Distant Worlds - Music from Final Fantasy (Baltimore, July 2011): Concert Report
This past weekend, Distant Worlds returned to Baltimore after a two-year absence from The Charm City. With 32,000 otaku already in town for the weekend to attend Otakon, it was a foregone conclusion that the diehard fan contingent (and cosplay contingent!) would be out in force. What wasn't known was the list of arrangements that Arnie Roth would coax out of The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and The Handel Choir. With so many new arrangements from FFXIII, FFXIV, and classic titles like FFVI and FFIX added to their usual rotation, it was anyone's guess as to what would be performed.
Because of the strong fan presence in town, I arrived to the concert early to interview some of the audience members to see what motivated them to come. As one would expect, the common thread that united most all attendees was a love of Final Fantasy but how did the games and more importantly the music featured in them become such an important part of their lives?
Amber and Dan, a professional-looking couple from Baltimore dressed more for a night out than a day at Otakon, said it all started in their childhoods with the original Final Fantasy. Tim, a two-time veteran of Distant Worlds concerts described a far more serendipitous encounter, "I was in seventh grade, and my mom bought me a Playstation at a yard sale that had a copy of Final Fantasy VIII still in it. I was hooked from that day on!" When asked why he chose to attend Distant Worlds for a third time, his response was equally effusive, "I know the music, but I love seeing it played with the videos. There's so much to these concerts!" For Michele, this was her second Distant Worlds concert with the first being Baltimore in 2009. "The show last time was awesome! I came to hear The Opera from Final Fantasy VI," she began, "...and also Eyes on Me, but I don't think they have an arrangement for that." Unfortunately, they don't. But I'm sure she enjoyed "The Opera".
Once inside the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, I was struck by the perfect acoustics and modern architecture. Everything about the setup for the show was well sorted, except perhaps for the screen hanging over the stage with seemed slightly too small to do the sweeping full-motion videos justice. After the introduction of Nobuo Uematsu who came out to thunderous applause and a standing ovation), the first violin walked onto stage smiling broadly and coaxed the audience to continue the applause and cheers. This casual and relaxed attitude is a refreshing rarity from professional musicians, and it set the tone for the night ahead perfectly.
The program began with a predictable selection of fan-favorite Distant Worlds standards, such as "Prelude", "Liberi Fatali", and "Don't be Afraid", each performed clearly and beautifully by a professional ensemble at home in their usual performance space. Yet for all of the musicianship of the three pieces, "Don't be Afraid" was noticeably slower than it should have been, and Arnie Roth's direction showed that he was aware of the tempo issue. This slowness would be made up for late in "Memoro de la Stono - Distant Worlds" which flew by at a frenzied pace losing, almost all of its maudlin gravitas as its opening half raced past the ears of the audience far faster than they should have leaving the sadder themes in the beginning of the piece preciously little time to develop. Thankfully, these two pieces and "Blinded by Light" were the only pieces to suffer throughout the night, with the latter marred by an embarrassing and total breakdown by the snare drum percussionist who lost the tempo so badly he was forced to stop playing and resume some five measures later. To the percussionist's credit, the recovery was well done, but the loss of a snare line in a piece arranged by Masashi Hamauzu is rather noticeable.
One of the brightest spots of the evening was the East Coast debut of Final Fantasy IX's "You are not Alone" which Arnie Roth had kept under wraps for six years before unveiling the arrangement at Chicago in June. The piece developed wonderfully, and featured a strong woodwind presence in the beginning which is something many Distant Worlds arrangements eschew in favor of brass and string melodies. The montage of full-motion videos from the game were arranged brilliantly, and I found myself surprised at how coherent of a story they told when strung together out of context. Another bright spot of the night was the pitch-perfect "Zanarkand" which was, without question, the best live rendition that I have had the pleasure of hearing. The orchestra invested their all into the subtle, powerful dynamic swells of the piece and delivered a performance that made a man across the aisle from me break down into tears. When I caught up with him at intermission, he was still a bit emotional and said, "It was just beautiful."
The first half of the concert saw two other standards, "JENOVA" and "Fisherman's Horizon" joined by the less common "Theme of Love" from Final Fantasy IV. The inclusion of the subtle "Theme of Love" turned out to be a rather smart move on behalf of Roth and Uematsu, as it pleased the connoisseur-level audience to hear a piece from an earlier game which suffers a healthy amount of neglect compared to its more popular and modern successors.
When Final Fantasy VI's "The Opera - Maria and Draco" was announced as the closing piece to the first half of the concert, the audience erupted in wild and enthusiastic cheers but settled down as soon as the three soloists took their position at the front of the stage. Dour and patient as always, the three operatic singers stood unflinchingly before the audience as the orchestra played the overture and opening theme. As I listened to the soprano struggle to find her confidence (which she did shortly into her first aria), I was struck by the lack of accompanying visuals for the piece. The screen remained noticeably dark, as always, for the majority of the opera which lead me to wonder why the FMVs from the 1999 re-release were not incorporated since many feature Celes and the opera house prominently. At any rate, the performance of "The Opera â€“ Maria and Draco" was gorgeous and grand, as it should be, and the enthusiastic applause from the audience recognized this.
The second half of the concert saw familiar arrangements ("Opening Bombing Mission", "Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII", and "Swing de Chocobo") joined by newer ones like FFXIII's "The Promise - Fabula Nova Crystalis" and FFXIV's "Twilight over Thanalan". With a large number of fans of the newer games in attendance, and quite a few Aerith cosplayers in the audience, each one of these pieces caused the eyes of the audience members to grow a bit wider in admiration of the performances and accompanying visuals.
Final Fantasy V's "Clash on the Big Bridge" was particularly impressive for the punishing complexity of its arrangement, but it was handled flawlessly by the combined orchestra and chorus with the trombone section doing an incredible job of delivering their melody (and countermelody!) clearly without a single note sounding muddy. Although the game has relatively few fans in the United States, I can see "Clash on the Big Bridge" becoming a fan favorite if it is performed more regularly.
The night concluded with the customary closer of "Terra's Theme" rolling into the credits and "One-Winged Angel" as the encore. While I may be in the minority who prefers "Terra's Theme" to "One-Winged Angel", I am always struck by the childlike enthusiasm that Nobuo Uematsu shows when Arnie Roth asks him to sing with the chorus. While newcomers and Distant Worlds veterans alike know the bit is clearly rehearsed, the joy that Uematsu shows as he takes the stage is genuine. No matter how many times you choose to see Distant Worlds live, it is impossible not to smile or wave back to Uematsu as he gleefully waves into the audience like a fourth grade student who just caught the eye of his parents in the audience.
So long as Distant Worlds continue to deliver performances like this past weekend's, I am sure that most everyone who was in the Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall will be awaiting their chance to smile and wave back at Uematsu again.