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My Final Fantasy: Distant Worlds Sydney Opera House Report

April 21, 2011 | | 2 Comments Share thison Facebook My Final Fantasy: Distant Worlds Sydney Opera House Reporton Twitter

To call me jaded regarding live performances of Final Fantasy music would be like saying “One-Winged Angel” is vaguely popular with the fans. This would be the sixth time I’ve heard that tune live since 2004 and by two very different orchestras (and yes, that’s assuming Distant Worlds was going to play it… ah, who am I kidding?). Despite this, the moment I joined the crowd waiting outside the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House, I realized that for a lot of these people, this was the first time. I envied that I couldn’t quite feel the excitement that I saw in their faces.

Because I believed, deep-down, that the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the ensemble choir Cantillation and Arnie Roth, conductor and Main Man of Distant Worlds, were going to bring their top game to Australia’s very first dedicated Final Fantasy concert. With Nobuo Uematsu in attendance, and both nights sold out, how could they not? And why was it “my” Final Fantasy? What exactly does that mean?

All shall be revealed, right after the jump.

Firstly, I’m not really going to talk all that much about the tunes; there is a comprehensive DVD of this concert now available, not to mention two CDs and countless YouTube videos (even of this concert, already!). The programme (which was free and therefore minimalist: no info on Distant Worlds, just a few sponsor ads, a playlist and list of performers) made no bones about what would be played, and what wouldn’t. I’d had a slight altercation with a friend in Japan who attended Distant Worlds: Returning Home regarding the placement of “One-Winged Angel.” For him, it was the first thing played, which I felt really reflected a shift in fan expectations. The encore there, of course, was the new arrangement of “Clash on the Big Bridge,” which Arnie confirmed during the Sydney show as the most requested piece in Japan, and sat neatly between “Fisherman’s Horizon” and the “Chocobo Medley” on my programme.

“One-Winged Angel” was not on the Sydney programme. Infer from that what you will.

I attended both nights, which gave me a great opportunity to compare not only the performances but also the crowds. On Friday night, my confidence bolstered by the buzz and a hasty beer beforehand, I decided to sample the pre-show audience, have a chat, that sort of thing. I picked an elderly couple (as if you wouldn’t!) and started to ask if they were fans of Final Fantasy. The elderly lady, smiling apologetically, informed me she didn’t speak English and then trailed off into German. Great start, Wes. Next I spoke to two young Asian fellows, who told me they’d played all the FFs… except for VII and VIII. Wow. This was not the crowd I’d expected. At. All. After the Friday show I did bump into a fellow who’d been to the Distant Worlds concert in Seattle in 2009, which made me thankful I’m not the only lunatic in the world happy to globetrot for these things.

Saturday naturally had more cosplayers: I saw a few Sephiroths, Tifas, Aeriths, a Cloud or two, a couple of Moogles. Sadly I’d checked my camera into the cloak room (turns out flash photography was not allowed; implicit, then, that non-flash was just fine). For the most part, however, the main difference between Friday and Saturday was the crowd enthusiasm. Certain pieces were temporarily drowned by cheers on the latter night; much like my fellow OSVer Josh (read his report here – unlike mine, it has lots of great photos too), I have little tolerance for the screaming fangirls. On the other hand, how could I not exult in their glee? As Uematsu left the stage from his introduction and promptly seated himself next to me, his movement tracked by over 2,000 sets of rapt eyes, I was torn between Remaining Professional and Focusing On My Work or Admitting I Am Still A Fan and acknowledging my almost-thundering heart.

Thankfully, a third option presented itself: the music of the man sitting next to me.

“Prelude” from Final Fantasy VII opened the concert. Simply put: the choir elevated the familiar tune to something almost spiritual. This was not my first time hearing Cantillation; they took part in the Play! A Video Game Symphony performances at the very same venue back in June, 2007. My reaction to that chaotic mess, that noise, did not warrant words afterwards; yes, we got “Dancing Mad,” years before it would appear in the Distant Worlds programme, but it was sloppy, rough around all the edges. “Prelude” managed to dispel my fears of a repeat performance of that sort of matinée shoddiness in less than three minutes. This was professional to the last note, polished to a gleam and precisely the start I wanted to hear. By the time the choir subsided and then launched into the sepulchral chant of Final Fantasy VIII’s opening cinematic (‘Fithos, Lusec, Wecos, Vinosec!’), I was aware that I probably wouldn’t be listening for nuances or errors. Their excellent rendition of “Fisherman’s Horizon” tipped the scales for me; I hadn’t heard the choral version outside of the Voices DVD from 2006, which never actually got a CD release; a quiet word from Arnie Roth after the show confirmed that Cantillation weren’t just as good as the Voices performance, they were better. Far better.

Two pieces in and my note-taking had taken a decidedly different turn. At times I did write something like “choir a bit weak” but I was wrong there too; there was balance between the instruments and the choir, where I sometimes want vocal dominance. I accept this as a character flaw and move on. This was something new after all. Whatever could I nitpick and criticize if the performance was this good? Ah, the video editing. Yes, the terrible, poorly-timed, contextually-irrelevant video editing so common to video game orchestras. Surely I could… wait, no. They’ve timed the intro movie of FFVIII with “Liberi Fatali”… and added scenes, perfectly. That’s what I noticed; that’s what I saw. Experienced, even. I was very grateful to see that the video editor received credit at the end; Chris Szuberla deserves every accolade I can offer. Between the genius of timing “Don’t Be Afraid” with the very first time any gamer in the world heard it (the first fight at Dollet after the landing in the demo of FFVIII), the incredible sequence of images accompanying “Aerith’s Theme” (yes, you-know-what is still a spoiler and the video very tastefully sidestepped it), the simple but effective slideshow of Amano artwork during “Dear Friends” and the fan-pleasing montage of Chocobo riding from most of the FF games, Chris Szuberla can stand next to Cantillation in ensuring this performance, to me, was so much more than the same-old, same-old. In this, I stand in clear opposition to Josh’s perception of the video, although in almost any other circumstance I’d be far more critical of the visual distraction, but this wasn’t distraction, it was synthesis.

The last piece of the puzzle as to whether Distant Worlds would be great and not just good was the guest vocalist: the Japanese-born, Queensland-educated Kanon (not to be confused with Kanon Wakeshima). Her presence enabled a very rare live performance of “Suteki Da Ne.” I’ve listened to this one many times over too, and must confess that I find Kanon’s classically-trained voice superior to the folksy-pop lightness of RIKKI (Ritsuki Nakano). Kanon’s addition to the Distant Worlds production is nothing short of spectacular; I really didn’t expect to be left breathless at yet-another-games-concert, but her treatment of “Suteki Da Ne,” combined with the video sequence portraying Yuna’s struggle as a Summoner and, of course, Tidus’ ill-fated lover, captivated me from start to end. Her fluent-English performance of “Memoro De La Stona – Distant Worlds” was equally superb… a pity I don’t really like FFXI. Maybe I was a bit biased, though; Kanon can pronounce “Suteki da ne” correctly. Susan Calloway’s “Suteki da Neigh” on the Distant Worlds II CD almost killed the song for me permanently (even if Yuna does sound a bit like a horse when she’s forcing her laugh).

As usual, I have to say a few things less-than-glorifying. I still take issue with the truncated “Fanfare,” although I also take pride in recognizing which FF it’s from (VIII, I’m fairly sure), and that arrangement of “J-E-N-O-V-A” is just too bombastic and adventurous for Sephiroth’s scary alien mother; at a personal level, it reminded me of Steffan Andrews’ Elfman-esque spoof “Jenova Returns” from the OverClocked Remix FFVII arrangement album Voices of the Lifestream (although I like “JR” better than the DW’s “J-E-N-O-V-A”, since it also cleverly incorporates “Those Who Fight”). Considering how many amazing FF tunes have yet to be orchestrated, I feel that “J-E-N-O-V-A” was an uninspired choice. Equally, the orchestral arrangement of “Blinded By Light” from FFXIII lacks a certain punch I’d expect from a fight theme; the loss of the electric violin’s… electricity needs some sort of compensation and the current version performed by Distant Worlds doesn’t have it. The guest guitarist for “Dear Friends” And “Vamo’ Alla Flamenco” flubbed each piece, one per night, but it was a quick slip and I had to hear both twice to confirm. I’m less sure about Ralse’s baritone singer for “Opera ‘Maria and Draco’” from FFVI; he might have come in a bit early on Saturday night, but again, very minor nitpick.

The inclusion of the “sneak-preview” of Final Fantasy XIV tunes (really? The PC version came out in September last year; truly a disastrous release ensuring the delay of the PS3 version) really didn’t do it for me. “Navigator’s Glory,” as Josh noted, is a marching tune that I feel owes more than a little to Sakimoto/Iwata’s Tactics Ogre style, and “Primal Judgment (which has only been performed once before, at Returning Home) is what I consider GenericEpic. Lots of choir and a fairly catchy theme, but replete with echoes of Kow Otani’s boss battles in Shadow of the Colossus, not to mention hints of “Mars: God of War” by Holst. If indeed Distant Worlds is for the fans, and I believe from the format that it certainly is, then ten minutes’ worth of music from a game virtually none of them have played seems… a little wasteful to me.

A last quibble, this one loaded with non-concert context. The new Chocobo medley starts with a sequence of staccato string stabs that immediately pierced my memory; I knew I’d heard something like it before. After the first concert, before the next one and even after that, I had my +1 for the weekend Google frantically for the answer; the irony was I knew my father would know, as would many fathers. That opening was lifted, and slightly modified, from a Western theme. I knew that much. In the end, it was my girlfriend’s mother who said, after my tragically poor “Da!…Da! Dada!” (incessantly muttered to myself most of the weekend), “That’s The Magnificent Seven!”… And so it was. Of all the Chocobo themes and iterations, this latest one refuses to be anything but “The Magnificent Seven opening reworked” for me. And that’s all sorts of depressing, even if I accept why Arnie Roth might have utilized this element: to evoke a subconscious connection between Chocobo riding and horse riding.

One fact stands against all my criticisms: Uematsu was tapping along to the tunes next to me. He’s heard these pieces dozens of times, and I doubt there’d be much deviation between one concert and the next. Testament, then, to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s quality, that the man himself can just tap along happily. I even noticed he was the first to applaud “J-E-N-O-V-A”, and quite loudly. A related side-note: on the second night, we weren’t right next to Uematsu (aww); two nice elderly ladies, however, were, and I noticed they’d switched seats with a young woman and her boyfriend after the interval. I couldn’t help but comment to them what I thought of that selfless act. “Well, clearly it means more to her than us…” So true. Little things like that make big things like these performances all the more pleasurable.

On the issue of applause and appreciation, I want to call out to every single person in that audience who screamed, hollered, cheered or roared at the encore of “One-Winged Angel” – get to your feet, you lazy clods. With Uematsu himself in the choir and the performance pretty much perfect (okay, the arrangement’s too fast for my tastes, but whatever; this is “One-Winged Angel,”; they’re going to eat it up any way you serve it), the fact that so many people were giving it their all to show how awesome they thought it was was truly let down by how few of them bothered to stand. Kanon’s debut in Sydney alone deserved it; Cantillation’s unmatched vocal prowess all but demanded it. I was very disheartened, but stood nonetheless, and looked around at the patches of others who’d done the same. They knew what I knew: this was as good as Final Fantasy live might ever get.

And that’s why it was my Final Fantasy. The music was precisely what I consider to be ‘my’ idea of FF music: pitch-perfect to bring all the memories back. The lack of bloated MC on Arnie’s behalf was very welcome; it was all about the music and the video. In short, the aesthetic cornerstones of Final Fantasy. This is the concert you want to attend as a Final Fantasy fan; it’s very clear this is the intent of Distant Worlds and it achieves it admirably. What started seven years ago for me with seeing ‘Uematsu-sama,’ distant in the crowd at Eminence’s A Night in Fantasia 2004 as my eyes watered to “One-Winged Angel” has now been completed: my little journey from fan to devotee as I went to more and more concerts, and finally to reporter. There is, at every Japanese concert, a ‘dead zone,’ where obligatory attendants sit and do not applaud, do not cheer. Producers and the like. They’ve heard it all before, over and again. I felt myself approaching that transition, but with Distant Worlds, so familiar and yet so fresh, I know that I’m still on the fun side of the line, the side that still has a heart that trips over the crescendos of “Liberi Fatali” and gets a bit blurry in the eyes when Yuna performs the Sending during  “To Zanarkand.” I want to personally thank Nobuo Uematsu for both starting that journey for me almost twenty years ago with my spellbound exposure to Final Fantasy IV’s soundtrack (my first FF OST purchase) and now completing it, and Mr. Arnie Roth for providing the perfect conclusion (even if the “Dancing Mad” fake-out at the end of the Saturday show was a truly cruel thing to do!).

Clockwise from top left: Me, my +1 for the weekend Mike, my possibly long-lost Uncle Uematsu, and Arnie Roth, mastermind of Distant Worlds. Yes, we're *all* rocking ponytails.

Distant Worlds is my Final Fantasy, the way I want to keep it and treasure it. It’s the Final Fantasy belonging to that girl with the FFVIII Amano image tattooed on her left shoulder, to the young woman whose knees jittered when Uematsu sat next to her, and to the two dudes who warily (but eagerly) asked me how much I wanted for my meet-and-greet tickets when I offered them after the Friday show (it felt wrong going to both nights). It’s the Final Fantasy for anyone who has been awestruck by the opening of Final Fantasy VIII, felt some visceral connection to Aerith, or Terra or Yuna, or just spent far too long running around in circles on the world map in anticipation of the next big boss.

Distant Worlds is my Final Fantasy; it’s yours; it’s everyone’s.

[Cover image courtesy of Kate Ruggeri.]

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