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Distant Worlds Returns Home: Japan Concert Impressions

December 9, 2010 | | 7 Comments Share thison Facebook Distant Worlds Returns Home: Japan Concert Impressionson Twitter

In giving my impressions of the Distant Worlds: music from Final Fantasy Returning Home concert performed at the Tokyo International Forum this past month, I can’t help but notice the irony in the title: the advent of the Distant Worlds concert was in Stockholm, Sweden, in December 2007. What seems like a simple subtitle for its Japanese audience is noteworthy because it begs the question, “Can the origin country of the Final Fantasy series express any ownership over its defining features?” – Especially the masterful and internationally beloved works of Nobuo Uematsu?

I wasn’t a newcomer to the Distant Worlds concerts – actually, of all places my first opportunity to experience Distant Worlds was in the backwater state of Minnesota, USA. Using the ‘local’ talent of the fantastic Philharmonic and Macalester College Concert Choir, it offered an exuberant night of both fantastic music and appreciative – bordering on fanatic – fans, dressed up in cosplay of obscure characters (Final Fantasy VII’s Turks as well as Terra from Final Fantasy VI were personal faves). The charismatic, Grammy-winning conductor Arnie Roth seemed to relish the cheers and standing ovations. It was a celebration of the memories associated with each and every Final Fantasy – a borderless joy shared across the globe.

So in this backdrop of universal appreciation, does the ‘homecoming’ of Final Fantasy music to its birth country bear any more significance than a performance anywhere else? My personal view may even parallel the evolution of the series; despite its humble Famicom beginnings in Japan, the series is now owned by the world, as is its music.

Having said this, the Returning Home concert absolutely holds more significance – and dare say, appreciation – on a completely different level than its concert brethren elsewhere in the world.

Shutup already? Get on with the show! Fine, fine, have it your way…

Having hushed the audience of over 3,000, “One-winged Angel” erupted from the orchestra. Talk about a bang. The sound was crisp and taut – a restrained intensity threatening to burst at the seams. Just one decibel louder and it seemed it would unravel. But each ‘Sephiroth!’ was punctuated by the immediate silence following. You’d expect such a fan-favorite would be conserved for later, but it was an unexpected yet fantastic starting choice. Here’s the set list from the evening:

1st Act

01. One-Winged Angel (FINAL FANTASY VII)
02. Victory Theme (FINAL FANTASY SERIES)
03. Don’t be Afraid (FINAL FANTASY VIII)
04. Medley 2010 (FINAL FANTASY I-III)
05. Love Grows (FINAL FANTASY VIII)
06. Ronfaure (FINAL FANTASY XI)
07. J-E-N-O-V-A (FINAL FANTASY VII)
08. Dear Friends (FINAL FANTASY V)
09. Vamo’alla flamenco (FINAL FANTASY IX)
10. Aerith’s Theme (FINAL FANTASY VII)
11. Swing de Chocobo (FINAL FANTASY SERIES)

2nd Act

12. Opening~Bombing Mission (FINAL FANTASY VII)
13. Zanarkand (FINAL FANTASY X)
14. Dancing Mad (FINAL FANTASY VI)
15. Blinded by Light (FINAL FANTASY XIII)
16. Fang’s Theme (FINAL FANTASY XIII)
17. Dreadnauts! (FINAL FANTASY XIII)
18.   Fabula Nova Crystallis (FINAL FANTASY XIII)
19. Blaze Edge (FINAL FANTASY XIII)
20. The Man with the Machine Gun (FINAL FANTASY VIII)
21. Terra’s Theme (FINAL FANTASY VI)

Encore

22. Battle at the Bridge (FINAL FANTASY V)

While I hate to knock the Distant Worlds concerts, they aren’t necessarily known for diverging much from its source materials, but Final Fantasy IX onwards, they are more or less orchestral remakes faithful to a fault. Even with Final Fantasy VIII, “The Man with the Machine Gun” is performed note for note – yet, with its sense of humor, orchestrating sound effects as it followed a recording of a battle sequence played on the giant screen.

Likewise with Final Fantasy X’s “Zanarkand,” there was nothing to differentiate it from the original sound on the PS2 – except the electric energy in the room. The air was tense from what I felt was a longing finally realized – these songs finally shored onto Japanese soil. Particularly, “Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec” pulsated through the concert hall with foreboding and sorrow. Perhaps a testament to both the compositional strength of the original as well as the talent bringing it to life.  The tracks from Final Fantasy XIII were also more or less game-to-concert ports — except “Frabula Nova Crystallis” sung by Frances Maya. This one gave me goosebumps; her voice was so clear as it swelled to fill the entire concert hall.

On the other hand, the pieces which really shone were the arrangements, and the talent backing them. Of course, the Swing-style “Swing de Chocobo” is a favorite of those familiar with the concert, and exceeded my expectations. The “Final Fantasy Medley (I-III)” was originally performed in the late 1980s but nonetheless feels fresh; perhaps due to the contrast with newer material that is on par with film scores.

There was an addition of talent to the Distant Worlds concert I absolutely couldn’t miss: the amazing pianist Benyamin Nuss, whose first album, Benyamin Nuss Plays Uematsu, was – as the title declares – dedicated to the master himself and released under the incredibly prestigious Deutsche Gramophone label. In particular, his role in “Love Grows” from Final Fantasy VIII was an incredible performance I am honored to have experienced (sorry, don’t mean to brag). The best way I can describe his sound is as if the notes appear from thin air; with many pianists I “hear” their fingers, but never once did I hear his. Yet when the piece demanded strength, I seldom have heard such intensity. If you have the opportunity, by all means purchase his album – a sonic experience you will never regret hearing.

The last highlight I want to touch on is “Dancing Mad” from Final Fantasy VI. I almost have no words for the soaring epic this song is – which even includes Kefka’s battle, a prized number that is only occasionally included in recent Distant Worlds concerts. I was actually fortunate enough to have forgotten my glasses on the way to the concert. At first I was panicked at my inability to see clearly, but then my blurred view quickly turned to a robust visualization of the battle, filling in the pixels of the original with emotion, the characters’ frustration, the chorus’ operatic cries stirring the cacophonous melody. Seriously, over 9 minutes of amazement. I have to stop myself. Simply that good of a song.

In finishing, the concert in a nutshell: Magnificent musicianship, lavish program, and a concert hall that kills. But the biggest difference I discovered was an audience relishing what it couldn’t have for so long, laughing at every humorous note, awaiting the next unexpected number – an audience ecstatic when Final Fantasy V’s “Clash on the Big Bridge” was played on encore. The excitement and reverence towards Uematsu’s music (suits and evening gowns next to punk rockers in the front seats) displays something more than a performance, what I like to think as an embracing of how Final Fantasy has crossed borders, and pride in how a once-MIDI-restricted composer has become an international figure.

The good news is that Nobuo Uematsu’s beautiful MIDI-then-CD-stereo visions featured in this concert will be available on DVD and CD in January 2011.

You’ll hear vocalist Frances Maya (Final Fantasy XIII) perform in the premiere of Fabula Nova Crystallis (“The Promise”), Susan Calloway (Distant Worlds I, Distant Worlds II, and Final Fantasy XIV) make her Tokyo debut singing Nobuo Uematsu’s main theme from Final Fantasy XIV, “Answers,” guitar virtuoso Meng-Feng Su perform Final Fantasy V’s “Dear Friends” and “Vamo’ alla Flamenco” from Final Fantasy IX, and the spectacular young pianist Benyamin Nuss, as heard on the recent Symphonic Fantasies concert and recording and on his new Deutsche Gramophone solo CD, performing “March of the Dreadnoughts” from Final Fantasy XIII, “Those Who Fight” from Final Fantasy VII, and “Love Grows” from Final Fantasy VIII.

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