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A Night of Firsts: Final Fantasy Distant Worlds Chicago Impressions

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[Editor’s Note: Shota and I had a blast at the Distant Worlds performance in San Francisco earlier this year, but unfortunately we couldn’t make it this time around. We were, however, able to send contributor Brian Davis, who had also attended the Distant Worlds US debut in Chicago in 2008. He comments on the new “Dancing Mad,” “J-E-N-O-V-A” and Final Fantasy XIV segments that we’ve been talking about for months, so read on!]

The Final Fantasy-themed concert series Distant Worlds has enthralled fans of the series since its inception, and the performance on December 12th, 2009 in Chicago was no different. Arnie Roth once again directed the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra and the Elmhurst College Orchestra through a set that encompassed music from Final Fantasy games old and new, and I braved the beginnings of another Chicago winter to see it. The show took place at the Rosemont Theater as it did last year, and featured the same large screen over the orchestra to show game footage and video during the show.

Read on for our impressions of this special performance that featuring music from Final Fantasy XIV and other special segments.

The audience members, though occupied with their own conversations, immediately erupted into a standing ovation as Nobuo Uematsu and two Square-Enix representatives took their seats just prior to the start of the show. The show commenced with a slow, moving rendition of the Final Fantasy “Prelude,” after which Arnie Roth gushed about the energy of the audience and how far people had come to see the show. Arnie Roth always radiates enthusiasm, both for the music of Final Fantasy and for the appreciation of the fans, and it’s great to see the performance directed by somebody with that kind of energy.

The show proceeded as follows:

01. Final Fantasy Series – Prelude
02. Final Fantasy VIII – “Liberi Fatali”
03. Final Fantasy Series – Victory Theme
04. Final Fantasy XI – “Ronfaure”
05. Final Fantasy VIII – “Don’t Be Afraid”
06. Final Fantasy XI – “To Zanarkand”
07. Final Fantasy XI – “Distant Worlds”
08. Final Fantasy VIII – “Love Grows”
09. Final Fantasy Series – “Swing the Chocobo”
10. Final Fantasy IX – “Melodies of Life”
11. Final Fantasy VIII – “Fisherman’s Horizon”
12. Final Fantasy VII – “J-E-N-O-V-A”

Intermission

13. Final Fantasy VII – “Opening / Bombing Mission”
14. Final Fantasy VII – Overworld Theme
15. Final Fantasy X – “Suteki da ne”
16. Final Fantasy VII – “Aerith’s Theme”
17. Final Fantasy VI – “Dancing Mad”
18. Final Fantasy XII – “Kiss Me Goodbye”
19. Final Fantasy IV – “Theme of Love”
20. Final Fantasy VIII – “The Man with the Machine Gun”
21. Final Fantasy XIV – “Twilight Over Thanalan / Behind Bloody Borders”
22. Final Fantasy VI – “Terra’s Theme”

First and Second Encore: Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children – “One Winged Angel”

You’ll notice a few things. First of all, this show was particularly special for its debut of two new pieces, Final Fantasy VI’s “Dancing Mad” and Final Fantasy VII’s “J-E-N-O-V-A.” Both of these songs won an audience poll to choose which Roth, Uematsu and company would arrange next, and anticipation for these two was high. Neither track disappointed: “J-E-N-O-V-A” began with a sinister, atmospheric tone, led by the choir, then erupted into its signature bombast with a drummer and the horn section in the lead. I really enjoyed the buildup and tone on this one, and the fact that the arrangement didn’t just hold to the tone and rhythm of the original; in my opinion, it’s these different takes on established favorites that helps distinguish Distant Worlds so much. That inventiveness has always struck me with their arrangement of Final Fantasy VIII’s “Fisherman’s Horizon” as well, where the choir adds a breathtaking depth to the song.

“Dancing Mad” debuted in the second half of the program, and took another interesting twist: instead of arranging the entirety of all four tiers of “Dancing Mad,” the arrangement held to its more dramatic and downtempo portions. The first segment began with a tone and tempo more akin to Final Fantasy VI’s intro sequence than its “Dancing Mad” counterpart, before bursting into its more energetic portion. Although I couldn’t discern the actual lyrics sung by the choir, their contribution gave the song an extra bit of spine-tingling kick. This continued in “Dancing Mad’s” second segment, leading into the organ introduction to the third. Here, however, came the arrangement’s twist: this organ solo then led almost seamlessly into a full rendition of the second part of the fourth tier’s music, retaining the drama and tempo of the arrangement instead of drastically changing it. I admit, I was let down a bit at first – I love every part of “Dancing Mad,” as Final Fantasy VI was the first game I played in the series – but in the context of the performance, it worked perfectly, and I wouldn’t go back and change it. The audience didn’t seem to mind either, as the following applause was deafening.

Another debut was music from the upcoming Final Fantasy XIV, “Twilight over Thanalan” and “Behind Bloody Borders,” accompanied by the trailer for the game. This didn’t set off my nostalgia gland like many Distant Worlds songs do, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. Several other songs were new to Chicago, including Final Fantasy X’s “Suteki da ne” and Final Fantasy IX’s “Melodies of Life.” Both songs featured guest vocalist Susan Calloway, who performed the lyrics wonderfully and without stealing the spotlight from the other musicians. And, though it was a mere few seconds long, the Final Fantasy victory theme got a lot of cheers from the audience.

While the performance was full of debuts – songs new to Chicago, to North America, or to the entire Distant Worlds show – plenty of old favorites appeared in the program too. Two of my favorites have always been Final Fantasy IV’s “Theme of Love” (a favorite of Uematsu’s as well) and “Terra’s Theme” from Final Fantasy VI, and both songs saw great performances once again. If I have one qualm with the show, it’s that the focus has shifted towards music from the later games in the series. As somebody who was introduced to Final Fantasy with the earlier games, those tend to trigger the strongest reactions in me, and the last time I saw Distant Worlds it was much more even-handed in its program.

The encore was a treat for fans too: Final Fantasy VII’s “One-Winged Angel” has long held the distinction of being the final song played for the evening, but this performance would be more memorable than ever. Nobuo Uematsu took the stage – to more riotous applause, of course – with the band The Chicago Mages, to play the Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children rendition of “One-Winged Angel” not once, but twice. In addition to this, Roth decided to have some audience participation, and directed the fans to sing “Sephiroth!” at the appropriate moments in the song. The audience, of course, complied with gusto, and the performance was incredibly energetic. My one criticism would be that the mixing seemed a bit heavy-handed on the Chicago Mages, but the song still sounded phenomenal. Uematsu himself manned the Hammond organ for the song, although he did step away for a moment to air-guitar next to one of the Chicago Mages, which was definitely appreciated by the audience.

Arnie Roth made several announcements during the program: A newsletter for Distant Worlds is coming soon, and more performances have been scheduled in the coming months for Seoul, Stockholm, San Francisco and another return to Chicago. Even more exciting is the fact that Roth and company will be recording the second Distant Worlds CD very soon, featuring the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic.

Distant Worlds is really a one-of-a-kind show, and well worth seeing if you have the opportunity. Arnie Roth and Nobuo Uematsu don’t seem to be getting off the train any time soon, so it will hopefully continue its success for a long time to come.

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