Symphonic Fantasies (Cologne, September 2009): The Second Half

The second half opened with a suite dedicated to Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. After the ever-serene "A Premonition", it was predictable that "Scars of Time" would dominate the first section of the fantasy. Nevertheless, it was more interesting than most performances with the atmospheric opening chromatic progressions, Rony Barrak's exotic percussion performance, and the eventual segue into "Crono's Theme". Darbouka performer Rony Barrak really emphasised the rhythmical focus of the suite and, despite a few balance problems at the arena concert, was perfectly integrated with the orchestra in the Philharmonic Hall concert and very well-received overall. The orchestra also maintained the rhythmical edge with their brisk aggressive performances of battle themes like "Gale", "Brink of Death", and "Battle with Magus". It was also delightful how Juraj Cizmarovic restored the Celtic feel of "Scars of Time" and "Gale" with his fiddle performance. The resulting theme had so much momentum that listeners such as Andreas apparently found that the 16 minutes flew by. This is a good thing in mainstream-targeted concerts given many find the symphony-based approach laborous.

Co-arranger Roger Wanamo was responsible for many of the intricacies of the Chronos suite. He fitted themes from both games together like he was completing a jigsaw puzzle. It was particularly impressive how the Chrono Cross and Chrono Trigger main theme were often unified and playing simultaneously, or how dabs of the descending chord progression from "Battle with Magus" made appearances throughout. At points, Wanamo even offered renditions of three or four themes all at once without and the final result sounded surprisingly natural. However, most themes also received plenty of playtime of their own leaving fans satisfied. I was worried that inclusions such as "Frog's Theme" would come across gimmicky, yet they were integrated very convincingly into the suite, while the elegaic string-based performance of "Prisoners of Fate" was also a highlight of the entire concert. Between this, the time focus, and the Celtic flavour, it seems Valtonen and Wanamo were once again faithful to the game and Mitsuda's musical inspiration.

The Warm Yet Commanding Concertmaster

The Final Fantasy suite always seemed like the most challenging arrangement to create. While the original material is solid and popular, there is so much available that it is difficult to know how to condense it into 16 minutes. Rather than maintain the artistic focus of earlier arrangements, Valtonen chose to adopt a more conventional medley-based approach using fan favourites from the series. The individual parts were fantastic. The flanking arrangements of "Prelude" and "Final Fantasy" were spiritual and nostalgic, while "Fighting" and "Bombing Mission" were dramatic with their edgy melodies and brutal choral chants. Even better, Final Fantasy VI's "The Mystic Forest" elaborated upon the impressionistic feel of the original to create some gorgeous timbres somewhat reminiscent of those in the Secret of Mana suite. The two renditions of "Chocobo" were surprising too, but both quite amusing given both the original melody and its slightly dissonant harmonisation. An effective mix of drama, ambience, and humour overall.

While I felt entertained with each individual section, I came away feeling more confused than satisfied with the Final Fantasy suite as a whole. While the opener and closer were spot on, the track choices otherwise seemed a little random and more representative of Final Fantasy VII than the entire series. More significantly, the arrangement tended to transition through each theme somewhat abruptly, resulting in many transitions from loud to soft. That said, the audience reaction to the interruption of "One Winged Angel" with the Chocobo theme was exactly as desired — first complete excitement, then groans and laughs — so was clearly successful and showed the team understood fan culture. Aside that, a similar fan service could have been created with an even more artistically inclined arrangement. Now that Nobuo Uematsu has seen what Valtonen did with Secret of Mana, he is apparently much more open to transformative arrangements in the future so hopefully Valtonen will soon do the series justice. And regardless of my own disappointment, partly due to my bias against medleys, the fans seemed to love it given it generated a momentous applause.

Arnie Roth Given Ovation

After endless cheers, fans were eventually given an encore for the evening. Valtonen chose to orchestrate the most epic themes from each series and present them for orchestra and chorus. While the medley-based structure was simple, it worked better than the Final Fantasy suite given there was a clear progression throughout and breathing space between each theme rather than abrupt transitions. Given the arrangements mostly stuck close to their originals, a strong performance was essential here. It was a big relief that, contrary to the rehearsal, the choir was sufficiently prominent to bring dramatic potency to the Drammatica-esque rendition of Kingdom Hearts' "Destati". Secret of Mana's "Meridian Dance" was a well-received choice and reflected the peppy yet bombastic element of many of Kikuta's finest battle themes. Subsequently Chrono Trigger's "Lavos' Theme" was also straightforward, but created such an awe-inspiring timbre with its combination of orchestra, chorus, pipe organ, and percussion.

Of course, the ultimate finale came with the rendition of "One Winged Angel". However the team just had to tease the audience one more time here by interrupting it with a darbouka solo by Rony Barrak. While it's near-impossible for something or someone to interrupt "One Winged Angel" and receive an even more spectacular reaction, Barrak managed it and brought unique solos to each concert. It was amazing to watch the audience's reaction — a mixture of curiosity, amusement, and awe, often all within the same person — as Barrak's performance grew more intricate. The performance of "One Winged Angel" was actually brief and stuck closely to Shiro Hamaguchi's arrangements, but few seemed to care. Even though the piece isn't always popular with hardcore game music fans, the more mainstream audience mostly felt delighted by it. This gave way to standing ovations aplenty at both concerts, showing most fans were entirely satisfied with the offerings of the evening.

Nobuo Uematsu Given Ovation as Mitsuda, Shimomura, Ogawa, Kikuta, and Valtonen Look On, Copyright WDR

As I said previously, Symphonic Fantasies ranks among the greatest musical and social experiences of my life. Each arrangement took listeners on an extended journey through the atmospheres, emotions, and melodies of their respective series. The majority of the arrangements also felt like cohesive and artistic musical achievements in their own right. Despite this, the last two items lost some of the artistic focus and musical balance of previous items in the concert, resembling a little more the traditional medleys at typical game music concerts than an expression of Valtonen's creativity. Regardless it was a worthy tribute to Square Enix overall that won the appeal of gamers and musicians alike. Now that this concert successively established the symphony-based format for game concerts and introduced composers to Valtonen's marvel, there is the freedom available for the team to create an even greater concert. I eagerly anticipate what will be offered at the newly announced concert on September 24, 2010 and hope it lives up to the potential legacy created by Symphonic Fantasies. An album release for Symphonic Fantasies would also be very welcome.