleys, and suites. Now, on October 1st, 2022, SCORE has returned, this time accompanied by the Vantaan Viihdeorkesteri. This was a special event, as despite playing many times in Finland, this was the first time SCORE has played in Helsinki!

Image from Ubisoft

Fun fact: Musiikkitalo in Helsinki was still under construction when I moved to Finland in 2009, so it was really fun to finally – after 13 years! – get to see the inside of this venue for the first time. Comparable to other venues like Finlandiatalo in Helsinki or Sibeliustalo in Lahti, this new music center has an unusual asymmetric design and a interesting layout that allows seating all around the auditorium, not just facing the stage. The event seems to have been at least in part sponsored by Assembly – the gaming, E-sports, and digital culture convention that takes place next in February 2023 – as there was a backdrop with their logo set up, with four very high-quality cosplayers hanging out to take photos. One of them had a notably fantastic cosplay of Aloy from Horizon: Zero Dawn, and they seemed to be promoting the event.

The bells rang to signal that it was time to find our seats, so our group parted ways and we made our way down to the second row (hot dang!) to get a good close-up look at the performers. As the musicians came on stage and took their seats to uproarious applause, we were quite surprised to see a familiar face appear on stage – none other than Eero Lehtimäki, whom we already know as the conductor of the GAME MUSIC COLLECTIVE. The show started on a familiar note from the 2016 set as vocalist Sabina Zweiacker joined the stage for their rendition of “I Was Born for This” by Auston Wintory, from the renowned adventure game, Journey. Perhaps one of the main highlights of this show was getting the chance to see a classical singer up close, with the sheer amount of intensity and skill she put into what she did, executing every note flawlessly. It makes sense that they pick this track for its vocal lines, though there are a few more iconic songs, such as “The Road of Trials” or “Apotheosis,” which would also be really nice to hear live someday.

The show continued in the same vein as before – meaning that I got so excited that I could hardly sit in my seat – when the familiar host, Orvar Säfström, came out to introduce the medley from Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. Here’s where I have to shout out Underscore Productions, as it is through the last SCORE show that I discovered this soundtrack and despite having never played the game, it is absolutely one of my modern favorite game soundtracks and gives the Pirates of the Caribbean OSTs a run for their money. Unfortunately, it seems that the second row of the auditorium sits quite a bit lower than the stage, meaning the percussion was quite far away and high above us. This meant that the thunderous percussions that really elevate this track were completely lost on us. Luckily for our friends who were on the balconies, this was no issue, so it seemed to be a matter of position within the venue. Otherwise, I won’t lie – I had an utterly idiotic grin on my face the entire time and when I closed my eyes, I was on a ship at sea. They really take you away!

The set then moved onto the “Sonic the Hedgehog Suite” and the “Final Fantasy VII Medley,” the former of which sounded about the same as last time and the latter of which focused on the main theme – they seem to have swapped out Final Fantasy IX for VII, but as both games have great OSTs, there’s no real complaint here. They finished up the first half of the set with the “Mario Suite,” which was notably different from last time in that we didn’t recognize anything from Super Mario 64, but there was something in there that we weren’t familiar with, which may have been from the newer Super Mario Odyssey perhaps? We did recognize a lot of the classics though, as well as parts from Super Mario Galaxy. It was one of the longest pieces in the set, and of course, the low end of the orchestra really shone during the Bowser (boss) themes, and the maracas towards the end always add a nice bit of flavor into the mix.

The audience was able to stretch their legs and get drinks and pastries (both sweet and salty) during the intermission, and we were reintroduced to another familiar song from last time: the “Bloodborne Suite,” which features a truly bone-chilling performance from Sabina Zweiacker, easily one of the highlights, though maybe that’s just because we’re all big Bloodborne fans. I personally hadn’t played the game back in 2016, but I have since, and man was it haunting to hear live again. This was followed by the “Megaman Suite,” which was included in the Swedish radio live show but not in their 2016 set, so this was an exciting change. Of course, they included the “Dr. Wily’s Castle” theme, so all is right in the world. This was followed by another familiar song from the last show, from Last of Us: “All Gone (No Escape).” While we’ve heard good things about the soundtrack to this game, admittedly, it never much stood out as very iconic, so it doesn’t stand out quite as much, even if the orchestra did an outstanding job. Of note, I’m quite sure that Jaani Helander was also in this orchestra and took the lead cello part in this track; he was familiar for being the second half of CELLOMANIA, alongside the GAME MUSIC COLLECTIVE founder, Lukas Stasevskij. This scene of classically trained game music lovers seems to be a small world, as I don’t think he was the only recognizable face on stage.

The show then reached another one of the longest suites, also from the works of Koji Kondo, from The Legend of Zelda. This was the same suite as in 2016, which I’m not inclined to complain about because it made me close my eyes and start craving the Nintendo 64 world of Hyrule again, wondering if I ever got Ocarina of Time for 3DS so I can play it again. The opening Hyrule overworld theme is always uplifting and the final climax, where the main theme kicks in, is just the icing on the cake. What was unusual and unique this time around was that Eero Lehtimäki took a brief respite from his conducting in order to play the ocarina. Recalling the last show, they had a member of the orchestra learn to play ocarina just for the performance, but as a member of the GMC and a known clarinetist, we wondered if learning the ocarina was a new skill or if Eero already knew how to play it.

We then revisited the same story about their arrangement of “The Dragonborn Comes” and “Dragonborn” (the main theme from Skyrim), to allow for the modern classic to have lyrics included for their vocalist. This gave Sabina the chance to show off the gentler side of her voice, while the band got to let loose on one of the current most beloved game themes around. Normally the vocal duties of a song like this would be taken on by a choir, so this is definitely a unique take on a pretty commonly covered song, and a pretty strong closing track due to its truly epic qualities that are only better live.

The charismatic host then jokingly compared orchestra shows to rock shows, mentioning that rock bands can improvise on stage in the encore, but orchestras don’t have that luxury. As such, he hoped that we would pretend to be surprised and excited by their totally-not-pre-planned (wink, wink) encore performance. He also shared that, because they have the pleasure of working with a classical vocalist, they decided to take the classical aria from Final Fantasy VI, translate the English lyrics to Italian (to feel more authentic), and arranged it for the orchestra. While it’s perhaps not a track that’s going to leave listeners on the edge of their seat and wanting more as a last track of the night, it nevertheless wrapped up the show on a very impressive and dramatic note, with some truly incredible vocals from Sabina, showing off the pinnacle of her capabilities.

It was, once again, an absolute pleasure to see SCORE doing orchestral video game music. There are still sadly few opportunities to see game music in the live scene and any opportunity to hear these fantastic tracks brought to life by some of the most classically skilled musicians around… what’s not to love? If there was one issue with this show when compared to the last time, it was simply that this version didn’t really offer much that was new. Of course, we were thrilled to get to hear the “Megaman Suite” this time around, since they didn’t play it in Lahti, but there are a lot of truly spectacular video game soundtracks that have unbelievable potential for orchestras. Take, for example, Christopher Larkin‘s soundtrack to Hollow Knight (“Dung Defender” would be perfect) or Toby Fox‘s music for Undertale (everyone loves “Megalovania”), pretty much anything from the Castlevania series, or even the older classic soundtracks like Mario 2 or any number of Nintendo 64 games. There’s so much incredible music to be found in the gaming scene, so sticking to the Mario, Zelda, and Final Fantasy franchises that everyone definitely knows is kind of the safe move to make, especially when those suites tend to be so long that they take up most of the show. It’s also worth saying that pretty much every video game orchestra will dip into those three, and where SCORE has always stood out was in their unusual picks, like Black Flag and Bloodborne. In general, I’d like to see more game music performers taking risks on the music they play and step outside of the most famous and popular soundtracks. Still, don’t take that to mean that I don’t intend to continue attending every single one of these shows that comes through town! A collection of commonly-played amazing music is still amazing music, after all!

Galaxy A32

Tracklist

  1. Journey – “I Was Born for This” (Austin Wintory)
  2. Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag Suite (Brian Tyler)
  3. Sonic the Hedgehog Medley (Masato Nakamura)
  4. Final Fantasy VII Medley (Nobuo Uematsu)
  5. Super Mario Suite (Koji Kondo)
  6. intermission
  7. Bloodborne Suite (Ryan Amon)
  8. Megaman Suite (Manami Matsumae)
  9. Last of Us – “All Gone (No Escape)” (Gustavo Santaolalla & Alan Umstead)
  10. The Legend of Zelda Suite (Koji Kondo)
  11. Skyrim: The Dragonborn Comes & Dragonborn Medley
  12. Final Fantasy VI – “Aria di Mezzo Carattere” (Nobuo Uematsu) (encore)