On the evening of Saturday, April 2nd, I was fortunate enough to attend the Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy concert at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House in New York City. At the risk of stepping into the realm of hyperbole, this was not merely a concert. Rather, and I say this as a lifelong gamer and long time fan of the Final Fantasy series, it was an experience. Indeed, even setting aside the show itself, just being there for what conductor and musical director Arnie Roth described as “the first concert of Final Fantasy music in New York City,” with legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu in attendance and a veritable legion of fans (including, of course, a number of cosplayers) in the audience, one could not help but feel they were witnessing something special.
I feel I should preface this with a personal note. As I said, I’ve been a long time fan of the series, eagerly awaiting each new release as well as immersing myself in the classics for something like fifteen years now. To say that Uematsu-san’s singularly masterful scores were but a minor part of that would be a grave understatement. Many was the time I would tear a new Final Fantasy title out of the shrink wrap and start the game, only to find myself just as excited to experience the soundtrack as the game itself. I still vividly remember playing through Final Fantasy VII for the first time, those many years ago and wishing I knew somewhere I could buy the soundtrack. Indeed, music has always been a tremendous part of the Final Fantasy experience. Ask anyone, most fans will tell you that hearing a particular song can transport them instantly to the moment in the game at which that piece most stands out. I know I still can’t listen to Final Fantasy VIII’s ‘Never Look Back’ without mentally reliving the chase out of Dollet (which I always found to be a particularly tense sequence in my younger years), to say nothing of the host of others, from the melancholy of ‘Aeris’s Theme’ to the urgency of ‘Clash on the Big Bridge’, that have the same effect.
As for the concert itself, before I talk too much about the music, I should mention the video component. On a screen above the stage, they projected footage (gameplay, cutscenes, even concept art) taken from whichever game corresponds to the music being performed. The tone of these videos ranged from comical (‘Chocobo Theme’) to awe-inspiring (‘Opening – Bombing Mission’) and even poignant (‘To Zanarkand’). While this could at times seem superfluous, it more often than not enhanced the experience.
The show began (appropriately enough) with ‘Opening – Bombing Mission’ from FFVII, during which the game’s opening scene was shown. After the opening piece was completed, Uematsu crossed the stage on the way to his seat, prompting a round of applause that can only be described as thunderous. Once the crowd calmed down, Roth took the opportunity to provide an introduction to the concert, showcasing an ebullient personality and passion for the material which would only further enhance the evening. After a brief musical indulgence in the form of the series’ signature Victory Fanfare (without which, as Roth quipped, the night just would not be complete), the concert continued with a rendition of ‘To Zanarkand’. As I alluded to earlier, the accompanying video, which in addition to a montage of some of Final Fantasy X’s more moving scenes also included a number of shots of the ruins of the eponymous city, rendered this song even more poignant than usual. As the show continued, we were treated to a wonderful performance of ‘Aeris’s Theme’, as well as the first of two performances by solo vocalist Susan Calloway, FFIX’s ‘Melodies of Life’. For those of you who have listened to the Distant Worlds studio recordings, Calloway is even more impressive when performing live. Following a rather unique rendition of the ‘Chocobo Theme’, which seamlessly blended the version featured in Final Fantasy XIV with Final Fantasy X’s distinctive ‘Swing de Chocobo’, there was a brief intermission, allowing me a much-needed chance to stretch my legs (while the performance was magnificent, the seating in my area was somewhat cramped).
Following the intermission, the show resumed with a piece I had been anticipating since first seeing it listed on the Distant Worlds website several months earlier: ‘Clash on the Big Bridge’ from Final Fantasy V, which has long been a favorite of mine. As anyone who has actually read this far into the review can probably guess, I was not disappointed. The second half of the show also featured Calloway’s return to the stage, this time singing ‘Kiss Me Goodbye’, a vocal theme taken from Final Fantasy XII. Following a performance of FFVIII’s ‘Man With the Machine Gun’, the set list ventured into more recent territory, featuring a pair of songs from Final Fantasy XIII and another pair from Final Fantasy XIV, including the American debut of FFXIV’s ‘Twilight Over Thanalan’.
In spite of all of the wonderful music that had been showcased to this point, it was not until the evening was nearing its close that the pieces that, in my opinion, constituted the true highlights made an appearance. First and foremost among these was the performance of the legendary opera from Final Fantasy VI. Known by many names – Maria and Draco, Dream Oath, Aria di Mezzo Carattere (after the most famous portion: “Oh, my hero…”) – fans have long considered the opera not only one of the more emotionally moving sequences in Final Fantasy VI, but something of a crowning achievement in the realm of video game music. As a longtime fan of FFVI in general and of the opera in particular, I cannot overstate what a treat it was for me to finally see this one live. Every time an arranged version appears on a Final Fantasy album, be it the Italian rendition from the Grand Finale arranged album, the progressive metal interpretation offered by the Black Mages or even the arrangement on the first Distant Worlds album, the temptation to skip directly to that track is ever present. This was followed with another gem from FFVI, a rousingly arranged take on ‘Terra’s Theme’, which would have been an excellent note on which to close the concert. Only it wasn’t! Not only did Arnie Roth and the orchestra return to the stage for the encore, but Nobuo Uematsu himself was coaxed out of his seat to join them. Clearly, this was meant to be something big. Roth then explained to the crowd that he would need “a little help” with this one. After having a pianist play the notes we needed to know, the screen displayed the lyrics we needed to know, and it became immediately apparent that the encore was to be none other than the fan favorite, ‘One-Winged Angel’. As the song progressed and the impromptu choir of two thousand fans (with cues provided by none other than Uematsu-san) accompanied the orchestra with Latin lyrics that each and every one of them had most likely known by heart for years, the atmosphere was electric. The best comparison I can offer is to imagine Led Zeppelin playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ before a packed house.
All told, this was hands down one of my favorite concert experiences to date. As I left the venue, I joked that I was dreading this review because I was worried that I’d run out of positive adjectives. As I alluded to at the beginning, it wasn’t just the quality of the music and performances (both of which were undeniably impressive, to say the least), but also the fact that many of the pieces presented have been part of my life in some form or another for more than a decade. As powerful as many of them are on their own, the memories that come with them, both of the games themselves and my childhood overall only serve to amplify the impact of the concert. However, it also spoke to me as a gamer. The mere fact that video game music (and Final Fantasy music in particular) has reached a point that it can sustain a tour such as this for nearly four years and counting speaks volumes of the recognition gaming is (however gradually) gaining as a cultural force, is a thought that pleases me to no end. If you are a fan and the opportunity presents itself, if this tour comes anywhere within a day’s drive of your home, you owe it to yourself to attend. I assure you, it is worth every penny and then some. If nothing else, check out the two studio albums that have been released of the Distant Worlds arrangements. They are nothing short of breath taking.
Included below is the complete setlist from Saturday’s concert, as well as which game each song is taken from.
Opening – Bombing Mission (Final Fantasy VII)
Victory Theme (Final Fantasy Series)
To Zanarkand (Final Fantasy X)
Don’t Be Afraid (Final Fantasy VIII)
A Place to Call Home – Melodies of Life (Final Fantasy IX)
Aeris’s Theme (Final Fantasy VII)
Medley 2002 (Final Fantasy I – III)
Vamo’ Alla Flamenco (Final Fantasy IX)
Chocobo Theme / Swing de Chocobo (Final Fantasy XIV / Final Fantasy X)
Clash on the Big Bridge (Final Fantasy V)
Ronfaure (Final Fantasy XI)
Kiss Me Goodbye (Final Fantasy XII)
Man With the Machine Gun (Final Fantasy VIII)
The Promise – Fabula Nova Crystalis (Final Fantasy XIII)
Blinded by Light (Final Fantasy XIII)
Navigator’s Glory (Final Fantasy XIV)
Twilight Over Thanalan (Final Fantasy XIV)
The Opera – “Maria and Draco” (Final Fantasy VI)
Terra’s Theme (Final Fantasy VI)
One-Winged Angel (Final Fantasy VII)