Final Fantasy VI Orchestral Concert (Yokohama, August 2009): Concert Report

Logo of Little Jack OrchestraOn August 23, 2009, the first ever orchestral concert dedicated to Final Fantasy VI was performed in the Minato Mirai Hall of Yokohama, Japan. One might wonder why Square Enix decided to finally stage an orchestral performance for FFVI, 15 years after the game's original release on Super Famicom and three years after its most recent re-release on GBA. The answer is they didn't. The concert was planned and performed entirely by the Little Jack Orchestra, a group of amateur musicians who have held semi-annual game music performances in the Tokyo area for five years, albeit never one of such scope.

Let me begin by saying I had deliberately tempered my expectations going into this concert. Final Fantasy VI is the score that got me into collecting game soundtracks, and despite some tremendous competition it remains my favorite to this day. Having been to a few other game orchestral concerts and being to varying degrees entertained but also underwhelmed, I didn't want to set myself up for disappointment here, especially considering it was being performed by an amateur orchestra which I'd never heard of before. It took all of ten seconds into the concert for that wall of feigned indifference to crumble.

As expected, the concert opened with FFVI's classic "Opening Theme". As fantastic as the original version of this piece is, the organ that preludes it has always felt a bit peculiar to me — like a strange bit of VGM horror in an otherwise impeccable, atmospheric opening. But no matter what version I listen to from this day forth, I'll always remember the massive wall of sound radiating from the pipe organ in Minato Mirai Hall to lead this performance. Upon hearing those opening chords, my outlook on the concert immediately went from cautious expectation to wonder and excitement. The orchestral rendition of the opening and "Tina's Theme" that then followed established the pattern for the rest of the concert — arrangements tactfully orchestrated and faithful to the original versions, but with some occasional original touches (a simple but effective instrumental call-and-repeat of Tina's theme in this case).

In most other game concerts the performance would stop at that point for some early applause (and likely some incessant chatter from an emcee), but without missing a beat the orchestra jumped straight into "Battle Theme". I'd considered FFVI's battle theme to be a weak point of the soundtrack (relative to its many strengths and to the revolutionary battle themes in FFVII), but it was a completely different beast here. Orchestral trumpets made far greater impact over the soundtrack's slightly whiny synth versions, while live strings massively amplified the frantic essence of the original. With only one run-through before going into a brisk rendition of the victory "Fanfare", my only concern that remained going into the first intermission was that the concert might be a bit short.

Minato Mirai HallFollowing a lovely performance of "Kids Run Through the City Corner" and a charismatic rendition of "Cefca's Theme" was a battle suite for the ages. Even the boss battle themes in FFVI don't rank among my favorites, but the medley of "Save Them!", "The Decisive Battle" and "The Fierce Battle" took a whole other form in this concert. "The Decisive Battle" in particularly is one crazy-hectic boss theme, but it was rendered live at the same frantic tempo, almost note for note with the original version. Even compared to performances by professional orchestras, the sheer force behind the Little Jack Orchestra — particularly the string section — was awesome.

The selections from the FFVI opera were the sole area of the concert that I'd say fell short of existing material, merely because they had already been arranged and performed in such spectacular form in Orchestral Game Concert 4. Nonetheless both "The Wedding Waltz ~ Duel" and "Grand Finale?" were done extremely well and were a joy to hear live, even having heard the OGC4 version so many times as a standard.

All the arranged versions of the fan-favorite "Mystic Forest" theme have been beautiful (see FFVI Grand Finale and Piano Collections), but in comparison the Little Jack concert arrangement had a more haunting quality to it, perfectly suited to the theme. The decision to sometimes use the trumpets for the main melody was one of the more surprising alterations of the concert, but it worked out fantastically. Continuing from there was a concert medley of "Rest in Peace", "Epitaph", and "Searching for Friends" that was every bit as poignant and powerful as one could hope. "Rest in Peace" was hardly any longer than the soundtrack version but so much prettier orchestral, and it set the stage for a beautiful performance of "Epitaph" arranged with more emphasis on the tragic nature of the piece (yes, it was even more gut-wrenching than the original). "Searching for Friends" brought about a more hopeful tone; this was another moment where the sweeping effect of the orchestra's string section in full was overwhelming, especially when a final reference to the Epitaph theme concluded the piece.

Following a second intermission came the answer to the most burning questions I had going into the concert. Could an amateur orchestra pull off the two most momentous works of FFVI, and would they dare to perform them in their full, unabridged forms? Much as with "Opening Theme", my doubts were demolished when the pipe organ resounded the opening chords for the final battle, "Dancing Mad". In the original version a synth chorus plays a major role in the moments that follow; in the concert the orchestra not only filled that place entirely but added new qualities — a classical tragic sound for its early cues and tremendous bombast for later ones. Even the fast-tempo, progressive rock segment from the last part of the original version, which could have just as easily been left to the pipe organ, was instead given the full force of the orchestra (and some insanely fast xylophone accompaniment), making the buildup to the piece's organ finale all the more dramatic. The arrangement in all spanned twelve minutes — including every single segment from the original — before leading into the orchestral performance I'd waited 15 years for.

The Hall in a Different AngleAs the years since Final Fantasy VI's original release accumulated, I'd given up hope of ever hearing its masterpiece "Ending Theme" performed orchestrally. Even seeing it listed on the concert program, I'd expected a rendition of only the character medley from the first half at best. Indeed the performance began with the same, solitary piano intro of the original and moved through each character theme's reprise almost note-for-note. All my favorite parts came across better than I dared hope — the redemptive leading reprise of Cyan's theme, the majestic brass of Edgar and Sabin's Figaro theme, the definitive arrangement of Celes' theme leading into the resounding reprise of Locke's. As the strings faded away at the end of Stragus' theme — the last of the character medley — the brass roared to life and the orchestra continued on.

Every part of the ending theme was performed live, from the lengthy, tumultuous reprise of Setzer's theme, to its soaring second reprise, to the main theme of Final Fantasy (still beautiful after all these years), to the climactic, driving conclusion, which boasted the full force of the orchestra and an ingeniously implemented final blast of sound from the pipe organ. Total duration for the orchestral version of the FFVI ending theme: 21 minutes, each one of them amazing.

After the program-ending rendition of "Prelude" and enthusiastic applause, the orchestra returned for an encore. Steering away from FFVI for the first time, they performed the "Roaming Sheep" theme from FFIII, which though a bit simplistic in purely instrumental form was still pretty. When the conductor announced an appearance by a special guest, Uematsu-san himself stepped onto the stage to share his reflections on the concert with the audience. Following Mr. Uematsu's appearance we were treated to yet another encore, "Waterside" from Blue Dragon, which though I'm not familiar with in the slightest was still quite nice.

For a third and final encore, the orchestra turned to none other than Final Fantasy IV. Wisely the spotlight was returned to the pipe organ for a booming rendition of "Golbeza Clad in the Dark", before the orchestra joined in for a furious performance of the classic "Battle with the Four Fiends". Having never completed FFIV, I can't even claim to be a huge fan of this piece, but hearing it performed with the same tremendous gusto as the earlier FFVI battle themes had me fantasizing over the prospect of the Little Jack Orchestra tackling more Final Fantasy music in the future.

Nobuo Uematsu with Show OrganisersIncluding two short intermissions and brief commentary from the conductor and Mr. Uematsu, the concert spanned no less than two and a half hours. That's not including the bonus performances that small subsets of the orchestra played in the hall lobby before the show. Modest but entertaining performances of "Spinach Rag" and "Johnny C Bad" were the ones I saw; apparently there were others.

As mentioned, I've attended other game orchestral concerts in Japan (20020220 Final Fantasy, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Press Start 2007), but the Little Jack Final Fantasy VI concert blew them all away. That's not to say the performance was perfect, as there were some noticeable performance slip-ups here and there. But these were hardly more common than in other concerts, and were eclipsed by excellent performances on the pipe organ and other instruments. What left an even greater impression was the sheer might and beauty of the orchestra in full. I've been entertained and sometimes impressed by the orchestras in other game concerts, but never truly astounded as in this one (even when in the exact same venue).

During his time on stage, Nobuo Uematsu mused how even in comparison to the many professional orchestras that have played Final Fantasy music, there was something special about hearing a concert by musicians who really loved the music they're playing beforehand. After hearing such a fantastic performance, I'm inclined to agree. There were video recordings and no doubt audio recordings as well being taken of the concert; one can only hope that they resurface as some kind of free or commercial release, so that more fans can enjoy Final Fantasy VI music performed on the grand scale it has deserved all this time. In any case, any game music fan in Japan at the time of the Little Jack Orchestra's next concert should absolutely make it a priority to attend. I know I intend to be there.