On October 20th, 2017 I had the pleasure of attending A New World: Intimate Music from Final Fantasy in Denver, CO. A New World is from the producers of Distant Worlds, and serves as an opportunity to bring us more and different music from Final Fantasy in a small ensemble format. The goal is a more personal experience, and this is reflected in everything from their program and instrumentation to their choice of venue, and even in the way they address the audience throughout the performances. I was not completely sure what to expect when I walked into Gates Concert Hall on the Denver University campus, especially having seen a variety of RPG-related concerts before, but all the pieces fell together beautifully to create an experience that was familiar and comforting while remaining engaging throughout.
To provide some context for my particular experience, getting to this concert has been a sort of end goal of mine for over a year. I had missed the first tour, so naturally it was exciting to be able to catch it this time around. Denver is also my hometown, with the concert happening while I was there visiting, so that provided a unique and emotionally evocative frame of reference for the show. Since this is also my first time discussing music for RPGFan, I should disclose that I played cello for several years and strings are my jam. I'm laying this information out now mostly to illustrate that, because A New World's focus is on a more individual scale, the factors you bring into it as a listener matter.
The program. Look at all that music...
So what was the concert like, and what were my impressions exactly?
Well, best to start by describing the ensemble. They're collectively called the New World Players: there's a string quartet configuration (two violins, viola, cello), string bass, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet, guitar, and percussion, along with pianist and sometimes soloist Benyamin Nuss. This group was small enough to feel personal and allow each individual instrument to utilize its full potential, and just large enough to get a diversity of sounds and different parts in each piece.
After Eric Roth, the conductor for this tour, acknowledged everyone on stage, the group started in with "Force Your Way" from Final Fantasy VIII. This version didn't quite have the urgency and scale that a battle theme at Distant Worlds would, but there was still driving percussion and trumpet to help the audience get into it. Overall, this piece served as a good transition into what A New World is — a way to show listeners what to expect compared to any preconceived notions they may have. After this piece concluded, Mr. Roth welcomed the audience with Final Fantasy Victory Theme flair.
There would not be a lot of sense in another A New World tour without some new material, and the group wasted very little time introducing that to us. The next song in the lineup was FFI's "Chaos Shrine" based on the PSX version's arrangement. This one had my immediate and rapt attention when it started up with pizzicato strings and some flowing flute runs, contrasted by what sounded like a glockenspiel. It got even better when some brooding piano chords kicked in to introduce the resounding melody, which the strings picked up before fading to allow the piano and horn to take up the next segment. The arrangement transforms the song by adding layers that affect the tone, leaving us with something that has wistful and even calm notes, rather than a straightforward "traversing the dungeon" presentation. It truly feels like each instrument is contributing something, and that the concert series is coming into its own and perfecting this Final Fantasy music format.
The concert moved on into a quick homage to FFXI with "Sarutabaruta," which showcased the woodwinds and guitar. From there, it established a pattern of interspersing more dynamic and dramatic songs among calm songs (as well as inserting solos and smaller ensembles into the mix) with a piano solo arrangement of FFXIV's "Heroes". Nuss handled the transitions and shifting moods of this song with aplomb, and it was a treat to listen to. The next new piece was a solo guitar version of "Elia the Water Maiden," which featured a local Denver University guitarist as a guest. It was noteworthy and encouraging to see the performance being so inclusive of the community, which enhanced the connection I felt with the concert.
"Elia" is a song that I personally like, along with classical guitar in general, so I was quite happy hearing it nestled among songs from my favorite Final Fantasy: VI. Both "Decisive Battle" and "Dark World" were carried over from the previous tour, with "Dark World" reminding me of the original duet that Arnie Roth and Nobuo Uematsu performed at Distant Worlds. I can't help but wonder if that contributed to the inception of A New World as its own concert. I heard the tremolo and cello at the beginning and immediately felt nostalgic.
The rest of the first half consisted of material from several different points in the series. "Yaschas Massif" and "Danger in the Forest" were both new pieces that were relaxing but distinct enough that the concert did not drag. The former had a beach-like vibe, while the latter had more of a conventional fantasy/mysterious feel. Both are location-based pieces, as well, which lend themselves well to this format and would likely be passed over in favor of memorable character- or event-based pieces in a larger scale performance. After that came a twist on "Fight with Seymour." It was a string quartet, which is something I didn't even know I wanted to see, but definitely did. I appreciated the power and technique the strings were able to muster, even though I also thought it lost a bit from the original version (or maybe I listened to the recording one too many times and was comparing). The first act concluded with Mr. Roth hinting at the Chocobo theme, but giving us the Moogle medley instead.
Zanarkand (Final Fantasy X)
The second act of the concert focused a lot on the recognizable pieces, in terms of the previous A New World recording as well as the Final Fantasy series. You want your "Zanarkand," "Those Who Fight," or "One-Winged Angel?" This is where the New World Players deliver. "Those Who Fight" is another piano solo, and probably my favorite, while being able to follow the individual instruments in "Zanarkand" and "One-Winged Angel" kept them fresh (with some particularly nice counterpoint in "Zanarkand"). Hearing these alongside some of the longer epic pieces from earlier entries like "The Red Wings" and "Rebel Army Theme" framed them in an interesting way that got me placing these very familiar spotlight pieces back into the full story from their respective games.
New material in the second act included the Gold Saucer theme as a new piano solo, "Home, Sweet Home" from FFV, and a medley from FFXII called "Ivalice Landscapes." A visit to the Gold Saucer was an upbeat addition that helps blend the Moogle and Chocobo themes into the repertoire; similarly, "Ivalice Landscapes" introduces a medley of different pieces from a single game, instead of different versions of the same theme. I always had more trouble distinguishing between songs in FFXII than other titles, but I think that works in its favor here, because the sweeping strings interwoven with piano make for a seamless and pleasant jaunt through the world of Ivalice.
"Home, Sweet Home" felt right...at home (forgive me) next to the title piece "A New World." Having these two FFV pieces together tugged at my heartstrings as I thought about the push and pull between the comfort of home and all that I've discovered elsewhere, especially with the music box style opening in "Home, Sweet Home." Around this point in the program was a great opportunity for the conductor to let us in on the process of selecting music for the series, which he did with a short discussion of who chose certain pieces and how they are focused on bringing less-covered Final Fantasy material into this tour. By far the most moving part of the narration was when he gave the audience a lengthy thank you for not only supporting the franchise, but for being a part of it.
The Final Fantasy series has 30 years of music to draw from, which means there is certainly room for multiple concert series that emphasize different elements of the repertoire. It also means the program has to strike a balance between favorites and material that would truly blossom when brought to life by a small ensemble. This tour certainly accomplished that by including tracks from the breadth of the series, working to include at least a few favorites in a new way, and staying current by selecting pieces that coincide with game trends and releases. Specifically, the inclusion of FFXIV and FFXII created a nice through-line with the popularity and recent expansion of FFXIV, and this year’s release of The Zodiac Age.
A large orchestral concert like Distant Worlds feels like taking a brief but very impactful grand tour of all the Final Fantasy settings and moments we love. In contrast, A New World, especially in its newest iteration, feels like you're taking a closer look at some of these places and discovering some of their idiosyncrasies. The conductor mentioned at one point that they have more recording to do, and I truly hope they get to it soon.