Distant Worlds - Music from Final Fantasy (London, November 2011): Concert Report
Britain doesn't normally get priority when it comes to video game music concerts, despite having loads of fans, and some of the best venues in the world. Before September 2011, the only video game music concert to grace the London stage was Video Games Live, which hasn't returned to London since 2008. The last three months, September to November 2011, have been amazing for video game music fans based in or near London as we've had three different concerts in town: Video Game Heroes, The Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony and, on the 5th November, Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy finally came to London's Royal Albert Hall. This was reflected by Arnie Roth too, who's first words of the night were "finally, we made it [to London], sorry it's taken us so long to get here". Quite right too, as this concert sold out soon after tickets went on sale, and the atmosphere... let's just say the word excitable is an understatement.
I've been to the Royal Albert Hall many times for a variety of reasons. I've worked there as a helper, played as a musician, and been to see many different concerts there, but this trip felt extra special, as this concert is one that I'd been looking forward to for ten months since I got tickets. I met up with James, an old friend from my youth music school Harrow Young Musicians at South Kensington station and we made our way to the hall. After trying and failing to find somewhere to eat outside of the hall we settled on the Cafe Consort within the venue. The food the re is great, and was less expensive than I remember. While we were catching up and eating dinner we saw a few cosplayers around. People came up with some pretty cool costumes, and it was nice to see so many people dressing up as less typical characters such as Reno, Rude and a white mage. It was weird seeing a girl dressed as Sephiroth but she did a good job. Unfortunately I didn't get to see everyone because the Royal Albert Hall is so big and has several small communal areas, as opposed to one big communal area, but I saw some impressive costumes. Piece of advice, if you're going to a video games event and you own a 3DS, remember to bring it with you for one reason, streetpass. People have obtained enough streetpass hits to complete the in built games in one day by attending a concert or gaming convention.
The Royal Albert Hall is so famous because it has one of the best acoustics in the world, and it has important British history behind it (look it up if you're interested). Before the concert TV's were set up in the communal areas showing a trailer for Final Fantasy XIII-2 and there was plenty of merchandise for sale. Inside the hall, there were two screens above the orchestra on both sides, but not one in the middle, because that's where the pipe organ is located, and it's one of the best in the world. It's for that reason that I was looking forward to "Dancing Mad" the most. Before the concert started the lights went down randomly about five minutes before the start, which made everyone cheer and applaud, then came back on again, confusing everyone but it got a laugh. Then Nobuo Uematsu walked on stage to a standing ovation, before the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra tuned and the concert finally began.
The "Prelude" opened the programme, and just like for Zelda Symphony, the orchestra's sound really shone through, and for me they played this piece at exactly the right tempo not too fast and not too slow. I've often been quite critical of the underuse of the choir in previous concerts and soundtracks I've reviewed, but that certainly wasn't a problem here. The London Voices were very strong and blended really well together, they worked well with the orchestra too. The balance was really good too, always making sure the harp arpeggio lines were the focus of the piece. This led straight into "Liberi Fatali", which was the best live performance of this piece that I've seen so far, the balance was fantastic and the choir were very strong despite small numbers. This is how "Liberi Fatali" should sound live. At the high trumpet part the lead trumpet made a spectacular and very obvious split note which made me laugh, but overall it was a fantastic performance.
Then after Arnie Roth said a few words, and introduced Nobuo Uematsu, who was sitting in the audience at the back of the stalls, they played the "Victory Fanfare". Then next track up was "Don't Be Afraid", which started with the dog barking scene from the game, before the orchestra started playing. Once again, the orchestra had a great sound, and they played it really well. For me, it was a bit too slow, which took away from the intensity slightly, but it wasn't a huge issue. "Zanarkand" was next, and it was a fantastic performance. This is where the romantic feel the orchestra are so good at getting across to an audience really shone through, they nailed one of my favourite Final Fantasy pieces.
Following this, Susan Calloway took to the stage for "Memoro De La Stono - Distant Worlds". "Memoro De La Stono" sounded just like the recording on the first Distant Worlds album, which for me was perfect. "Distant Worlds" itself sounded brilliant too. Susan Calloway held back a bit compared to the recordings of her voice, and I liked it. She sounded like she was slightly struggling on some of the high notes, but I think she must have been saving herself for the rest of the concert. Next was "You're Not Alone". I'm really glad they played this as it's in my opinion the concert tour's most underplayed piece. It's not on either of the albums and as far as I'm aware they don't play it live that often in any of the Final Fantasy concerts, but they played it in London, and it was amazing to hear it live. I particularly liked the trumpet solo.
"Clash on the Big Bridge" is one of the arrangements that I think you need to hear live to properly appreciate it and hear every nuance in the orchestration. There was some really great brass and percussion work here, especially on the glockenspiel, who nailed his part. "Aerith's Theme" and "Theme of Love", just like "Zanarkand", were really beautiful and really brought out the best in the orchestra, although I think some audience members need to learn that cheering and applauding during pieces of music like these is inappropriate and can seriously kill the mood. Then Susan Calloway came back on for "Kiss Me Goodbye", carrying on the romantic feel. She really sang this with a lot of emotion which was great to hear, I could see what she was saving herself for.
The first half then closed off with the "Chocobo Medley", beginning with the Final Fantasy XIV version. The rock style drumming was great, and everyone was very rhythmic. This lead straight into "Swing De Chocobo", an arrangement which reminds me of Louis Prima's "Sing Sing Sing!" The orchestra got the swing feel down, especially the drummer, and some of the images on the screens got some laughs from the audience. Unfortunately there were a few balance issues with the lead trumpet being too overpowering and some of the woodwinds not being prominent enough at the appropriate points, but it was overall a good performance and a great way of closing off the second half.
The second half opened with "Opening - Bombing Mission". The Opening felt a bit rushed to me and the brass were overpowering during Bombing Mission, but the performance still came off. Then Arnie Roth introduced some Square Enix employees in attendance before introducing "Dancing Mad". As I said earlier, I was looking forward to this the most out of the whole concert thanks to the organ, and it didn't disappoint, for the most part. This is one of those arrangements that I think should be heard live to do it justice, as it sounded so much better than the recording on the Distant Worlds II album. Unfortunately during the organ solo in phase 3 of the piece there were a few obvious mistakes, but that's forgivable because, as James pointed out, it's a really difficult organ part to play, and overall the performance really worked.
Next up was the "Final Fantasy I - III Medley", which sounded just as good as the recordings. Up until now, I often felt the brass were a bit too loud overall, particularly the first trumpet, who split several notes pretty obviously. However here they held back, which was nice, especially in the trumpet solo in the Final Fantasy 1 main theme. Some of the other instruments, such as the woodwinds, felt more prominent here and were able to sing out their solos effectively such as the clarinet during "Legend of the Eternal Wind" from Final Fantasy III. Next, by complete contrast, was "JENOVA", another arrangement which sounded much better live than it does in the recordings, and it was well performed. The transition into the ending was a little iffy, but they made up for it with the ending itself, which was awesome.
Also featured was "Eyes on Me", not an arrangement of the tune, the actual song itself, which was a real treat. Susan Calloway sang it well, and the orchestration was fantastic. There were some very unconventional musical choices thrown in, such as some unusual second inversion chords, but they all worked well to create a brilliant arrangement of this classic song. And then something completely different, "Blinded By Light". It was performed well, albeit a little slow for my liking. I think the arrangement is great, but it needs the drum kit to keep it driving forward. Without the drum kit it doesn't feel as intense as it should. Next up was a favourite of mine, the opera scene, "Maria and Draco". For me, the recording on the first Distant Worlds album is the best I've heard this piece, but this performance was still really good. Personally I would have taken the introduction section a bit slower but everything else the orchestra did was great. The singers were good, but for me they lacked the operatic power that I've heard in previous performances and recordings, and the pronunciation of some of the words didn't sound, for lack of a better word, classy enough. One thing they did do very well though was blend while singing together and their voices complemented the orchestra very well too.
Finally the concert ended, or so we thought, with "Terra's Theme". It was faster than I expected it to be but I liked it, it had some great energy. Then as expected, the concert ended with a standing ovation, including a huge cheer for Nobuo Uematsu. After all that, Roth tried to persuade Uematsu to sing a solo, to which he comically replied "I can't", but he did go and join the male singers in the choir for the inevitable "One Winged Angel" encore, which, like "Liberi Fatali", was incredibly powerful thanks to the strong choir. Next year, I'd like to hear the Advent Children version of One Winged Angel performed live.
So, overall, it was a great concert. It was really good to hear the orchestral arrangements of these pieces performed live, having heard recordings of them for years, and for the most part it did not disappoint. The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra seem to be becoming the go to orchestra for these kinds of concerts in the UK, and why not, they've proven twice now that they are really good at performing this kind of music. Next year is the 25th anniversary of the Final Fantasy series, and Arnie Roth said that Distant Worlds were planning something special, which I am looking forward to seeing. If it were up to me, I would create a proper opera production of "Maria and Draco" (though it would be a reasonable length, under an hour,) but we'll see. Whatever they decide should be awesome, so bring on next years London concert next November, and hopefully see you there.