For millions around the world, the name Final Fantasy has quite a bit of meaning. For these many fans, myself included, the games are celebrated as much for their music as they are for the quality of their storytelling and gameplay. The series, currently celebrating its 30th Anniversary, has had an official concert series going on tour for the past decade now, called Distant Worlds: music from Final Fantasy. This concert, produced and conducted by Arnie Roth, a Grammy-winning artist with the Mannheim Steamroller, celebrated ten amazing years, four orchestrated albums, and a return to his hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Talk about a stacked occasion, what better way to celebrate?
I was given the opportunity to come to Chicago to watch the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra perform hits from the franchise. With over 100 songs in the Distant Worlds catalog, it was exciting to try and anticipate what would come out next. While there were classics that had to be played (let’s face it, it’s criminal to not have a Final Fantasy concert play One Winged Angel and Zanarkand…) there were also pieces that I did not expect to hear, pieces that I enjoyed tremendously. I was not disappointed in any of the pieces that they brought out to play. Sure, I wanted to hear Battle of the Four Fiends from Final Fantasy IV, but maybe next time.
With a harp opening of the prelude, the show contained over two hours of amazingly re-orchestrated set pieces. From hearing Battle on the Big Bridge from Final Fantasy V in the opening minutes, I knew then that we were in for a real treat. They were serious about this! Here I thought they were going to ease into it, but they got right into it! I can’t complain. There’s something special about hearing Battle on the Big Bridge from a full orchestra rather than from the Game Boy Advance or Dissidia version that I know. Several songs made their premiere in Chicago this weekend, including Flash of Steel from Final Fantasy XII, brought over by Hitoshi Sakimoto.
Others included the intense Apocalypsis Noctis and melancholic Somnus, written by Yoko Shimomura, who composed much of the album for Final Fantasy XV. Arnie was the violinist for this piece, alongside a fantastic pianist. The concert was a wild roller coaster of emotions, from epic moments to melancholy and peaceful tunes. The Theme of Love from Final Fantasy IV was always a personal favorite, and hearing it played was incredible and moving. I had hoped to hear Susan Calloway sing one of the Final Fantasy XIV set pieces live, but alas, she was unable to grace the stage. Instead, however, one of the set closers was in Opera Maria and Draco from Final Fantasy VI, featuring three incredible opera talents and a narration provided by Arnie Roth’s son, Eric Roth. It was one of the best performances I had ever seen, to be frank. This piece is something else live; I wasn’t expecting this piece to move me as much as it did. Eric’s narration deserves praise for the enthusiasm put into it. It is difficult to believe that a score of this magnitude came out of a 16-bit game.
Now, we can’t forget who helped make all of this happen, now. The man himself, Nobuo Uematsu, the composer for most the Final Fantasy series, was in attendance and fans from all over paid their respects for him with standing ovations when he was announced. He came up to the stage for some memorable moments, one of which got many laughs from the audience when the choir played what sounded like vuvuzelas for him. He then joined the choir to sing the lyrics of One Winged Angel. There’s something fun about watching him bob his head so happily, so eager to be a part of the music he wrote, and show so much enjoyment after all of these years. He and Arnie have such a wonderful chemistry together, and watching the two interact with each other is priceless.
Distant Worlds: music from Final Fantasy was an incredible experience that deserves every bit of praise that it gets. From listening to the entire soundtracks of the four albums, there is simply no comparison to hearing the actual pieces played live. The emotions, the energy, you can feel it all as Arnie directs his energy to the orchestra. His work is nothing short of awe inspiring, and the instance that piqued my interest was during his violin performance for Somnus. Seeing him casually transfer from his violin portion to conducting the piano player was almost hypnotic. There’s something about the fluidity of his gestures that just relaxed me. Distant Worlds is a powerful showing, with incredible production quality coupled with high-definition video playback of key scenes during each piece. Square Enix truly knows how to pick its musical talents and retain them. The choir was fantastic, the soloists during Opera Maria and Draco were stellar, and the orchestra itself was nothing short of amazing. The bells ringing during Apocalypsis Noctis, the harp during the prelude, the instruments all played in unison with almost no error. The two-hour showing flew by, and I didn’t have a single thought on my mind but that of the show… even with a kinetics exam rearing its head the following week. When it ended, I wanted more, so much more.
On a side note, I did get the chance to meet Arnie and Nobuo at the end of the show. It was strange, almost like an out of body experience, standing in such proximity to the men whose music defined many years of my childhood. An unforgettable evening was made that much better, by being able to express to them both my gratitude for the work that they have done in bringing such a fantastic series to life. For Mr. Roth and his staff at AWR, whom kindly extended an invitation for me to come out to the concert showing after an interview project, I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to have met. They made my show more personal, and I can’t thank them enough for allowing me to attend. Congratulations on ten wonderful years, and may Distant Worlds have many more in its books to be written. I look forward to the next showing, and hope to meet again soon.