Symphonic Fantasies (Cologne, September 2009): The Team

During these travels, Don and I received a chance to get to know the various members of Thomas' team. On the coach to the first rehearsal, I spoke at length with Jonne about his approach to Symphonic Fantasies. Unfortunately, I didn't manage to record these conversations, but Jonne has promised to go into depth about the concert at a later date once he has fully rested from all those months of persistent work. Above all, I learned how he was attempting to offer something so deep and intricate that it was comparable to a true symphony. Yet while quietly self-assured, Jonne proved a tremendously likeable character throughout the trip — very humorous, quite eccentric, and strangely self-depreciating too. As I put it on Facebook, a true legend. I also received the opportunity to talk to Roger Wanamo, the co-arranger for the Chrono suite, who had previously studied with Jonne. He struck me as a polite and well-read guy with a deep fascination towards the phenomenon of video game music.

Benyamin Nuss At the Piano

I mostly talked to the composers at the morning interview sessions and the two after-show parties. Nobuo Uematsu especially endeared at the second after-show party. He spoke excellent English, understanding what Don and I had to say with our strong respective accents, while giving eloquent replies back. Among our informal discussions, I learned that Uematsu prefers to brew English ale, owns a lakehouse near Mount Fiji, likes to smoke at the end of long days, and certainly isn't a vegetarian like me. He also liked that I was from Liverpool, the city where one of his major influences were born — The Beatles, of course. Having spent many hours talking to him, it was clearly that he was incredibly caring, humble, and sincere man. The official character isn't just an act and he really is that endearing. He was also very humorous too, even teasing me to buy him a large Kölsch at one point. Of course, I needlessly agreed and he was guilty yet grateful that I did.

I talked to Hiroki Kikuta a little less during the two days, but he certainly made an impression on me during the interview. We planned to do 11 questions in 30 minutes, but he actually talked for 15 minutes on one question. It was very clear he had a lot to say and 30 minutes just wasn't enough. Fortunately he and translator Justin Pfeiffer are willing to continue the rest through text. The final result is bound to be fascinating! Yasunori Mitsuda and Yoko Shimomura spoke less English, but still enough for me to show my appreciation for their works and offer them drinks at the after-show party (yes, a lot of drinks were bought that night!). While I perceived Mitsuda to be a reserved and gentle person, Shimomura was very warm and bubbly. Some of what she said during the interview was especially hilarious and I really hope the effect isn't lost in text form.

Jonne Valtonen Shortly Before Symphonic Fantasies

Two of the composers were accompanied by collaborators too. Uematsu-san was accompanied by his manager Hiroki Ogawa. Even after a few beers, Ogawa came across as a very professional and kind-hearted person, who complemented Uematsu wonderfully. It's rare that, on offering someone a Cosmopolitan, they end up buying you one instead but Ogawa-san was so kind that this happened to me. More surprisingly, Mitsuda was accompanied by most members of Procyon Studio at the event, namely the composers Shunsuke Tsuchiya and Maki Kirioka, programmer Junya Kuroda, and manager Yoshie Miyajima. While they seemed quiet during the concerts, I realized who they were and took the opportunity to talk to them. There were surprised and complimented that I knew of each of their works. I also received the opportunity to talk to Kirioka-san for half an hour at the first after-show party. While she spoke little English and I spoke even less Japanese, we surprisingly managed to learn a lot about each other. It was a lovely conversation!

The two soloists were also very interesting to talk to. While Benyamin Nuss is a classically-trained pianist, he also enjoys video games such as Kingdom Hearts and expressed a deep admiration for Final Fantasy music veterans such as Nobuo Uematsu and Shiro Hamaguchi. It was a worthwhile experience going to breakfast with him and his girlfriend, even after those late night after-show parties. He talked to me quite a lot about his upcoming classical and video game projects. Needless to say, they're exciting and it's safe to say he a big future ahead. Rony Barrak was very exciting to talk to as well. I was shocked by just the extent and range of his works beyond game music, including three multifarious solo albums and his own mini-symphony. He was also accompanied by a very pleasant recording engineer who asked me do a video recording about Barrak's performance at Symphonic Fantasies. I hope it'll never show up online since I'm not good at speaking when tipsy!

Rony Barrak and his Darbouka

The other member of the team, of course, was maestro Arnie Roth. Amidst a team of Japanese, German, Finnish, and Lebanese producers and artists, Arnie was surprisingly the only American. He brought a lot of personality to the concert with his warm yet authoritative command of the orchestra and inviting treatment of the special guests. He was also engaging to talk to in person and proudly revealed some of his plans for the three hour Distant Worlds concert to occur in Chicago during December. It was also great to watch his very close relationship with Nobuo Uematsu behind the scenes. I'm not sure if the hotel were as happy with him, though, given he started that trend where pretty much everyone ordered difficult-to-mix Cosmopolitans! Finally, there were two surprisingly friendly executives from Square Enix's licensing division who were considering the plausibility of publishing a recording of the concert on CD. Given their enthusiastic reactions, I expect a CD release is likely maybe next year, but let's wait and see.

Overall, the atmosphere within the team was unlike something I've witnessed before. The warmth, the humour, and the sincerity expressed by everyone was incredible. Everybody was complimenting each other, from soloist to arranger to composer to producer, while being genuinely modest themselves. They realized it was a truly collective effort and were honoured to have taken part alongside so many other passionate and talented people. It was so good to see that the composers portray their true selves in interviews and they are even more endearing in person. They were very accommodating to fans and, even though I was surrounded by so many geniuses, I felt completely comfortable around them. The whole team really touched me. I'm so glad that such a great bunch of people received the reception and success that they did on the two nights.