You know that old saying, “the devil is in the details?” I think the saying exists as a reminder for us to pay attention to detail. But for those people who are ever vigilant, who are willing to pay attention to detail, those of us who observe THEM will instead find angels in the details.
In this case, the angels are the performers in the Video Game Orchestra, as well as select soloists and Distant Worlds director / concert conductor, Arnie Roth. After the jump, my take on the March 10th Distant Worlds show at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
For them, it started weeks before. For me, it started promptly at 3pm on March 10th, 2012.
Preparing for a concert is no easy task. Even for the most talented, most expert performers, a period of individual or small-group practice is needed. Sight-reading can carry you only so far. And while the members of Boston’s Video Game Orchestra are young, they are full of talent and are definitely professional.
But the really impressive thing, beyond keeping your chops up on an individual level, is working in tandem with a large group, and with a conductor, over a short period of time, to go from good to great. In watching the dress rehearsal, I was able to see firsthand what that process looks like in this unique partnership between the Distant Worlds team and the VGO.
After rehearsing each song, Arnie would pinpoint sections of the piece that needed that little extra “umph.” They sounded fine to me in rehearsal, but Arnie has an ear for these pieces. Listening to him explain, for example, the importance of the build to the downbeat in the song “Distant Worlds,” followed by that short rest, and not rushing into the second beat… it clearly made a difference in the way the orchestra played the song. Arnie was also sensitive to dynamic shift across the players. I’d often hear him comment that a certain section of the orchestra needs to crescendo here or ease off there. All this, of course, also required the help of the sound engineers, who would amplify the orchestra throughout the concert hall using a variety of microphones (floor, stage, etc).
Getting every little decorative flourish to stand out in a way that enhanced the music is tough work. This is seriously the difference between good and great, and I saw these musical angels ascend to greatness through the rehearsal and then, starting at 8pm sharp, at the concert itself.
Another jarring experience in comparing the rehearsal time to the actual performance was watching the room fill up. At 3pm, it was me and a handful of individuals scuffling around the main section of the audience. The room felt large, but it also felt sparse. The energy of the room changed so much when the audience arrived. And, if I failed to mention this earlier, know that the show was totally sold out. Every seat was filled, including the second- and third-floor balcony seats and the “obstructed view” seats in the back. All told, the BSO seats over 2000 people (see seating chart if you don’t believe me). The concert hall itself is phenomenal, with a massive pipe organ, classic nude statues on the 4th story, alongside modern sound and lighting equipment.
If you’ve listened to all the available Distant Worlds recordings available retail, you’ve heard most of the same arrangements performed in Boston (at the bottom of this article, I’ve posted the full set list). But you didn’t hear it with these special performers.
Alongside the incredible VGO and chorus, there were select soloists that really brought something special to the show. The VGO’s leader, Shota Nakama (whom we’ve relied on many times for translation efforts!), played guitar on FFV’s “Dear Friends” and FFIX’s “Vamo’ alla Flamenco.” Both songs featured short (4 to 8 measure) breaks where Nakama-san could add improvised solo melodies to these otherwise tightly-arranged pieces. The peace and calm of “Dear Friends” contrasted nicely with the tension and drama of FFIX’s “Flamenco.” I suspect that, had he been in attendance, Nobuo Uematsu would’ve given the performance a standing ovation.
Courtney Knot sang the show’s title track, a vocal theme from FFXI (specifically, for its second expansion, Chains of Promathia). Just thinking about her performance that night gives me goosebumps. On the one hand, what an honor and humbling experience it must be to sing with an entire symphony orchestra as your accompinament. And, on the other hand, what inner strength one must have to press forward, hit and hold those high notes, etc. The pressure to perform must have been enormous, but Courtney seemed to gain momentum from that pressure. Like any good vocalist, she held back a bit during the dress rehearsal and gave it her all that night. This was the closest I came to shedding a tear the entire night.
I mentioned the enormous pipe organ earlier. It got use. What a special experience, to hear the organ solo (part 3 of 4) from FFVI “Dancing Mad” from an actual pipe organ. The organ, of course, has a part to play throughout the entire 10 plus minutes of the piece, but when the orchestra fell silent, Arnie stopped keeping time, and the organist was left to his own devices — the crowd fell silent. All was dark except the stage and the classic nude sculptures around the building, which reminded me of the pillar of angels and demons that made up the entire fight leading up to Kefka himself in FFVI. The atmosphere was perfect for this piece of music.
FFVI really got a lot of love at the concert, as the other supersized piece of music, the entire Maria & Drako opera, was performed that night. Three opera soloists were hired for the show. I actually had a chance to speak with the young lady performing Maria’s part, and she informed me that she was actually called within days of the performance, as the original person booked was unable to perform. She knew nothing of the game’s story, so I relayed to her the coincidence of the situation, since — in the game — Celes appears as a last-minute stand-in for the same part. Fortunately, there were no rafters from which anthropomorphic squids could drop giant weights on our singers!
For all the awe and wonder that came from this concert hall, with its incredible architecture and great acoustics, one of the best things about the show remains the wonderful, synchronized video (prepared almost entirely by one man, Chris Szuberla). The Chocobo medley, the FFVI Terra “end credits” (a now-famous way to end the show), FFVIII’s “Don’t Be Afraid” put to the mecha-escape sequence (the one used in the game’s demo that came with Brave Fencer Musashi), and so much more … those video tracks are sure to please. They also handle Aerith’s Theme very tastefully, and in such a way that the non-spoiler spoiler is technically avoided.
And then, of course, there was the obligatory “One-Winged Angel” encore. But we Bostonians (and those of us who traveled to see the Boston show) were lucky enough to get a special version of it. Yes, it was the “sing-along” version that the Distant Worlds tour has been doing for some time now, so we all brushed up on our pseudo-Latin and belted “Se – phi – roth!” at the top of our lungs. But joining us was Masashi Hamauzu: the man who first put together the group that recorded the choir part for FFVII, and who actually sang as part of that group. Yes, that’s right: before Hamauzu was writing full scores for Square (Enix) titles, he worked with Uematsu to make what is now one of the most famous songs in game music. So Hamauzu walked right out from row L of the concert hall and up onto the stage, standing with the choir, smiling and singing the epic piece. What a treat!
After the show, VIP ticket holders attended a special meet-and-greet with Hamauzu-san, Arnie Roth, and others. I myself headed out after the show with partner-in-crime Dennis Rubinshteyn (of RPGFan) and some new friends to get some drinks. Reflecting on the show, we all had largely positive things to say about it.
If there is one critique to level against the show, and it’s one that’s always valid (even Arnie Roth admits it), there’s not enough music here. That is to say, they’ll inevitably miss many fan favorites, and skip whole entries from the series (where’s my FFIV?!), because they only have so much time per concert. The good news is that the Distant Worlds team is always working to add new arrangements to the repertoire. With that said, I hope to catch another Distant Worlds show in the next year or two, maybe with a surprise special guest no one would expect (say, Naoshi Mizuta or Hitoshi Sakimoto).
Liberi Fatali (VIII)
Don’t be afraid (VIII)
To Zanarkand (X)
Memoria de la stona~ Distant Worlds (XI)
Dear Friends (V)
Vamo’ alla Flamenco (IX)
Aerith’s Theme (VII)
Chocobo (XIV, series)
Opening ~ Bombing Mission (VII)
Dancing Mad (VI)
Fabula Nova Crystalis – The Promise (XIII)
Blinded by Light (XIII)
Fisherman’s Village (VIII)
Maria and Draco (VI)
One-Winged Angel (VII)