April 11, 2012
– On March 10th, retired editor Patrick Gann and I attended Distant Worlds
, a series of concerts during which an orchestra plays select pieces from the main Final Fantasy installments. The shows are usually led by conductor Arnie Roth. Roth works with various orchestra groups, choirs and special guests to perform Final Fantasy songs all over the world, and has been doing so for almost five years now. During the performance, footage of the games is shown, changing depending on what installment(s) the song is from. Nobuo Uematsu himself has been known to attend the show to watch alongside the audience – and even participate occasionally – but that unfortunately didn't happen at our show.
The latest concert took place at the Boston Symphony Hall, and was performed by the Video Game Orchestra (VGO). VGO performs various orchestral and rock songs from several video game franchises in the Boston area. The group is led by Shota Nakama, who was also a guest guitarist for this concert. I've experienced VGO's performances before at PAX East the last two years. I recall them doing a killer Yoshi's Island rock medley in one concert and a great saxophone version of Metal Gear Solid 3's Snake Eater in another. Although Uematsu wasn't there, the Final Fantasy XIII composer, Masashi Hamauzu, was in attendance and, I believe, this was his first time having an official US presence.
On the day of the concert, Patrick and I managed to get to Boston around noon. Both of us live several states away and had traveled since 6AM. Though the show started at 8PM, we came as early as we could because we were invited to go check out the final rehearsal. Having no such privileges before, I eagerly jumped at the opportunity. It was amazing to see Arnie Roth, VGO, and the performers practice the concert later that evening. It was also interesting to watch everyone else set things up from lights, sound checks and setting up the merchandise booth as showtime drew closer. Patrick and I spent a bit of time talking to some of the musicians and crew who were all kind folk. We even managed to get a few minutes of quality time with Hamauzu himself, about an hour before the show!
We spent a couple of hours at the Symphony Hall, and before we knew it, it was almost time for the show. The crowd started rolling in, packing the symphony hall tight. This made the experience more surreal since we were sitting in an empty concert hall only hours ago. We took our seats a few minutes before the show, and sat down to see the fruition of everyone's hard work.
As soon as 8PM rolled around, VGO started tuning their instruments. The lights went dim, and they kicked off the concert with the main prelude theme. The prelude started off with a harp solo, and as the song progressed, the choir started singing and the full orchestra followed suit. It was definitely the perfect song to start off the concert. As the main theme rolled to a finish, VGO immediately transitioned into FFVIII's "Liberi Fatali." The song was mostly the same as the original version, but felt more powerful. No additional arrangements were added, but it's perfectly fine the way it is.
After "Liberi Fatali," Arnie Roth began making proper introductions. He welcomed everyone to Distant Worlds and began to introduce himself, the VGO, and the choir. Afterwards, he gave a welcome to the guest of honor, Masashi Hamauzu, who got up to greet the excited audience. It was surprising to see him sit in the same row I did, but on the opposite end. Roth threw in an interesting tidbit that Hamauzu was responsible for putting together a small choir for the original version of FFVII's "One Winged Angel." Roth continued to talk of what's to come and, per concert tradition, he made the orchestra briefly play the victory fanfare. He then proceeded with another FFVIII song, "Don't be Afraid."
Before the song began, a clip was shown of an early scene from VIII. VGO started playing when a random encounter kicked in. The piece was an extended version of the original theme, slightly dragging out parts of the song and adding slow moments between segments. Ending the streak of FFVIII songs was FFX's "To Zanarkand." It's a slow, beautiful piece that makes heavy use of piano solos, violins and woodwinds to invoke a large degree of sentimentality.
Next came the only vocal piece in the concert, FFXI's "Memoria De La Stona ~Distant Worlds." The song wa sa two-part arrangement that combined an expansion's ending theme "Distant Worlds" and another XI song. The first part was dark and intense due to a combination of the choir and the gritty tone of the melody, which gave off an ominous vibe. The melody got far gentler once the "Distant Worlds" portion of the song began, and the vocals came in. Susan Calloway usually does the vocal pieces, but she was not present at this concert, so a soprano singer performed the piece instead. It's a very powerful piece, like the original, and the singer did it justice. Being a former FFXI player, I have a very strong emotional attachment to this particular song.
After "Memoria De La Stona ~Distant Worlds", VGO's leader, Shota Nakama, came to the stage to perform the next two guitar pieces. First was FFV'S "Dear Friends," a relaxing piece with various guitar solos during the more tender moments. "Dear Friends" is one of those songs that I didn't care much for the original. The same goes for the concert version, but eventually, it started to grow on me. I appreciated the escalated concert version, thanks to stellar guitaring by Nakama. The other song he played was the more upbeat "Vamo da Flamenco" from FFIX. It's an interesting choice to play since the song was not only used just for a minigame, but it's also the only Latin-styled piece in the series. The song was a lot of fun to hear in the concert, and the inclusion of acoustic guitar gave it a lot of that Latin flair.
The next song was FFVII's "Aerith's Theme," similar in style to "To Zanarkand," being another slow and beautiful piece with a lot of power and emotion behind it. "Aerith's Theme" has always been one of the more memorable songs from FFVII and it's something special to hear it live. After that sentimental piece, the first act ended in a lighthearted note with a playful Chocobo medley. The first part was XIV's version, and there isn't much to say about it. It was the standard song, orchestrated in a whimsical style, with a beginning that sounded like an opening to Katamari Damacy. Afterwards, the medley shifted to the jazzy style of X's chocobo theme "Swing de Chocobo," which is always a fun listen. While the medley was playing, the screen showcased chocobos from all Final Fantasies except from IV, for some odd reason. It's a cute touch to the performance, and I liked how the video started spelling out "chocobo" during the song's climax.
And so Act 1 came to an end, and there was a brief intermission. That far, the concert was already good with great songs and top notch performances from the orchestra. But, from there, the concert got even better when they brought out the big, dynamic songs. The second act started off well with FFVII's "Opening /Bombing Mission." The opening portion was a good warm-up after the intermission and also served as buildup for the latter half of the song. The song got more intense when the "Bombing Mission" portion kicked in, and VGO delivered a very powerful performance.
The succeeding song was something special. On stage was a large pipe organ. What better song to utilize it than FFVI's "Dancing Mad." It was the lengthiest song on the roster, at around twelve minutes, and VGO went all out. The choir was in full force and the melody was powerful. I especially loved the pipe organ solo in part three, and the heavy use of brass instruments during the final part made the performance even more unique. The entire song was epic, plain and simple. I was blown away hearing this live. VGO did a stellar job of playing this behemoth of a song, easily making it the highlight of the concert.
With Hamauzu in attendance, it was only natural to perform songs from XIII, and two were chosen. First was "Fabula Nova Crystalis – The Promise." This is one of the many variants of Sarah's theme, essentially XIII's theme song. It's another slow, sentimental piece that features ample violins to create emotion in the melody. I don't have much attachment to the scenes for which this song was used, but it's a beautiful piece, though a tad short. The pace picked up when "Blinded by Light" came up on the setlist. It was pretty much the original battle theme looped twice, but it was still great to hear. One must wonder how Hamauzu feels listening to his own creations performed live and in another country to boot.
The next song played was FFVIII's "Fisherman's Village." This piece feels like the most random song to perform compared to everything else selected. I honestly don't remember much at all about the original version, but it was enjoyable live. It's a relaxing song, and the interesting addition of the choir made it strangely soothing. "Fisherman's Village" was also a good warm-up piece for another huge FFVI song.
In addition to "Dancing Mad," the concert also threw in "Maria and Draco" a.k.a. the opera theme. "Maria and Draco" was another lengthy piece. Though not as complex and unique as "Dancing Mad," it was packed with lots of melodic variety. VGO did well in playing all the different dynamics of the song, while tempo was shifting. Three opera singers performed throughout the song, and they all did great on their roles. I never was much of an opera listener, but their performances managed to draw me in, and made the song all the better. I remembered a bit about the opera scene back when I first played VI, but not much all about the song itself. Hearing this piece in the concert heavily revitalized my interest in it. Patrick and I also got an interesting tidbit when we were talking to the singer playing Maria, after rehearsal. Apparently, she got called in to replace another singer a few days before the concert, and she doesn't know anything about the series, let alone VI. This coincidentally parallels the scene in VI where Celes had to fill in for a performer last-minute, which made the performance all the more interesting.
Things were heating up with epic song after epic song. Alas, the concert began winding to an end. The closing piece was another iconic FFVI song, "Terra." This was a mellower, more dramatic version of the SNES original. While the song was playing, the credits were shown on video. I was somewhat expecting the crowd to go wild as all the big names, like Uematsu and Hamauzu, were mentioned on video. Surprisingly, they were quietly listening to the song in respect, and cheered when it ended. It was a very good arrangement, but hearing this after the previous song made it feel a tad anti-climactic, though it's the norm for Distant Worlds. Part of me wondered how it would be like if "Maria and Draco" was the last song for this particular concert. Though "Terra" was the last piece, there was an encore song in store.
Of course, it would not be a complete Final Fantasy concert without the inclusion of "One Winged Angel." Performance wise, it was the same grand song we know very well in full orchestral form, but there were some small twists thrown in to make it more interesting. Hamauzu came to the stage and stood amongst the choir to sing along with them. Roth wanted the audience to sing along, as well, and included the lyrics on screen. The audience participation was a sound idea. However, no one besides Patrick and I actively tried to sing along around our area. At least it did not hinder the song in any way, and it served as a good finisher to a night of stellar performances.
Amongst all the songs played in the concert, my personal favorite was "Memoria De La Stona~ Distant Worlds." I absolutely loved the arrangement of one of my favorite songs in the entire Final Fantasy series. I admit to repeatedly watching the Japanese performance of it on youtube. Having to actually hear it live felt magical, giving me goosebumps during the vocal segment. Other than that, the best pieces would have to be the arrangements of "Dancing Mad" and "Maria and Draco." Believe it or not, I never was a big fan of VI's soundtrack. The songs in VI are definitely good, but somehow don't have much staying power with me. Regardless, I was blown away by how epic those arrangements were. All the performers went all out on these two pieces, and it was brilliantly done.
The only faults I have with the concert are all minor, and it's nitpicking more than anything. I find it odd that there was no representation of FFIV in any shape or form. Granted, no songs from I-III, XII, and, technically, XIV were played either, but there were at least brief footage of those games shown. There was not even a clip of IV shown during the chocobo medley. I recall "Theme of Love" was performed in Distant Worlds at one point, but I don't know the last time it was used. It's just a little odd that a well-known and well-liked installment with so many re-releases got no acknowledgement.
Other than that, I feel there was a bit of further unbalance in the playlist. Out of seventeen songs, three were from VI, VII & and VIII apiece. The songs selected were all great, but I like to hear music from all Final Fantasies instead of just the most popular ones. Then again, there is only so much that can be done in a two-hourish show. Naturally, the most iconic songs and games do hold the most appeal. It's just nice to hear some of the lesser known songs like "Fisherman's Village" and "Vala 'alla Flamenco." I also like when songs I don't normally enjoy give me renewed interest when heard live, like "Dear Friends" and especially "Maria and Draco." Adding different sets of songs in the concerts can make these kinds of re-discoveries possible.
Overall, I had a fantastic time, and the whole day was something to remember. The performances were top notch and everyone involved in the concert did a good job to make it a magical night for all the attendees. It was even better that I had the lifetime opportunity to watch the crew in action and to meet with Hamauzu for the few minutes I did. To top this all off, I did it with a good buddy. What more can I ask for? I had a blast before, during, and after the show. It's an experience that any gaming music fan should experience at least once. The tour is still ongoing, so check out the Distant Worlds website to see if there are any concerts within your reach.
Learn more about this concert series at the Distant Worlds website