SCORE: ORCHESTRAL GAME MUSIC – Sibeliustalo, Lahti, 28.04.2016

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Image used by kind permission of Ubisoft Interactive

Musicalypse has covered a few gigs that feature orchestras, but what about the symphonies themselves? We confess that it’s sadly not something we’ve done before. So, when Underscore Productions announced Score: Orchestral Game Music as performed by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra on April 28th, 2016, we had to be there to check it out.

 

I thought I was going to explode from pure joy when I found out about this performance. I’m a music nerd, but I’m also a gamer nerd as well. I’d seen the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra version on YouTube and it was fantastic. Video game scores are one of my favorite genres of music and just about everything is great when it’s done by an orchestra. As such, it was a requirement for my physical and mental well-being for me to see this show.

 

We arrived at the venue about 15 minutes before showtime, with enough time to drop off our coats and find our seats. Sibeliustalo was bustling with people of all ages, though the majority seemed to be between their teens and somewhere in their 30s. The seats filled up quickly, with a few last-minute stragglers making their way in before the show began. The lights dimmed and the orchestra made their way to the stage at 19:05 and without any further ado, started the show immediately with a beautiful rendition of “I Was Born for This” from the two-player PSN game, Journey. I was quickly blown away by the instant reminder of how lovely and precise orchestral music is live. Soprano singer Sabina Zweiacker accompanied the band, and she sounded far better live than in the aforementioned Swedish Radio Orchestra video online. Her vocal power was incredible.

After the song concluded, Orvar Säfström appeared to greet the crowd and introduce the show. He joked about how it would be incredibly boring for everyone to sit and listen to him play game music alone, so instead he had the Lahti Symphony Orchestra do it for him. He gave a quick overview of the history of gaming, mentioning that if we thought xBox and PlayStation games today had bad graphics, his first game was in black and white: Pong. They wouldn’t be playing the soundtrack to Pong, however. Instead, he introduced the song from Journey that had just been played, and then the “Assassins Creed IV Suite,” and how the music from the latter reflected the age of pirates.

It’s unbelievable to watch the intricate and delicate work these musicians do as they play. Take the percussionists for example. Every sound has to perfectly match the right dynamic, with soft, delicate sounds, or great booms. True to Säfström’s word, we could practically smell the salty air and see the flash of blades thanks to the music. At this point already, I was getting annoyed by taking notes about the show because I wanted to just sit and absorb it. I could feel my heart racing with excitement at times and having to scribble down my thoughts was distracting me and bumming me out. This was by far one of the most exciting songs of the evening and I took note that I should look into listening to the Assassins Creed IV soundtrack at some point. [ed: since this show, I have, and it’s phenomenal!]

When Säfström appeared again, he talked about gaming in the 90s and the feud between Sega and Nintendo. Mario, of course, is a legend, but Sega had their own brand face too: a very fast, very blue hedgehog named Sonic. This nicely introduced the “Sonic the Hedgehog Medley.” The updated sound on these old songs was really wonderful to hear. Plus, the stage had some trailing lights that seemed particularly appropriate as they reminded me of Sonic running at high speed. I can’t say that I’m too familiar with the songs from Sonic the Hedgehog, and I may have preferred their Megaman Suite over this (because “Dr. Wily’s Castle” is basically the greatest old game song of all time), but it was still really fantastic and I’m certain that anyone who knows the music better than I do was thrilled.

Next up we were introduced to the jazzier side of gaming and were told to bring out our fedoras, because we were going to an era when “tough guys were tough” and “women were as dangerous as they looked,” with the game L.A. Noir. The appropriate film noir -style music was perfectly included in the set – it showed a lesser-known side of gaming music, but wasn’t particularly long and so didn’t take away from the iconic game music that most people were looking forward to. I do enjoy when the diversity of game music is promoted, after all. Also, I had genuinely no idea you could do trills and vibrato on a trumpet, so that was a great learning experience for me.

Säfström then told us a nice story about how the American Film Foundation (I think it was) had an article some 10 years ago about why no one went to the movies on one particular weekend, which happened to be the weekend Halo 3 was released! After that, it was becoming perfectly clear that gaming was turning into a serious entertainment industry (and I couldn’t agree more). He then told us about how he had been in charge of the Scandinavian launch event for Halo 3 – Jani Limatainen had flown over to play guitar and then the show would end at midnight so everyone could go out and buy the game afterwards. Only, the game developers were so tight-lipped that they didn’t get to hear any of Halo 3’s music beforehand. So, they had to arrange a medley of some songs from Halo 1 & 2, and one particularly lovely song they found was a piano piece called “Unforgotten,” which they built the arrangement around. Then, 2 days before the event he was finally given an advance copy of Halo 3, and as he turned on the game, it opened to that very song.

Halo has never been a series that has remotely interested me, but I’ve always enjoyed the theme music. Now, the dynamic buildup of percussion and drums was really something else. I have heard a lot of different versions of the Halo 3 theme, but this was by far one of the most powerful, even if it left out one particularly nice bit of buildup. And the piano… it’s an instrument that’s present in the orchestra, but you don’t get to hear it emphasized a whole lot. It was simply wonderful!

“Are there any Nintendo fans here?” Säfström asked before he explained that the “Super Mario Suite” would include about seventeen different themes from the Mario game series. The Super Mario Galaxy theme was the perfect way to start things as it’s a really bombastic, powerful song, and as well, it’s considerably lesser-known, which means that they got to leave the best for last. This was perhaps one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen live, as the Super Mario songs just work so perfectly with an orchestra. The flutes in the Super Mario World title screen song were delightful and the song that plays in the beginning of Super Mario 64 got me actively excited and nostalgic all at once. The red lights and underground theme were a perfect segue into the Bowser battle song from Super Mario World, which transitioned then perfectly into the theme from the mushroom huts. I also can’t begin to express how glad I was that the classic water level theme was included because it’s absolutely perfect for an orchestra. When this suite finished, I came to realize that I had the hugest, dumbest grin on my face and I just couldn’t stop.

At this point, it was time for the intermission. The orchestra took a brief break and we stepped outside for a moment to see that I wasn’t the only one with a big dumb grin on my face. My friend said he was getting choked up up during “I Was Born for This” and that he felt the same way during the “Super Mario Suite.” It was a popular feeling, it seemed, as everyone looked equally thrilled and the entire crowd was chatting and smiling and looking as excited as we were.

2016.04.28 Score @Sibeliustalo 02The show started up again with the “Bloodborne Suite,” which was a perfect way to get back into things. Firstly, I love that they included Zweiacker again in this – I so rarely hear vocalists included in a production when there aren’t any lyrics and she did an absolutely incredible job of it. Bloodborne is an amazing game that I have a reasonable degree of experience with, and the music did exactly what it was designed to… I could easily imagine the slogging, trudging feet of the characters as they wander through Yarnem. Watching Zweiacker while she sang was fascinating too, as you could feel the eerie chill of Yarnem’s desolate, cursed streets enhanced by her poise and facial expressions.

Next up was a set by someone referred to as the John Williams of game music: Nobuo Uematsu. Before I get into that, I have to make something clear, which is that I am intimately familiar with the Final Fantasy IX soundtrack because FFIX is my favorite game ever. If I was restricted to playing only one game for the rest of my life, FFIX would be my first choice. I have played that game a hundred times and I’d play it a hundred times again. With that in mind, when Säfström said that this was Uematsu’s favorite Final Fantasy soundtrack, I was surprised because I didn’t know that, but I also have to agree wholeheartedly.

I knew what to expect from this set thanks to the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra version on YouTube, and that is what prevented this from being slightly disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, hearing literally any FFIX music totally makes my life complete, but this particular arrangement stuck pretty much to just the beginning music from the game and didn’t explore any of the really and truly memorable songs from the soundtrack, like “Rose(s) of May” (aka “Loss of Me”), which is one of the most powerful and heartbreaking songs I’ve ever heard, or even the iconic victory theme from winning a battle. Or how about some of the chocobo melodies? There is just so much incredible music on the FFIX soundtrack and it just keeps getting better as the game goes on, so sticking to the songs from the beginning is a little bit of a bummer knowing what it could have been.

Now with that being said, I do have an idea regarding why these particular songs were chosen. For those of you who haven’t played the game, it begins with a group of thieves coming into the capital of Alexandria to put on a play, so the music in this part of the game is particularly well suited for an orchestra, because a lot of it is the music actually played by the group’s own orchestra in the game. It also has a nice blend of optimistic music with a touch of ominous in the middle when the player gets to see some characters who are clearly bad guys introduced. So bearing that in mind, I don’t think it was a bad choice of songs, rather, it just wasn’t the most you could get out of this particularly amazing soundtrack. And truly, you could see the Prima Vista (the thieves’ airship) appearing over the streets of Alexandria as the opening music played – it was wonderfully done! Really, if this was the worst part of my night, that they didn’t just play the entire FFIX soundtrack from beginning to end, well, I’m just being whiny.

“All Gone (No Escape)” is a song from Last of Us, a popular new survival game about a man and a young girl trying to survive in a world that has been turned upside down by a terrible pandemic. Much like the song from L.A. Noir, this was a nice inclusion as Last of Us was a really popular game and it’s a great song to express the melancholic atmosphere of the post-apocalyptic world that the game is set in. It was a nice addition, and again, it was good to have kept this short.

Nearing the end, there was another Nintendo series that absolutely had to be covered: The Legend of Zelda. Säfström had us travel to Hyrule to meet Link and Princess Zelda, and told us about one game in the series in particular that is very musical, even in its story, which is of course Ocarina of Time. He explained that most orchestras don’t have a full-time ocarina player, but one of the orchestra’s members learned to play just for the occasion. Another point of note is that if I can’t have FFIX as my one game to play for all eternity, Ocarina of Time is a close second choice.

What can be said about “The Legend of Zelda Suite”? First of all, I never really and truly was able to comprehend just how complex the “Hyrule Main Field Theme” was until hearing an orchestra play it. Seeing the different instrument groups taking on the different parts of the song really brought Hyrule to life right before my eyes. I almost couldn’t take any notes because I was just so blown away. I am usually loathe to call something perfect, but this truly was. In my head, I was begging for time to slow down so it wouldn’t end. Other thoughts? Harp should be more popular. Harp is probably one of the most beautiful instruments there is – I wish more people appreciated it. A lot of the OoT music includes harps, which is fantastic, and I was glad to hear a considerable amount of it in this song. And that ocarina… just wow. I really do feel quite speechless. Words cannot explain this, you really had to be there.

To my immense distress, Säfström appeared again to announce a song from Skyrim, which meant that the show was nearing its end. He explained that there is an acoustic version of one of the soundtrack’s tavern songs, “The Dragonborn Comes,” on YouTube by a girl called Malukah that became incredibly popular (and which I had somehow never heard of before), which inspired this particular arrangement. Though the theme song from Skyrim is arguably more powerful, this was still a really nice piece and while I was underwhelmed by it as performed by the orchestra on YouTube, hearing it live was a new and amazing experience. The bits of the main theme were necessary to give it power and the vocals worked beautifully. When Zweiacker hit the high notes, my entire body was covered in goosebumps (and not for the first time in this show either). Now that is how you end a show!

Everyone stood to take their bows and appropriately received a raucous and well-deserved standing ovation. Säfström then asked if we’d like to hear another song, as a few people had been sending him messages on Facebook requesting the aria from Final Fantasy VI (which, for interest’s sake, happens to be my second-favorite Final Fantasy game), and received some more thunderous applause. This final song was, to me, a particularly good choice for an encore. “The Dragonborn Comes” is the way you want to end a performance, and this particularly lovely, operatic song is a good thing to include as a special treat to those who want to hear it. I’ll say it again, it was an excellent way to end a show.

 

With the final bows and a second standing ovation, people began to trickle out of the venue. This was one of those moments where you leave a show knowing that your life is going to be just a little duller for a while thanks to having experienced something so wonderful. Watching a similar show on YouTube was absolutely nothing compared to seeing it live. The videos online just feel flat and dull by comparison. The music in the concert hall filled the room, filled your mind, and filled your soul. It was breathtaking. I’ll just say this now – someone is going to have to work very hard to beat out this performance for best gig of the year. If Underscore Productions does another show like this anywhere in Finland (or Sweden, for that matter) in the near future, you can bet that I’ll be there.

2016.04.28 Score @Sibeliustalo 01Setlist:
1. Journey – I Was Born for This (Austin Wintory)
2. Assassins Creed IV Suite (Brian Tyler, arr. & orch. Andreas Hedlund)
3. Sonic the Hedgehog – Medley (Masato Nakamura, orch. Andreas Hedlund)
4. L.A. Noir – Main Theme (Andrew Hale, orch. Simon Hale)
5. Unforgotten & Halo Main Theme (Martin O’Donnell & Michael Salvatori, arr. Ingar Karkoff)
6. Super Mario Suite (Koji Kondo & Mahito Yokota)
-intermission-
7. Bloodborne Suite (Ryan Amon, arr. & orch. Andreas Hedlund)
8. Final Fantasy IX Suite (Nobuo Uematsu, orch. Nils-Petter Ankarblom)
9. Last of Us – All Gone (No Escape) (Gustavo Santaolalla, orch. Andreas Hedlund)
10. The Legend of Zelda Suite (Koji Kondo & Mahito Yokota)
11. Skyrim – The Dragonborn Comes (Jeremy Soule, arr. & orch. Andreas Hedlund)

Photos: Jonatan Söderström
All photos kindly provided by Orvar Säfström of Underscore Productions
Album art has been used with permission from Ubisoft Interactive

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