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They Did It Again: Final Symphony II Concert Report

May 3, 2016 | | 3 Comments Share thison Facebook They Did It Again: Final Symphony II Concert Reporton Twitter

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Merregnon Studios’ newest concert Final Symphony II features music from Final Fantasy V, VIII, IX, and XIII. This report is about its sixth performance, which took place in Tampere, Finland on April 1, 2016.

So what exactly did the Merregnon team do again?

  1. Another Final Fantasy concert. Final Symphony was their first FF-only concert, and now Final Symphony II is their second.
  2. Another mid-concert surprise encore that premiered in Finland.They did it with Suteki da Ne in the first Final Symphony and now here with You’re Not Alone.
  3. Another four-20-minute-arrangements concert. They did it with Symphonic Fantasies, which is wildly popular, and now for the second time here.

In short, they took the best parts of game music (Final Fantasy), overdelivery of value (surprise mid-concert encore) and concert structure (four 20-minute arrangements).

For the long version, read on.

Some background first

Final Fantasy concerts are nothing new. The first one was held in 1989 (!) and became the album Symphonic Suite Final Fantasy. There was a long 13-year pause until an entire concert was dedicated to FF again, but in the 2000s there were like a gazillion of them, with the famous Distant Worlds series being the last of the bunch.

But we hadn’t see last of Final Fantasy yet. With 10 years of VGM concert experience, a long relationship with Square Enix, and 100% free hands from Nobuo Uematsu – Thomas Böcker and his company Merregnon Studios took FF to new heights with Final Symphony, which featured bold classical arrangements of FF VI, VII and X.

Fans never get enough, though, and many requested other games to be performed as well. I especially remember that FF VIII and IX were highly requested on Facebook and other sites.

Merregnon Studios had never done another concert with the same theme and all new arrangements before. There never were a Symphonic Fantasies II or a Symphonic Odysseys II, so I didn’t believe it would happen.

But it did.

Final Symphony II happened, and it featured music from FF V, VIII, IX and XIII.

Concerts were announced for 2015 in Germany, UK and Japan, with only a few weeks between performances. I was super thrilled and managed to change my internship timing in Japan, so I could attend Final Symphony II in all three countries!

This report is about the fifth performance of Final Symphony II that I have been to (they have had six in total). It took place in Tampere, Finland on April 1, 2016. It was performed by the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra and pianist Mischa Cheung; conducted by Kimmo Tullila; and arranged by Roger Wanamo, Jonne Valtonen and Masashi Hamauzu.

I have written about Final Symphony II twice before, and I was honestly worried whether I have anything to say anymore, so I decided to keep it short. But I couldn’t, and this report ended up with 4000+ words (15-20 minutes of reading time).

That’s the beauty of concerts by Merregnon Studios; they always get me feeling, talking and writing.

Enjoy!

Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra performing Final Symphony II

In a Roundabout Way – Fanfare

The concert started with an original fanfare composed by Jonne Valtonen.

It starts out promising with a light yet exciteful adventurous feeling similar to the FF XIII piece after this one. But it soon becomes forgettable. Even after hearing it several times, I only remember the intro, and everything else is a blur. It’s so forgettable that I almost forgot to include it in this report.

The fanfare Valtonen composed for the first Final Symphony is amazing and I always looked forward to hearing it. This time around I always forget it even exists. But it doesn’t really matter (sorry Valtonen!), it is just an intro and the real treat is yet to come.

Final Fantasy XIII: Utopia in the Sky

The FF XIII piece was arranged by Masashi Hamauzu and orchestrated by Jonne Valtonen.

I have been to Final Symphony II five times, but I never quite liked the arrangement as much as I did this time. I have been listening to Nobuo Uematsu’s music a lot lately, so it could be that Hamauzu’s style simply felt fresh. But I did make one new discovery that I liked.

This piece has a very straightforward structure with five main tracks one after another:

  1. Prelude to FINAL FANTASY XIII
  2. Vanille’s Theme
  3. Nautilus
  4. Fang’s Theme
  5. Serah’s Theme

I always liked the first and fourth parts the best. The first part, Prelude to FINAL FANTASY XIII, is very typical non-melodic Hamauzu that builds energy in a hypnotic way. The fourth aprt, Fang’s Theme, is essentially the battle part of the arrangement, and I loved how it feels light and exciting at the same time with it’s jazzy rhythms and fun bell sounds.

I also always enjoyed the second part, Vanille’s Theme. It has a naive romantic feel to it, and its peacefulness balances out the built-up energy of the first part.

But I never really understood the third part, nor the original track behind it, Nautilus. It has a very on/off feeling that alternates between exciting and calm. It always felt too abrupt.

This time something clicked though. Nautilus felt right. The abrupt changes felt more like Hamauzu’s ingenious way of making a crazy call-and-response section, that you wouldn’t normally recognize as call-and-response since the emotional gap between the sections feel too abrupt at first. For some reason it sounded so right this time and making a new discovery of great music made me happy.

The last part with Serah’s Theme always felt boring and disappointing after the chills-inducing battle section. This time it held my interest for somewhat longer, but still wasn’t great. It begins with a solo violin, but way too soon hey-look-at-how-interesting-we-are background textures are introduced, which almost kill the mood. I just needed a breather after the intense battle section and those background textures made it too busy too soon.

This FF XIII arrangement was very different from the FF X arrangement Hamauzu did for the first Final Symphony. That one was impressionistic and more free-form, this one was closer to the original material. I liked that one better, but if you enjoy straightforward arrangements and FF XIII’s music, this one would be right up your alley.

Final Fantasy IX: For the People of Gaia

The first time I heard this arrangement I cried uncontrollably. It still was amazing, and it seemed to be everyone’s favorite piece of the night.

A lot of it was thanks to the fantastic pianist, Mischa Cheung, who is a joy to watch. His hands move a bit more dramatically than they need to, and he flirts with the audience by making eye contact with a check-this-out look on his face, slightly nodding his head or raising his eyebrows, after which he proceeds to let the magic flow out of his fingertips until the very end, when he explodes backward with his long hair flying back like a rock star.

This was arranged by Roger Wanamo, and it is the third Final Fantasy piano concerto he has worked on. The two previous ones are Final Fantasy Concerto ~ For Piano and Orchestra from Symphonic Odysseys and Final Fantasy X (Piano Concerto) from Final Symphony.

According to the booklet, Wanamo was worried about possibly repeating himself, but the soundtrack of Final Fantasy IX proved to be so diverse that it was easy for him to make a unique arrangement of it. Wanamo is quoted in the booklet, saying: “Above all, this concerto is based on the central characters and their themes.”

Indeed. Almost every track featured is strongly tied to Garnet, Zidane, Vivi or Kuja.

The concerto starts out with orchestra-only (no piano) true-to-the-original rendition of Memories Erased by a Storm, which plays during the opening flashback video of Garnet in a boat in a stormy sea. It was a great choice to start out with this track, rather than A Place to Call Home from the intro screen, because that one is great alone but wouldn’t work well as the intro of a big narrative like this arrangement.

The next three tracks focused heavily on the piano. From the light and adventurous Zidane’s Theme to the exciting Festival of the Hunt and bouncy Vivi’s Theme.

I was very surprised by how gripping and intense, yet light and playful Zidane’s Theme was. I barely even knew the original track a year ago, but I love it in this arrangement. It left perhaps the biggest impression on me from this performance.

Festival of the Hunt is amazing already on the OST, so I wasn’t surprised that it was amazing here as well, but Vivi’s Theme is something else! Its fluid tempo and great mix of low and high notes magnificently portrays little Vivi walking around in Alexandria and being pushed and shoved by the bigger guys. I could vividly see images in my head through the music, something that I used to get more with Jonne Valtonen, so I was surprised and glad Wanamo made the music so vivid and visual.

The piece slows down with Mourning in the Sky. The original is just a track with thick strings, but the gorgeous trumpet solo in this arrangement really brings out the film noir-like beautiful and melancholic melody that was buried in the thick string layers of the original. I didn’t even recognize the melody the first couple of times I went to Final Symphony II, because I had never thought anything about the orginal track. Thank you, Wanamo, for finding a hidden gem in the soundtrack.

A short and slow arrangement of Over the Hill transitions the piece to the next major track: Melodies of Life (back to central character themes, remember?).

I have no recollection of this part. The same thing always happens to me during this part: I get very emotional, start crying, and write in my notebook that I am unable to think or write anything. I guess the arrangement just hits me very deep on an emotional level, so that my brain turns off. All I remember is that I loved it.

That non-thinking kind of state lingered throughout the rest of the piece, so I am unable to write too much.

The concert ended with an exciting battle featuring Kuja’s Theme, Silver Dragon and The Final Battle. Wanamo threw in short snippets of character themes that changed in crazy rapid succession. Then, a final build-up of energy with all musicians playing fast and loud, which ends in a bang like a rock band.

The end.

Huge applause.

“What just happened? F––, I need to hear the last part again,” I thought and woke up from whatever weird state Melodies of Life put me in.

final-symphony-ii-tfo-and-mischa-cheung

Final Fantasy IX: You’re Not Alone

Mischa Cheung walks off the stage, but soon comes back to play a surprise solo piano encore at the end of this first half: You’re Not Alone from Final Fantasy IX. This was its world premiere; it has never been performed elsewhere.

The piece was arranged by Roger Wanamo, and it was amazing. It started slow and went in many directions, but never strayed too far off the original melody. It kept me on my toes from beginning to end. It received a huge applause afterwards, perhaps even bigger than the piano concerto.

There are already piano arrangements of You’re Not Alone on both the Piano Collections Final Fantasy IX and the Piano Opera Final Fantasy VII/VIII/IX albums. This one was different and better than those versions, though I have soft spot for the Piano Collections version as well.

When the first Final Symphony came to Tampere, Finland in 2014, it had a surprise mid-concert world premiere. Now it happened again with Final Symphony II. Thomas Böcker hinted to me during the intermission that this might be a new tradition of theirs: whenever they come home to the motherland of the arrangers (both Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo are Finnish), they do a little something extra for the concert!

Intermission

During the intermission, nearly everyone I talked to sang the praises of the FF IX piano concerto and Mischa Cheung’s performance. Only one of my friends thought that some of the sections in the piano concerto were a bit too long, and that they stayed on the same theme for a bit too long.

Most people had nothing special to say about the FF XIII arrangement. It was good, my friends said, but none of them knew the music – or remembered it even if they had played the game – so they couldn’t comment on it much more.

Back to the concert hall for the second half…

Final Fantasy VIII: Mono No Aware

This was the heaviest piece of the night. I think the soundtrack and world of Final Fantasy VIII is quite heavy, serious, and adult too.

There was a pre-concert talk before the concert, and there Roger Wanamo said something similar as well. I don’t remember the exact adjectives he used to describe the soundtrack of FF VIII, but he said it was difficult to arrange, because a lot of the music has a similar tempo or feeling throughout, and a 20-minute piece like this needs variation to keep it interesting.

According to the booklet, “One of the important themes of the game is the multifaceted relationship between childhood and adulthood, which composer Uematsu handled by varying the same melodies throughout the game. Wanamo does the same in this orchestral arrangement: long developments carry the story.”

I didn’t feel any of the childhood-adulthood theme, nor did I ever realize it was an important aspect of the game, but musical developments and having the same melodies popping up here and there is definitely something this arrangement had.

The piece started out with a powerful and fantastic Liberi Fatali, which has never failed me live. Parts of it appear later in this arrangement. Second was The Oath, which Wanamo has said previously represents Squall’s theme. It’s a track I never really knew, but learned to love thanks to this concert. Parts of it, too, appear later quite often.

When I look at the tracklist after those two tracks, it’s a pretty straightforward and chronological representation of the story. You have Balamb Garden, then the graduation dance Waltz for the Moon with Squall and Rinoa dancing to the love theme Eyes on Me, then the first mission with The Landing, then a long section with witches through Succession of Witches and A Sacrifice, and lastly a battle with Don’t be Afraid and The Extreme. The very end didn’t end in a bang like the FF IX piano concerto, but quieted down with some Balamb Garden.

On paper that looks easy enough to follow, but in reality it was hard to grasp everything. Wanamo weaves different melodies in and out, and if you aren’t paying attention, you won’t realize that this part of The Landing isn’t The Landing, but Liberi Fatali! He does it so masterfully, that it sounds like those two were always meant to be together. Gone are the days of Symphonic Fantasies and the Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross arrangement, were you could clearly hear Wanamo layering two themes on top of each other. This here is a different kind of artistry. There is so much happening and so many changes, that you either lose track of what theme is playing when, or you don’t even notice that there was a change.

But at the same time it all sounds great and coherent. It is simply my brain that gets tired, when I try to analyze and follow the piece in too much detail. Out of the five Final Symphony II performances I have been to, the only time I thought this FF VIII arrangement might be the best one, was when I changed seats in London from a mediocre one to a good one during the intermission. There the music sounded better and fresh, which kind of recharged my brain and I was able to listen more attentively and found this arrangement absolutely fantastic.

So the solution would be to have this piece as the very first piece of the concert. That’s when at least I am the most attentive and could listen with a fully charged brain.

Or I should just accept that it’s too difficult to follow every step with my brain, and instead listen with my heart and not care whether I recognize every theme or not. I will try that the next time.

One last thing: my favorite part was Waltz for the Moon, because it so full of joy and such a change of pace. Plus, how often do you get waltzes in game music concerts?

Final Fantasy V: Library of Ancients

Out of all arrangements in Final Symphony II, this one featured the most tracks. The other arrangements featured about 10 tracks each, this one had a whooping 16 in total! (Though one third of them were only used partially.)

Much of this piece is quite heavy and dark, yet in a different way than the FF VIII one. I have played FF V the most out of these games and I find the soundtrack lighthearted and fun. It took a few performances to get used to the mostly heavy tone of this arrangement, but I did get used to it and love it.

Musica Machina is the backbone of this piece. Its heavy rhythmic pounding reminds me of Valtonen’s FF VII symphony in the first Final Symphony, and how its One-Winged Angel felt like an overwhelming force steamrolling you.

The rest of the arrangement is very classic, in the sense of great old-school melodies coming to life through an orchestra. The earlier pieces were more classical and non-video gamey, and FF XIII was Hamauzu sounding exactly like Hamauzu.

After Musica Machina, which also appears many times later in the arrangement, there is short snippet of The Evil Lord Exdeath and Opening Theme. Then it goes straight into Lenna’s Theme, which is the only gripe I have about this piece. While the soundscape in gorgeous, her theme is uninteresting, it didn’t grasp me in any way, and it went on for too long. I guess the original track just isn’t good enough to be given a symphonic treatment for around three minutes.

From this point onward I am all praise. Sealed Away is absolutely gorgeous and brings to life that adventurous old mystic library feeling from the game. There is some The Evil Lord Exdeath and Musica Machina mixed in at times to make it sound more ominous and dangerous, until the whole thing ends in Exdeath’s Castle and breaking into pieces, which sounds exactly like Aerith’s death in the FF VII symphony.

Sealed Away is an outstanding piece from the OSV, but I was still surprised how much beauty Valtonen got out its melody. I was even more surprised how he used The Evil Lord Exdeath. It is so simple melodically, but the way he infused it with the orchestra’s power and used it only for short moments made it way better than anything I could have imagined. It is these moments that usually stand out to me: taking a good-but-not-great track and making it outstanding.

After the dangerous adventures with Exdeath, the music is resurrected by the intro from Slumber of Ancient Earth (my favorite track from the game) and one of the most gorgeous trumpet solos ever from Spreading Grand Wings. I loved it so much.

Exdeath comes back and it’s time for Battle 1. Yes, the disco-rock-with-orchestral-instruments battle theme from the game. I love it when an arranger is not afraid to take a track like that, that is very strongly rooted to its drumkit and bass. This arrangement doesn’t have that dancey backbeat, but makes up for it with joyful bell sounds and fast snares.

After some Prelude to the Void and a crazy battle with Exdeath, the piece quiets down again.

Then comes something orchestral game music arrangements don’t do enough: not being afraid to use only a small section of the orchestra for a longer time.

Valtonen does it with Sorrows of Parting. He takes his sweet time in developing it from contrabass-only to a beauty that gradually introduces cellos and then the rest of the string section. When do you ever hear contrabasses playing something by themselves only? They usually serve a supporting role and you don’t necessarily listen to them, so I loved hearing them used in this way.

That gradual development culminates in an epic rendition of Main Theme of FINAL FANTASY V. It is a grandiose ending to this piece, and there is a part included from the actual Ending Theme from the game as well. And I have to mention the short Victory Fanfare popping out at one point. I saw many heads in the audience nodding in agreement.

After a huge standing applause, there were two more pieces for the night.

Encores

The first encore was a great arrangement of Battle at the Big Bridge from FF V, but it stopped abruptly by a huge mistake by the tuba player! The entire orchestra stopped playing, and he started coughing and seemed to be in really bad shape, because he couldn’t get the tuba sounding right. The conductor was patiently looking at him and waiting for him to get it together.

But it was all a joke! The audience laughs, the tuba player bows, and the mood is relaxed. He plays a few notes from Chocobo’s Theme and the orchestra joins to back him for a solo on that theme. The arrangement goes back to Battle at the Big Bridge, but mixes it with Chocobo in a very clever way, which works musically surprisingly well!

At the very end, the timpanis play the first bar of the Chocobo melody. Yes, the timpanis! There are four of them, like usually in orchestras, and they are tuned to the four pitches used in the first bar of the Chocobo melody!

If memory serves, I believe there was an even bigger standing applause after the first encore compared to the one after Final Fantasy V: Library of Ancients.

The second encore was the main theme of the Final Fantasy series. You might know it as Opening Theme or Prologue from the earlier games, or simply as Final Fantasy. The arrangement is just as you would expect: great and nostalgic.

But why did they choose such a non-surprising piece to end the night? I think I have an answer.

This concert went in reverse chronological order from 2015 to 1987. The first piece was Jonne Valtonen’s original fanfare (2015), and then it went from there to FF XIII (2009), FF IX (2000), FF VIII (1999), FF V (1992), and the first encore with Battle at the Big Bridge from FF V and Chocobo’s Theme, which first appeared in FF II (1988). From that perspective, it made a lot of sense to go back even further in the second encore to the main theme of FF, which appeared first in FF I (1987). Me and some of my friends wondered why they picked such a non-surprising track for the very last encore, but know I figured it out and my brain can rest in relief!

From left to right: Roger Wanamo, Jonne Valtonen, and Kimmo Tullila.

From left to right: Roger Wanamo, Jonne Valtonen, and Kimmo Tullila.

Conclusion and comparisons to the first Final Symphony

When the first Final Symphony was announced four years ago, I was excited but not that surprised. It featured FF VI, VII and X – the most famous and arguably musically best FF games from three different generations and platforms. If I would choose three games for an FF concert, I cannot think of a better all-star line-up than VI, VII and X. It made sense business-wise and was sure to please a lot of fans.

But when Final Symphony II was announced, I was honestly surprised. I thought Final Symphony was a one-off program and didn’t even consider it becoming a series. So I was very happy that they featured the less-famous FF V and pleased those fans who think VII is overrated and prefer VIII or IX.

When comparing the two Final Symphonies, I think the first one was better. It had three very distinct pieces with different styles: an easy-to-follow yet epic symphonic poem (FF VI), an impressionistic piano concerto (FF X), and a crazy symphony (FF VII). I talked with many people and read a lot of impressions and reviews, and there wasn’t a clear favorite. Each of the three pieces seemed to have an equal amount of fans, but all of them also got critique. It created fantastic discussion and my favorite piece used to change from performance to performance (I have seen it five times as well).

But with Final Symphony II the general consensus always seems to be that IX is the best, followed by VIII or V, and XIII comes last as “It was good/great, but nothing special.” It has been that way for me as well for all five Final Symphony II concerts I have been to. Each piece is also of the same length and, except for FF IX, they don’t feel as distinct and unique as in the first Final Symphony.

I have a feeling that the general public did like Final Symphony II more than the first one. At least I haven’t seen or heard any harsh critique, or almost any critique for that matter. The arrangements were safer, the melodies closer to the originals, and overall it was perhaps easier to follow.

I compared Final Symphony II to the first one, because it doesn’t make sense to compare it to anything else. It is leaps and bounds above any other major game music concert series, and the only thing that rivals it are other concerts by the Merrengon team or a few lesser-known concerts I’ve been to in Japan.

The future

You can find upcoming concerts by the Merregnon team at their official site gameconcerts.com, but let me give you a handy list to drool over:

  • Final Symphony
    • 7 May 2016 — Amsterdam
    • 21 Jul 2016 — San Diego
    • 23 Jul 2016 — Baltimore
    • 27 Jul 2016 — San Fransisco
    • 21 Oct 2016 — Auckland
  • Final Symphony II
    • 9 Jun 2016 — Stockholm
  • Symphonic Fantasies
    • 6 Oct 2016 — London
  • Symphonic Selections
    • 17 Jun 2017 — Paris
  • Symphonic Odysseys
    • 18 Jun 2017 — Paris

You might also be wondering, “Will there be a CD release of Final Symphony II?”

Well, after this concert, they stated on Facebook that they are eager and very keen to make it happen, but they can’t give an official confirmation at this time. So it sure looks like a high chance of a CD coming out sooner or later!

In the meantime, let’s think of another possibility: Final Symphony III. I haven’t heard anything being said on the subject, but speculation is always fun and I have a question for you:

If Final Symphony III were to happen, which Final Fantasy games would you want performed in it? You cannot pick V-X and XIII, since those have been done already.

Please let us know in the comments below. I would love to hear your opinion!

Mr. Nikolas Broman is a game music lover and a independent guest writer for OSV. All information and opinions are his own.

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