Cologne is quickly turning into the western Mecca of game music events. Over the last few years, events such as Leipzig Symphonic Game Music Concert, Symphonic Shades and now Symphonic Fantasies have centered game music fans’ attention on the old German city.
Symphonic Fantasies is the second event in Thomas Böcker’s Symphonic series, with the first being last year’s amazing Symphonic Shades. Similar to Shades, which was a tribute to the work of Chris Hülsbeck, Fantasies is a tribute to the music of some of Square Enix’s most well known franchises. While the Leipzig events were under the Symphonic banner, starting with Shades it started to have a more themed setting. With Shades being one of the best live events I have experienced, expectations for Fantasies was sky high, and the global attention to the event was unlike any concert before it.
So, did it live up to the expectations? Keep on reading to find out!
The road to Germany might seem like a short distance at first glance, but I can tell you that I have never spent so many hours on trains. My flight landed in Dusseldorf at 15:00, with the concert starting at 20:00, and as organized as these Germans are, their railroad system is like playing Pac-Man blindfolded with your hands tied behind your back. After being screamed at by an old female train inspector and missing one train, we finally arrived at 19:48, 2 minutes late for the meet and greet, but just in time for the crowd to take their seats.
The concert venue this year was a few steps away from last year’s location. Shades took place at the WDR Funkhaus, while Fantasies took place at the Cologne Philharmonic Hall. It’s an absolutely beautiful location, and there isn’t a bad seat in the entire house, which was a good thing given that the show was sold out for the night.
As we took our seats, the orchestra slowly made its entry to the stage to a round of applause. The choir was already seated as I entered the venue, and when the orchestra was assembled, some tuning and instrument checks started. I always enjoy watching things like that, just seeing the orchestra prepare and tune their respective instruments. A German presenter came to the stage and went over the program for us. When it comes to presenters, I must apologize as my German is not sufficient enough to fully understand what exactly was said, but for the most part, I got the picture.
After a beautiful fanfare composed by Jonne Valtonen, who is also responsible for all the arrangements, the main host of the evening came out and introduced us to the composers, material and also welcomed the worldwide viewers following on the live stream broadcasted online, nice little touch. He welcomed a name I had not heard before, but will not easily forget, Benyamin Nuss, to play piano during the first piece of the night, Kingdom Hearts.
Symphonic Fantasies presented all the music in the form of suites, stringing all the songs together in medleys, making this quite different from other game music concerts before it. I greatly enjoyed this format, and they did an absolutely fantastic job working the songs together. Kingdom Hearts consisted of “Dearly Beloved,” “Hand in Hand,” “A Fight to the Death” and many more, and of the 4 suites, this one had the most emphasis on piano, which was brilliantly performed by Nuss. Nuss followed the orchestra step by step, and did not have a sour note at any time. With the wide range of moods that Kingdom Hearts presents, I found his performance all the more impressive, and the arrangement wonderful. A great start to a fantastic evening.
The highlight of the evening, Secret of Mana, was up next. SoM was a childhood favorite of mine, as me and my best friend would stay up night after night playing it together. The music probably ranks as my favorite Square soundtrack of all time, and finally I would get to experience it the way I always felt it deserved, and it delivered beyond my expectations. It was the most emotional piece of the evening, as the approach was fittingly dark and mysterious, as the opening notes of “Fear of the Heavens” came to light after the winds calmed down, cleverly performed by the WDR Radio Choir. “Into the Thick of it”, “Eternal Recurrence,” “Prophecy,” “The Oracle,” and “Phantom and Rose” were represented in the suite, and they were all marvelously arranged, with an amazing performance from the Radio Choir. Visually, the performance was interesting as well, as they used a lot of ways to portray the atmosphere of the music. In one instance, they waved sheet paper to simulate rain and wind, adding to the magnificent performance. One similarity I found that nobody else probably will, was that “Prophecy” had some parts that sounded quite similar to the style of the old Asterix cartoon scores, most notably Asterix and the Big Fight, but this is most likely just a coincidence.
After a quick intermission, we are again seated and treated to Chrono Trigger\Chrono Cross, combining the two works of Yasunori Mitsuda into one suite. Rony Barrak, the most amazing man in the world more or less, came out to join the orchestra for this piece. There should be some form of law that requires each and every living person to see Barrak live, cause it’s such an amazing experience, and it was no different this time. He adds so much energy to the stage and the crowd. What I really loved about this arrangement is that for the most part, the 2 different games integrated to support each other, so when Chrono Trigger was in the forefront, you would hear parts of Cross in the back, with “Scars of Time” and “Chrono Trigger” being performed together to end the piece, absolutely amazing.
For the seemingly last part of the show, they of course ended with the biggest of them all: Final Fantasy. It’s the fan favorite by far, and for good reason, as it is unrivaled in its popularity. The choir opened beautifully with “Prelude” before kicking into “Those Who Fight.” The fans were all awaiting “One Winged Angel,” and they got it, for 5 seconds, before breaking down and going into “Chocobo” instead. This got quite a good laugh out of the audience, and it seemed the string section especially loved performing “Chocobo,” and even Arnie was smiling from side to side, so I’m sure this is his favorite. I believe he also arranged his own samba version of “Chocobo” in the past. “Phantom Forest” and “Battle at the Big Bridge” from FFVI and V, respectively, were also represented, and thankfully so as I love both songs. My only complaint is that they relied a bit too much on FFVII, but it is the fan favorite so I understand, but it would be nice to have some FFIV and III in there as well.
After a loud standing ovation as Arnie left, the fans screamed for an encore. The crowd was extremely passionate and emotionally attached to this concert, which added to a great atmosphere. We were treated to an encore, a final boss medley! Not only was this a fantastic choice to end the show, but Rony Barrak also came back to amaze us all. The boss songs represented were “Destati” (Kingdom Hearts), “Meridian Dance” (Secret of Mana), “Lavos’ Theme” (Chrono Trigger) and “One Winged Angel” (Final Fantasy VII). “Meridian Dance” was my favorite part of this medley, but Barrak had a solo during “One Winged Angel,” which got a massive crowd reaction, as deserved. An amazing show had come to an end, exceeding all expectations, and setting the bar so incredibly high that I can’t do anything but get massively excited for what Böcker has planned next!
After the concert, I had the pleasure of accidentally ending up at the after party, meeting all the composers and producers personally. The composers were all amazingly nice people, joking with each other and always smiling, just happy to be where they are in life. Uematsu spent a surprisingly long time with me, mostly joking about my hair. I also most importantly got to shake Thomas Böcker’s hand and thank him for Symphonic Shades and Fantasies, and gave him a gift in the form of premium Norwegian chocolate. It was an absolute honor to be able to do so and tell him how much Shades had meant to me, and still does, one year later. At the party I also had the pleasure of speaking with Benyamin Nuss, Chris Greening from SEMO, OSV’s own Shota Nakama, Don “Delaware” Kotowski, Hiroki Ogawa and Spel-Musik’s Johan Köhn. It was a great night and a great honor to spend it with many new friends and lifelong heroes, and I can’t wait to see you all again. Thank you, all of you.Chrono Cross, Chrono Trigger, Concerts, Final Fantasy, Hiroki Kikuta, Kingdom Hearts, Nobuo Uematsu, Orchestra, Secret of Mana, Symphonic Fantasies, Yasunori Mitsuda, Yoko Shimomura