Symphonic Fantasies (Cologne, September 2009): The Other Report
I can still remember when Chris told me about an upcoming concert celebrating the works of Square Enix. It was sometime in December 2008, well before the concert was announced to the public. At the time, all that was mentioned was that there would be a free meet and greet with three composers prior to the concert and that it would feature music from the Kingdom Hearts series, the Mana series, the Chrono series, and the Final Fantasy series. When I found this out, my first reaction was one of elation. Immediately thereafter, I told Chris to book tickets, thus ensuring that I would be going. Months passed with no new information, until sometime in March, when the opening fanfare composed by Jonne Valtonen, was revealed via a YouTube video. The opening fanfare at the concert opened up the concert spectacularly. At times, bombastic and heroic, at others majestic and magical, it really managed to encapsulate the moods presented throughout the series, yet at the same time served as a tool to get people in the mood for the concert to follow.
Months passed with no new information, but in early August, a veritable media blitz had commenced centred on Game Music Net. The first major tidbit of information revealed would be that all the pieces at the concert would be arranged in suite form and the first suite revealed was the Kingdom Hearts suite, set to kick off the concert, complete with Yoko Shimomura in attendance. This suite, featuring pianist Benyamin Nuss, had a very romantic feel theme to it. The suite opened up with the title theme, "Dearly Beloved," albeit briefly, before moving into the jovial "Sora's Theme" and "Hand in Hand," each alternating the focus on melody. It turned out a superb combination, with the pianist utilizing both ends of the piano. After the jovial themes, a more touching, although short, arrangement of "Kairi's Theme" was played with clear references to a classical style. From this theme, we are kept in a more dramatic mood with a long segment featuring "The Other Promise". I found this performance to be extremely touching with the piano work accentuating the melodic strings and woodwinds superbly. It's easily one of my favorite versions of this theme.
A sharp contrast to this theme followed with the inclusion of "Happy Holidays!". This was a surprise to even Yoko Shimomura, as she had selected every other piece except for this one, according to Jonne Valtonen and Thomas Boecker. It was as bubbly as the original, yet at times, it held a dramatic air about it. Following "Happy Holidays!," the title theme "Dearly Beloved" is showcased in a more prominent manner. Poignant strings and piano work dominated the atmosphere, rivaling Wada's arrangement on the original, and there was even a bit of "Sora's Theme" played by a flute towards the transition of "Dearly Beloved" to "A Fight to the Death". Unlike the bombastic original, this arrangement opted for a more militaristic approach. Some bombast was created through the interesting use of strings to simulate a march, while the piano and strings melodies were played in a more romantic fashion. It's another fantastic take on the original theme that was followed by a reprise of "Hand in Hand". Overall, it was a fantastic way to start the concert and was greeted with thunderous applause upon completion.
The second major tidbit of information was that Hiroki Kikuta would be in attendance for the concert and that the second suite dedicated to Secret of Mana would feature the WDR Choir singing in Latin alongside the orchestra. Unlike the rest of the arrangements, this one was easily the most contemporary and experimental, but it was executed wonderfully. Jonne Valtonen utilized a variety of methods, such as using rubber along the bass drums to emulate whale sound effects, whistling to simulate bird chirps, metal to simulate crashing waves, and even the choir smacking their lips to simulate a trickling stream. There was a sense of nature and chaos present in the opening that gradually moves into a very dramatic presentation of "Fear of the Heavens," the opening theme for the game. This theme was used to tie together the entire suite and was featured as an interlude between the various other themes featured. Each time it appeared it seemed to become more poignant, but each time was quite different via the way it is presented. It was a very successful glue, so to speak, that really holds this arrangement together.
From the first "Fear of the Heavens," the Secret of Mana suite moved into the fan favorite and ever jovial "Into the Thick of It". It featured some beautiful woodwind, choir, and strings work to add a bit of a romantic flair, but for the most part, it was a very playful take on the already playful original. It moved onto "Eternal Recurrence," a dramatic and touching theme that contrasted quite nicely with the playful nature of the previous theme and leads into a brief "Fear of the Heavens" reference, while also teasing "The Oracle" shortly thereafter. However, "The Oracle" was yet to be featured as "Prophecy," with its fluttering woodwinds and cheerful brass, took center stage before leading into another moment of "Eternal Recurrence" and "Fear of the Heavens". Of course, we were then treated to the full arrangement of "The Oracle". The original was quite a monster of a theme, with very little in the way of orchestral origin, but what Jonne did was marvelous. Utilizing pizzicato strings, choir, and xylophone, he created a theme that, while not nearly as industrial and fast paced as the original, is just as creepy. It's a great melodic and atmospheric piece and one that truly wowed me in the end. It moved onto "Phantom and a Rose," a very soft, beautiful take on the original. It was quite moving to hear this after "The Oracle," but more importantly, it fitted into the overall flow of the piece superbly. The choir truly shined here, accentuating the atmosphere of the piece. This moved into the fourth and final rendition of "Fear of the Heavens" and faded with more nature sound effects. Of course, this one was also met with thunderous applause.
After a brief intermission, the concert was set to start again. As with much of the information announced, the third tidbit of information announced was that the Chronos suite would feature Rony Barrak on percussion and that Yasunori Mitsuda would be in attendance. It was also the only suite that was co-arranged by Jonne Valtonen's close friend, Roger Wanamo, due to time constraints. However, I do not think the arrangement suffered at all. In fact, I think it really helped make it excel. The ideas that Roger brought to the table are the ones that are the most impressive to me. For example, throughout the entire suite, many themes were played simultaneously, something I'll elaborate on in a bit. In addition, I think that Rony Barrak's darbouka and Mitsuda's music were an an excellent fit. It truly is amazing to hear such ethnic influence, even on the themes that didn't initially call for it. In the end, it was an awesome performance, but let me move onto the details! The suite opened up, unsurprisingly, with "Premonition" before moving into "Scars of Time". This was a very beautiful take on the original, and while not as Celtic based as the original, you can still hear its influence. What's even more impressive is that, when the suite moved onto the "Chrono Trigger Main Theme", the strings in the background continued to play "Scars of Time" to exquisite results. From there, "Battle with Magus" was teased a bit alongside another showcase, although much shorter, of "Scars of Time" before moving into a very dark, yet beautiful, take on "Peaceful Days" that dramatically builds up to another layering masterpiece.
Both "Gale" and "Between Life and Death," the normal and boss battle themes of Chrono Cross, were played simultaneously. I really think that Rony Barrak shined during this section. Most people aren't the biggest fans of "Gale," but I've talked to quite a few people who loved this version of it. Another tease of "Battle with Magus" was introduced before the arrangement moved into the ever poignant and touching "Prisoners of Fate". Hearing this live was truly a dream come true and only served to bring the emotions heard within the piece originally to an even greater sense of awareness. Interestingly enough, it didn't start with the traditional intro, although that appears towards the end of the suite, before transitioning into a more somber and more dramatic take on "To Far Away Times". Although briefly short lived, it served another milestone for me, as it's my favorite Chrono Trigger theme. "Premonition" was shown once again before moving into the proper "Battle with Magus" that, at times, also featured a bit of "Scars of Time" as accompaniment. It was another great example of how the darbouka played by Barrak enhances the original. The brass was another strong suit here, lending terrifically to the nature of the original. Of course, the fan favorite "Frog's Theme" served as the last new piece of the suite, and boy, what an arrangement. The string work that opened the piece was exquisite and the brass work that followed served to encompass the strengths of the original quite well. It is easily the best arrangement of this theme that I've heard. The suite itself ended with a climax of the two main themes playing simultaneously and ending with a bang! The applause for this suite was truly outstanding.
The last bit of information, of course, was that Nobuo Uematsu would be in attendance for the concert and that the Final Fantasy suite would also feature the WDR Choir. This suite sounds the most like a straightforward medley, due to concerns about how much freedom Uematsu would give the Final Fantasy treatment. However, he had mentioned after hearing the Secret of Mana suite that next time, he'd give free reign over the arrangements, as he was truly impressed with that one. Opening unsurprisingly with the "Prelude," it was truly a stunning way to open. The harp and choir weree used to create one of the best versions of this theme to date. It's truly a moving experience, although I'd argue that the next theme was equally as moving. Although it was a pretty straightforward take on the original, the addition of choir to "Fighting" from Final Fantasy VII was truly outstanding and really gave it a bit of an extra punch and moved into "One Winged Angel," or did it? Only a brief few seconds of the opening for the fan favorite were played before moving into a very playful, almost cartoony version of the "Chocobo Theme". The audience did get a laugh out of the whole transition, but I did hear some sighs of elation turn into sighs of sadness around me.
From this playful theme, we moved into the more dramatic and haunting "Phantom Forest" from Final Fantasy VI. It was a very beautiful take on the original much better, in my opinion, than the Grand Finale version, accentuated by the use of choir imitating almost ghostly wailing. From there, it moved into Final Fantasy V's "Battle with Gilgamesh," a very militaristic and dramatic approach. I was always a fan of Sakimoto's version on Final Fantasy XII, but Valtonen's take on it blew that one away. Some would argue that this theme isn't orchestratable, but I find it to be a refreshing take on the original. The "Final Fantasy" theme was next up, although only briefly before being interrupted again by the "Chocobo Theme," although only briefly this time. However, it was too late. "Final Fantasy" had moved on and along came "Bombing Mission" from Final Fantasy VII. This was another theme that really managed to excel through the use of choir and there was a hint of "Chocobo Theme" thrown in the brass layer over top. The suite then moved onto the finale, "Final Fantasy," in all its glory. It was another one of those themes, similar to many of the themes mentioned above, that really excels through the use of the choir. Of course, this one was met with the loudest applause of the night, as no doubt many of the attendees went just for the Final Fantasy segment. Sure, there was a strong focus on Final Fantasy VII for the suite, but it is the fan favorite and I'm sure the majority of the audience considers it their favorite.
Unbeknownst to many beforehand, there was an encore as well. This was definitely a medley. Featuring Rony Barrak, but sadly no Benyamin Nuss, it served as a "Final Boss" suite, so to speak. Opening with "Destati," the dramatic air was already set. It was a beautiful take on the original and the choir really excelled. Next up was "Meridian Dance" from Secret of Mana, which served as a bit of a playful interlude. While the original was quite dramatic, this version had a much lighter air to it. I think it acted as a way to bridge together the remaining dramatic themes, but also add a bit of contrast to the already dark encore it was turning out to be. It should be mentioned that Rony Barrak's darbuka usage in "Destati" fit perfectly as did its brief use in "Meridian Dance". Moving onto "Lavos' Theme," the part of the suite I felt was the weakest, only because other stronger themes, such as "World Revolution" or "Dragon God" could have been used. The inclusion of pipe organ and choir did, at least, bring Lavos to life.
"Lavos' Theme" served as a bridge for the obvious Final Fantasy piece, "One Winged Angel". This theme was a pretty straightforward take, similar to the versions played in live concerts thus far, but there was a very fun and playful darbuka solo that served as an interesting addition and one that was pretty neat. Rony was definitely jamming out and the audience seemed to enjoy it, both at Cologne and at the Oberhausen concert I was also fortunate enough to attend. The original encore also had intended for "Chocobo Theme" to rear its head again towards the end of "One Winged Angel," but Arnie decided it would be best to cut it. I wonder how the audience would have reacted. All in all, it was a fantastic show and I'm truly glad I made the trip from Delaware, United States to attend as it truly was a chance of a lifetime. What's up next for me? Well, I'll be attending Distant Worlds in Chicago to hear the debut of "Dancing Mad" and "Jenova," as well as a few other themes that will be in 2010's rotation, so that's something to look forward to!