One of the disadvantages of living up in the New England area is that there are few opportunities to experience some really good shows. Particularly when it comes to the gaming and music scene. We have PAX East in the spring and some smaller shows like the Boston Festival of Indie games in the fall. But other than that, I usually need to travel to a bigger city like New York or all the way out to the west coast of the United States, where a majority of these gaming events happen. So the chance to attend a Distant Worlds concert in Boston was something that I was very excited about. Not only was this a concert of Final Fantasy music, but Nobuo Uematsu himself, the composer for most of the Final Fantasy games, would be there in person. For me, as a composer and a gamer, Uematsu represents the first wave of composers for the medium that helped make video game music more than just simple bleeps and bloops. He and many other composers of that generation showed that you could still write emotionally engaging and complex pieces of music even when faced with technological limitations. Having the chance to hear his work arranged for and performed by a full orchestra is something that, as someone who played these games back when they were new, continues to amaze me. So needless to say, I was thrilled to be able to attend this concert. Not only to hear some of my favorite video game music, but to see one of my favorite game composers appear and perform his own work.
The concert was held on October 6th at Symphony Hall in Boston, Massachusetts. A good sized crowd had shown up for the event and I was actually surprised to see that there were a handful of vacant seats in the hall. There was a fairly diverse group of attendees. A majority of the crowd were in their twenties and thirties, but there was a good mix of members from the older generations. Right before the orchestra tuned for the first piece, Uematsu briefly came out to greet the crowd and was met with enthusiastic applause. After giving a quick wave and a humble bow, he quickly rushed back behind the stage. The groups performing for this concert were the Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra and the Berklee Choir all being led by the Distant Worlds conductor Arnie Roth. The concert began with some standard pieces from the Distant Worlds repertoire, opening with “Libari Fatali” from Final Fantasy VIII and a Final Fantasy Medley, better known as the “2002 Medley”, featuring music from Final Fantasy I, II, and III. Other returning favorites from previous Distant Worlds concerts like “Don’t Be Afraid” and “Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII” were also performed. As with previous concerts, gameplay footage and concept art by Yoshitaka Amano was displayed on the screen, with events in the footage often syncing with the music.
New to this year’s concert tour were arrangements of “Ronfaure” from Final Fantasy XI and a new Distant Worlds “Battle Medley”, featuring “Battle at the Big Bridge”, from Final Fantasy V; “Fight with Seymour”, from Final Fantasy X; and “Those Who Fight” from Final Fantasy VII. There were a few more premiers for this specific concert. The first of these was an acapella version of Final Fantasy X’s “Hymn of the Fayth”, a piece only ever previously performed, in collaboration with full orchestra, at the 2006 Voices concert in Japan. Another premier for the concert series this year was an arrangement by Uematsu himself of “Battle With the Four Fiends” from Final Fantasy IV. The piece was incredibly percussive, filled with sudden changes in dynamics, often shifting from brief moments of tranquility to sudden blasts of sound from the rest of the orchestra. The arrangement had a very twentieth century orchestral sound similar to that of works by Igor Stravinsky, the “Infernal Dance of King Kastchei” from Firebird specifically comes to mind. It was an excellent new arrangement and one of my favorite pieces in the first half of the concert.
A few pieces brought in soloists to play with the orchestra. In the fist half of the concert Shota Nakama, founder of the Video Game Orchestra, joined the orchestra on guitar for two pieces. The first of these was “Dear Friends” from Final Fantasy V, followed by “Vamo’ Alla Flamenco” from Final Fantasy IX. The two pieces worked great as contrasts to one another. “Dear Friends” was very calming and tranquil, while “Vamo’ Alla Flamenco” was fast paced and energetic. Nakama showed a great amount of emotional depth and technical ability in his playing and the orchestra accompaniment was perfect, never drowning out or overshadowing his solos. For the second half, it was announced that Nobuo Uematsu and conductor Arnie Roth would perform a piece from Final Fantasy VI. I and many others were expecting either “Dancing Mad” or one of the other battle themes, but the piece they performed was in fact “Dark World”. Roth performed the melodies of the piece on violin and Uematsu brought out his own dual keyboard set up, one keyboard used for the organ and the other to create the wind sound effects that you normally hear in the game. Uematsu only brought in the wind sounds for the very beginning of the piece, allowing the organ part to play against complete silence. The effect of this was chilling, the lone organ echoing throughout the quiet performance hall. The entire audience seemed to hold its breath, hanging on to every note that Uematsu played. Roth’s performance was equally effective, performing the melody with an expressive legato articulation (smooth and connected notes) rather than a pizzicato articulation (plucked and disconnected notes) that you hear in the original soundtrack. Like the original, the arrangement was both solemn and haunting. The orchestra had a very minimal role in accompanying, only building very gently on top of what Uematsu was already playing. The piece faded out to the complete silence of a spellbound audience but was immediately followed by thunderous applause.
The final piece planned for the evening was a brand new arrangement of “Opera: Maria & Draco” from Final Fantasy VI. Roth explained that one of the problems for the opera piece in the game is that the opera itself gets interrupted, meaning we technically never hear the official end of the piece. So for this concert, Uematsu wrote an official ending for the opera that the orchestra, choir, and soloists would perform for the first time. In addition to this extension of the material, a narrator was added to this arrangement to provide the story elements, similar to the way they are presented to you in the game. As always, it was a great experience to hear the opera from Final Fantasy VI performed live by professional singers with a full orchestra and choir. The new ending, although not incredibly long, built up and extended the final section from the original. The orchestra built up from the original ending, continued to crescendo, and finally the choir and all three soloists came in for a larger and more triumphant finale. Even though it was a small addition to the arrangement, it gave the opera a bigger and better climax. Overall a welcome improvement.
This turned out not to be the end of the concert. Uematsu came out with Arnie Roth to thank everyone for coming to the performance and announced that they would perform an encore. Everyone wanted Uematsu to perform something, to which he jokingly responded by whistling the Final Fantasy “Victory Fanfare”. Roth insisted that Uematsu should sing for the audience, but only if the audience joined in. So for an encore, the orchestra and choir performed a sing along version of “One-Winged Angel” from Final Fantasy VII. Uematsu took a position with the choir and the piece began. I tend to be of the opinion that this particular Final Fantasy piece has been over-played, but with the composer himself joining in I can hardly complain. Besides, how often in your life do you get the chance to sing along to a piece of music with Nobuo Uematsu? At the end of the day, it’s a great boss battle piece and the audience, myself included, really enjoyed the interactive performance. Overall, Distant Worlds in Boston was a great concert. The arrangements were well done, with a mix of old and new selections from the repertoire, and it was a thrill to see the composer himself in attendance and participating in the performances. It was easily one of the best video game music concerts I’ve ever been to and I’m not sure how I’m going to be able to top the experience. It was an amazing event and I hope they continue to bring this series to Boston. If Distant Worlds comes to a town near you, definitely grab yourself and your friends some tickets. It will be a concert event that you will never forget.
Tags: Arnie Roth, Berklee Choir, Berklee Contemporary Orchestra, Distant Worlds, Final Fantasy, Nobuo Uematsu, Reviews