It’s time to introduce to you all the Game Music Collective. Described as Europe’s first professional video game music orchestra, these guys specialize in video game soundtrack music, and that has given us no small reason to rejoice in anticipatory excitement. Their debut show was at Finlandia-talo in Helsinki on September 20th, 2017. If this small collective was half as good as Score: Orchestral Game Music with a full symphony orchestra, this was not a show to miss out on!
If I hadn’t been bogged down with travel stress sandwiching this show (Ayreon Universe in the Netherlands on September 17th, and Devin Townsend’s Ocean Machine orchestra in Bulgaria on the 22nd), I would have been absolutely roaring with excitement for this event. Nevertheless, I’ve still had a great deal of anticipation surrounding this show. Not only do I love symphonies, I also love game music, so I knew this was going to be a night worthy of my time, in spite of how busy I was. It was also going to be my first-ever experience at Finlandia-talo, so that accounts for some intrigue as well.
We arrived at the venue in a bit of a hurry, as traffic had been weirdly bad on the main road into town. We managed to get out of the car and into our seats in good time though, but at a mere 5 minutes to showtime, it was evident that all of the guests would not be seated on time. It looked like over 50% of the venue was still queuing for their coats or the toilet, and as such, the show was nearly 10 minutes late getting started. It was nice of them to delay a bit though. The show was introduced by a young woman who said in both Finnish and English that the show would be recorded for radio, and could we please all turn our phones onto silent. We’re happy to announce that we didn’t hear a single phone ring during the performance, so it seems that everyone obeyed.
There was then an introductory video from someone from Rovio Entertainment, whose name we missed, who greeted the crowd and talked briefly about the important role of music in games and how music has also helped to define Rovio’s biggest franchise, Angry Birds with its unique setting and tone. He announced that the Angry Birds arrangement for this night had been specifically written for the show and that Rovio was excited to be a part of this project, and wished all gamers to remember to keep the sound on (ostensibly, while playing games, and not during this show).
At that point the conductor, Eero Lehtimäki, took the stage and they began with the opening theme and bombing mission songs from Final Fantasy VII. They played many songs from the Final Fantasy series over the span of their 2 or so hours on stage, and it seemed as though they kept getting better and better as the night progressed, moving from this to a Final Fantasy VIII battle medley, to a collection of airship themes, and the highly emotional “To Zanarkand” from Final Fantasy X later on. We were very impressed with Roger Wanamo’s arrangement of the airship themes, as it took music from many of the games, not simply working in chronological order, but bouncing between songs to optimize the medley. And big points to Matleena Nyman on piano for her incredible performance on “To Zanarkand” that had us all covered in chills. The crowd gave an extra-heavy cheer for that one.
While one might expect the big hits to be the most popular, and while it was true for Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger, the arrangements from Monkey Island and Journey were perhaps some of our favorites of the night, far surpassing the songs from Megaman or Angry Birds; “Apotheosis” had us all frozen in place, lost in another world. The one real miss on the set was the “Veikkaus Medley.” For those of you not familiar, Veikkaus is the company with the monopoly on gambling in Finland, running the slot machines in grocery stores up to the lotteries. The arrangement itself was very well done and lots of fun, but in a collection of music from video games, it felt out of place and inappropriate. The music itself was like a cacophonous circus, and the orchestra played it admirably – including a funny little moment where the percussionist got lost in the xylophone and pretended to get embarrassed as everyone turned to look at him as he slowly stopped playing – but it simply didn’t fit with the feel of the rest of the night. I understand that Veikkaus sponsors them, but it is a bit of a shame they probably had to play this song as a result, when that time could have been better used for other game music.
The orchestra paused so Lehtimäki could introduce songs every two tracks. He’d offer up some personal gaming history or history of the music, such as the 20th anniversary of Final Fantasy VII. He thanked the crowd on a few occasions, as well as the technicians and organizers, etc. Some might have had a bit of an issue with his casual demeanor, but I think if you consider that he was likely speaking to a lot of gamers, a true conductor’s stiffness wouldn’t really be necessary.
Following the intermission, the biggest initial hit was the “Chrono Trigger Medley”, but when they marched out the male choir, Euga, after “To Zanarkand”, things got turned up a notch. I wondered at first about choosing an all-male choir, but with a very masculine song like the “Halo Main Theme”, the all-male choir worked better than a mixed choir would have. As well, they followed it with “Dragonborn”, the main theme from Skyrim, which features a male choir in its original form (to my knowledge). Also, a very solid “WOW!” to the fellow who came out for this song only, as he sang the high notes of the song – a part that would far more easily be done by a woman – and did it very admirably.
However, the progression of music took a bit of a slump when they reached the final track, “Destati” from Kingdom Hearts. If it had been me organizing this, I’d have put Kingdom Hearts as the first choir track and then kept the order from there. As it stands, the KH track was too short to be the last song of the night (pre-encore) and honestly a bit of a disappointing choice from KH’s vast and fantastic soundtrack, so it would’ve worked far better before Halo. As well, “Dragonborn” was so unbelievably good that it would’ve been a perfect ‘final’ track, especially with that fantastic vocalist doing the high parts.
They ended the night with “One-Winged Angel”, the iconic main villain theme from Final Fantasy VII, as an encore; an excellent, if predictable choice, but one that worked amazingly well with the choir yet again.
While there were absolutely zero complaints about the performance and the music itself, there were a few issues visually. The orchestra and conductor were in matching shirts and black pants, yet the choir were dressed up in jackets, which seemed… unbalanced. Allowing for T-shirts on musicians because it’s easier to play in flexible clothes is okay, but perhaps the conductor… I don’t want to say he was child-like because that takes it much too far, but he came across as rather young, and it might have helped if he was dressed a bit more professionally to counterbalance it. It might have helped his image to the ones complaining about his laid-back way of addressing the crowd as well.
As well, the visuals on the screen were lacking. Either they felt completely inappropriate for the song with regard to warmth or feel, or they looked cheap, like old Windows 95 screensavers. We’re in an era now where people can do so much with equalizers and 3D design that these seemed too basic for the music, especially since none of them in any way captured the spirit of the songs. It would have even been preferable to have a still image of the game in question. For example, during the Journey song, an image of the light between the two mountain peaks from a distance would have been far more effective than the greenish yellow light as seen through water that they actually had on the screen.
However, when it comes to performance, I want to give some credit to the musicians. In particular (I hope I’m getting these correct, as I’m having to guess from the website based solely on gender), Elias Lassfolk (violin), Ville Komppa (clarinet), Tarmo Anttila (contrabass), and again, Matleena Nyman (piano). Of everyone I noted on stage, these few had a certain flare for the visual. Nyman gestured vividly while stroking the piano keys; Lassfolk was near dancing at times with enthusiasm; one could easily see which songs Anttila was most into – it’s hard to move with a stand-up bass but that didn’t slow him down; and Komppa was veritably losing it at times, he was so excited about some of the music. Orchestras don’t often tend to be particularly visually stimulating, but this one made it clear that they truly love what they’re doing, and in a slightly more casual orchestral setting like this, I think it was nice to see that excitement.
All-in-all, this was a nice debut show and the musicians proved themselves to be excellent and highly capable. There were a few hitches throughout, though almost never relating to the music or performances thereof, but rather the decisions surrounding the songs or arrangements. To give them some credit, I want to applaud them for leaving out iconic but perhaps overused series like Mario or Zelda and opting for slightly more obscure options in their stead. On the other hand though, they had quite a lot of music from Final Fantasy – those who know the series well, like myself, were surely happy (though including Final Fantasy IX in the airship medley only was nothing short of blasphemy), but those who have never been into FF might have wanted a bit more selection from other games.
While this show didn’t surpass Score by any means, we likewise didn’t expect it to, as Score had a full symphony orchestra and this is just the beginning of what we hope to see become much bigger. I am enthusiastic to see this project continue and I look very much forward to seeing more of their shows in the future!
1. Final Fantasy VII – Opening Theme & Bombing Mission
2. Monkey Island
3. Undertale Medley
4. Journey – Apotheosis
5. Final Fantasy VIII – Battle Medley
6. Secret of Mana – Fear of the Heavens
7. Final Fantasy – Airship Medley
8. Mega Man 2-5
9. Chrono Trigger Medley
10. Veikkaus Medley
11. Angry Birds Medley
12. Final Fantasy X – To Zanarkand
13. Halo – Main Theme
14. Elder Scrolls: Skyrim – Dragonborn (main theme)
15. Kingdom Hearts – Destati
16. Final Fantasy VII – One-Winged Angel
Photos: Jana Blomqvist