Monday, April 23, 2012

Concert Review: Distant Worlds St. Louis

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending Distant Worlds: Saint Louis, an exhibition extraordinaire of music from the Final Fantasy series. Led by conductor Arnie Roth and none other than the esteemed Mr. Nobuo Uematsu himself, Distant Worlds marks the first Final Fantasy music tour in the United States. Final Fantasy tours and performances have been held regularly in Asia, Europe, and Australia, but Distant World was the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean. And the American fans everywhere rejoice.

Before I proceed, I have a confession to make: I haven't actually played any Final Fantasy games. O_o Consequently, the concert didn't have the same sort of nostalgic emotional impact for me as I'm certain it did for many other people. For me, it was more of a music appreciation and a learning experience, and I'm happy to say that there was plenty of both. If anything, going to the concert deepened my already-growing interest in the Final Fantasy franchise, and now that I finally have the means to play some games, some FF titles will certainly be in my future. Still, I hope you'll appreciate this view of a Final Fantasy concert from the viewpoint of a relative newcomer. Or at least write me hate mail :P

In any case, Distant Worlds took place in Powell Hall, a grand auditorium home to the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. As with my Video Games Live experience, I was a bit too cheap to pay the big bucks for fantastic seats, so I again ended up in the "budget section." I'd say that I got a pretty good deal for the price, though; our seats were directly in front of stage center, and despite being a bit far away, we had a fairly nice view of the orchestra. Win?

Because of my general unfamiliarity with the source material and of the time elapsed since the performance, I won't attempt to bore you with a comprehensive review of every song. Instead, I'll point out a few highlights, and a few areas that I would have liked to see done differently. For those interested, the full list is at the end of the post.

FINAL FANTASY Series: Victory Theme: Introductory song aside, this piece truly marked the beginning of the performance. The little two-bar phrase gathered some giggles from the audience, but wouldn't this be better reserved for the end of a battle section?

FINAL FANTASY I-III: Medley 2010: Listening to this piece legitimately gave me chills. The rendition of the prelude at the beginning was beautiful, and it was an amazing experience to hear the songs I'd studied in 8-bit realized in glorious full orchestra. Man.

FINAL FANTASY X: Zanarkard: Of all the pieces performed that evening, Zanarkand was probably the one that made me most question my life choices and wonder why I hadn't played a Final Fantasy game yet. The haunting melody, delicate interplay in the orchestra and piano, and background footage of Yuna's dance combined to a beautiful experience that words can't really describe. Simply put, I was blown away.

FINAL FANTASY Series: Chocobo Medley 2010: Can't have a Final Fantasy concert without this one popping up, right? I, for one, really enjoyed hearing the different variations, and wish they'd explored even more of them. Super-catchy.

FINAL FANTASY VI: Dark World: According to Arnie Roth, it took Nobuo Uematsu several years to decide on a song that he would be comfortable performing at one of the Distant Worlds events. As it turns out, "Dark World" was that song. I must say I was a little underwhelmed. The song itself was very nice, but there's got to be a song that demonstrates Mr. Uematsu's piano skills better than the quarter-note astinatos of this one. Nonetheless, it was an honor and privilege getting to see Nobuo Uematsu perform. :)

FINAL FANTASY Series: Vocal Pieces: Here I've lumped "Eyes on Me", "Suteki da ne", and "Kiss Me Goodbye", all starring Susan Calloway. So far as I could tell, she sang beautifully, but my seat was a bit too far away to discriminate the (English) words. According to some of my friends, however, maybe that's not entirely a bad thing...

FINAL FANTASY VII: Aerith's Theme: Another beautiful song that gave me shivers. Recognizing the source material really does a lot for the song's impact, and I hadn't even played FFVII before, only heard this song. Also, for those who don't know, "Aerith's Theme" was recently voted into the Classic FM Hall of fame by a large fan coalition. How cool is that?

FINAL FANTASY XIII: Blinded by Light: For all the hate this game gets, I really enjoyed this one, and I was even quite intrigued by the background footage from FFXIII. It's hard to follow in the footsteps of a giant like Nobuo Uematsu, but you can't deny that Masashi Hamauzu did a great job here.

FINAL FANTASY VI: Opera "Maria and Draco": I liked this a lot, but is it weird that I kept expecting it to be in Italian or French and tried to look for arias and recitatives the entire way through? I wonder what my opera-savvy friends would think of this number.

FINAL FANTASY VII: One Winged Angel: The unlisted true finale to the program. There was no choir present that evening, so the conductor asked the audience to sing. Additionally, Nobuo Uematsu popped out and stood at the front of the stage, waving posters with lyrics and thank-you messages. It was the cutest thing in the world. Now, if only the audience actually sang. X_x Come on now, we're all Final Fantasy nerds here; nothing to be ashamed of. I must say this song lost a lot of its raw power without the choral parts.

In the end, despite my unfamiliarity with the source material, I thoroughly enjoyed Distant Worlds: St. Louis. The music was fantastic, the performers sounded great, and seeing Mr. Uematsu in person was a rare and wonderful gift. For the entire car ride back, I pestered my friend to tell me more about Final Fantasy games; I'm sure he was tired of my questions by the end. Listening to the music really made me want to go play the games, and for me, there's no truer mark of the quality of a a video game soundtrack.

Here's the full program, for those interested:

FINAL FANTASY VII: Opening - Bombing Mission
FINAL FANTASY Series: Victory Theme
FINAL FANTASY IX: Vamo' alla Flamenco
FINAL FANTASY X: Suteki da ne
FINAL FANTASY Series: Chocobo Medley 2010
FINAL FANTASY VIII: The Man with the Machine Gun
FINAL FANTASY IX: You're Not Alone
FINAL FANTASY XIII: Blinded by Light
FINAL FANTASY VI: Opera "Maria and Draco"
FINAL FANTASY VII: One Winged Angel (Unlisted)

See you again soon,


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