Symphonic Fantasies (Cologne, September 2009): The Itinerary

Welcome to my comprehensive report of the concert Symphonic Fantasies - Music from Square Enix. Given we were given exclusive backstage access to the concert, the first two parts of the report are dedicated to detailing my experiences with the team. The remainder of the report provides a review of the arrangements and performances at the concert from my perspective as a Square Enix fan and clasical musician.

During most of Friday and Saturday, I travelled with the team of Symphonic Fantasies for the rehearsals, concerts, and after-show parties. Don and I were the only fans there, so it was a super-exclusive opportunity. I think the producer Thomas Boecker offered it as a big thank you for promoting Symphonic Shades and Symphonic Fantasies so passionately over the last couple of years — probably even more than any other site. (Ever want the same opportunity, now you know which site to contribute to!) Fortunately, I've gained respect for Thomas' ambitious productions over the years and Thomas likewise appreciates my vision for the site, so it's always been very easy to work with him. It's not often that I'd be prepared to spend so much attending one concert, but knowing the spectacular Symphonic Shades, I was convinced it was worth it.

I travelled into Cologne on the Thursday. While the flight from Stansted to Cologne-Bonn last little over an hour, it was much harder to get to and from each airport. In total, I used five different forms of transport in one day and, having left at 1 AM, it was only at 6 PM that I finally met Don at the hotel. He had attended a full-length rehearsal session with the composers the previous day, so I received a chance to learn a lot about the various arrangements. While he was very positive and gave vivid descriptions, I was a little nervous about some of the things he mentioned, such as how a few of the lighter tracks would fit in the concert or whether interrupting "One Winged Angel" could possibly go down well with fans. Needless to say, I should have waited given great descriptions cannot compare to the experience of hearing the music itself and perhaps this discussion spoiled a few of the surprises. Nevertheless, I asked for it!

The Composers of Symphonic Fantasies

I first met the team on Friday morning for the interviews with the composers in the hotel lobby. After much pleading, the team were kind enough to grant me interviews with all four of the composers — Nobuo Uematsu, Yasunori Mitsuda, Hiroki Kikuta, and finally Yoko Shimomura. Due to everyone's strict time schedules, these interviews were completely exclusive. Thomas' wife Kanako was kind enough to handle the Japanese to English translations and was a wonderful person to work with. It was a pretty nerve-racking experience, but Don and I handled it quite professionally and asked many interesting questions. I was really pleased with most of the replies and they provided a lot of insight and details that have never been published before. The interviews didn't go entirely smoothly, mostly due to time issues, but thankfully the artists were happy to resume discussions through email to create really definitive articles. Expect them to be published in successive weeks over the next month.

The rest of Thursday was spent travelling with the composers to the Oberhausen concert. It was a surprisingly long ride from Cologne, especially since our coach took the team and orchestra on a detour through pretty much every town in Germany, from Berlin and back. Nevertheless, it was a good chance for a foreigner like me to get a taste of the country. There was still enough time to do a rehearsal at the Oberhausen. Relatively little was played, but hearing the "Fight to the Death" passage from the Kingdom Hearts suite was enough for me to realize I came to the right place and it was literally spine chilling. The majority of the rehearsal was dedicated to conductor Arnie Roth collaborated with the recording engineers to adjust the acoustics. Given the concert was performed in an arena, the acoustics and balance were not ideal — in particular, the first violins too loud and woodwinds drowned out. Nevertheless, the team made the best of the less-than-ideal circumstances caused by the unavailability of the Cologne Philharmonic Hall.

The arena experience was a little disorientating. The stage itself was bright and open, but seemed more accommodated for a sports show than an artistic event. Prior to the event, there were even pretzel sellers and ice cream vendors walking around to the accompaniment of some of the most tacky smooth jazz music I've heard. I persistently groaned at Don about the choice of music, much to his irritation, but he agreed that Alphabet Planet should have played instead. Backstage meanwhile was often dark and maze-like, though fortunately enough orchestra members to follow not to get completely lost. I was also confused that there were many posters advertising the concert backstage — I counted seven in the catering room alone — yet there were practically no others elsewhere for the public to see. Despite all its bizarre decorations, the catering room featured an excellent coffee machine, much to my and Jonne's delight, and this really fuelled my experience of the after-show party back at the hotel.

The Controversial Oberhausen Arena

Despite its presentation issues, the arena concert was a success. The orchestra performed beautifully and the acoustics were much better than the rehearsal session, with the choir coming across well. The soloists, pianist Benyamin Nuss and percussionist Rony Barrak, performed spectacularly on the evening and Barrak was especially well-received. While I couldn't understand a word of what the MC said, it seemed like he was well-received too and brought a few laughs to the experience. Though the audience took some time to get comfortable, they were very enthusiastic in the second half and the cheers for the finale at the end were especially overwhelming. I used this performance to really start to familiarise myself with the material. The Secret of Mana and Chronos suites really spoke to me when I heard them in full, though I remained to be convinced about the Final Fantasy suite despite the glorious reaction. I soon started to realize that Jonne Valtonen's arrangements were so intricate that it'd be impossible to spot everything on two listens and already started begging for a CD release.

Following the first of two surreal after-show parties, Don and I caught up on some much-needed sleep. Given I couldn't afford my own accommodation, I camped on Don's chair, but eventually managed to doze off at 4:30 AM. On the afternoon of the Saturday, Don and I met some people from various online communities. It was delightful to talk to Kamil, Mateusz, and Mariusz of at the hotel and we hope to work together more closely in the future. We also received the opportunity to briefly meet with Andreas and Marcel from Gamingforce, Johan of Spelmusik, Hengun from Game Music Net, and Thomas of Eurogamer before the concert. Located close to the Cologne Cathedral and partly underground, the Philharmonic Hall was a complete contrast from the arena — a truly beautiful venue with hybridised architecture, superb acoustics, and no pretzel sellers. The team could finally feel comfortable... well, most of them. The composers were meet-and-greeted by a queue almost a mile long looking for autographs and small talk. Don and I were grateful to have our albums signed earlier and instead spent the time speaking to Mateusz, Thomas, and Mitsuda's studio.

The Saturday performance was the real thing for me — the performance I had bought tickets for so many months back and eagerly anticipated since. Having familiarity of the music from the Oberhausen concert just enhanced my musical appreciation on the night, though most others were encountering the music first time. While fans in the hall were respectful throughout, they were an even more enthusiastic audience this time. It was fascinating looking at their reactions, particularly to the "One Winged Angel" tease and Rony Barrak's solo, and it was so clear that Thomas and Jonne know exactly how to draw listeners in. The final hand-destroying applause wasn't simply out of courtesy or enthusiasm. The audience felt satisfied and wanted to express intense gratitude for all the time the arrangers, performers, and guests had put into the concert. There were also several cameras strategically positioned to film the concert for the streamed Internet feed and, as with Symphonic Shades previously, a radio broadcast occurred through the WDR4. I'm sure some of these listeners were applausing from home too.

The Philharmonic Hall

With the production finally over, the team returned to the hotel for the after-show party. This party had an even more ecstatic atmosphere than the earlier one with everyone proud of what they had collectively achieved. The event was quite a bit larger too since some other fans attended — not all with permission — though this didn't cause too many problems. It was great to speak to Shota and Audun at last, though I felt very sorry that a few of my friends couldn't attend too given I was told to keep everything strictly confidential. Most of us had a fair amount to drink on this night, as per Japanese tradition and there were a lot of warm and humorous conversations. It was an amazing if slightly unbelievable experience. On the way home, I decided to continue being sociable and ended up having fascinating conversations with a Dutch revolutionary at the Cologne-Bonn airport and an Oxford headteacher. When I finally returned, I realized that I had been on an amazing musical journey and one of the very best social experiences of my life. What a way to end the summer.