Distant Worlds 2014 - Music from Final FantasyPlatforms: All
It seems like videogame music is finally starting to get the recognition it deserves. Far from the primitive bleeps and bloops of the early eighties, triple-A games now commission orchestrated suites to accompany their action, and indie games such as Journey and To The Moon use music to relay their storytelling and emotional impact in the same way that they deploy a pretty visual or a box of text, with arguably more power.
There are few games where an individual is as well-known as the game itself, and even fewer where that individual is the music composer rather than the game’s creator. But whilst Sakaguchi has long since moved on from the Final Fantasy series, Nobuo Uematsu’s continued involvement has ensured his iconic status. Distant Worlds is the brainchild of Uematsu and conductor/composer Arnie Roth. Roth, who toured a sell-out show over a decade ago with a selection of tracks from the series, is the perfect frontman for the gig, and is as comfortable addressing the packed Royal Albert Hall as he is conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Voices vocal group.
He kicked off the ninety-eighth performance of Distant Worlds with a portentous medley of Hymn of the Fayth from Final Fantasy X and the crowd-pleasing One-Winged Angel from Final Fantasy VIIbefore offering a question to the crowd - “Do we have any Final Fantasy XIII fans?” The response was as muted as one might expect, but thankfully Masashi Hamauzu’s Light Eternal from the second sequel of Square Enix’s divisive entry built up atmosphere where the game failed to do so, and rode the wave of the excellent opening. Those familiar with Roth’s other concerts will have recognised Dear Friends (also the name of Roth’s first tour), making its debut in Distant Worlds courtesy of the sublime classical guitarist Stewart French. Following it up with the ninth game’s rollicking Vamo’ Alla Flamenco was the only possible course of action and was a highlight of the night, Uematsu’s dalliance with La Malaguena seamlessly bringing together the orchestra’s wind and string sections.
Susan Calloway has been the staple vocalist of Distant Worlds for some time, popular enough for Uematsu to personally request her involvement in the theme song Answers for Final Fantasy XIV, and she left the audience in no doubt of her ability here. Piano fans weren’t left wanting either, as Final Fantasy X’s To Zanarkand made an expected appearance. A few more stalwarts of the concert were also included, such as Ronfaure from Final Fantasy XI, and Final Fantasy VI’s Dancing Mad. This latter piece was enhanced dramatically by the Albert Hall’s newly restored organ - the second largest in the UK - and as the cymbals crashed alongside the organ’s resonating pipes, the entire hall was filled with a tremendous undercurrent of awe as Andrew Lucas’ flawless playing brilliantly emphasised the genius of Uematsu’s composition.
Despite a few of the most anticipated pieces being played, the night held a number of new additions which delighted the audience. The battle and main themes from Final Fantasy VII were new but well-known, and more interesting arrangements included a couple of medleys: a battle medley comprised of Battle on Big Bridge, Those Who Fight and Battle with Seymour, and a character medley consisting of Terra, Celes, Locke and Kefka’s themes. Topped off with other Distant Worlds premieres such as the piano and string brilliance of IX’s Rose of May alongside VI’s sublime Balance is Restored, Roth packed in a huge amount of fan service over the two-and-a-half hour concert.
However, none of the tracks caused quite as much of a stir with the audience as the moment it was announced that Uematsu himself would be performing on stage. The composer is frequently in attendance at Roth’s concerts and a deal struck between them saw Uematsu on keyboard whilst Roth, a classically trained violinist, rosining up his bow to lead the string section for Final Fantasy VI’s Dark World.
It wasn’t a one-off; Uematsu has performed this before on occasion and Dark World isn’t a natural stage piece in its own right - it’s a little too oppressive for many fans - but seeing the maestro performing music from his favourite instalment offsets its maudlin tone and is an undeniable treat. The evening was rounded off with the traditional Closing Medley - before an encore of the horn-heavy Festival of the Hunt from IX and crowd-pleasing Chocobo Medley brought the concert to a close on a high.
Nobuo Uematsu has created roughly eighty percent of the music for an entire franchise spanning over a quarter of a century and yet his compositions (and themes derived from them) have endured. Incredibly, Final Fantasy VI is two decades old this year. Anyone who argues that videogame music can’t sit alongside the best film themes or even classical composers such as Mozart or Beethoven - the latter of whom was knocked out of Classic FM’s top 5 last year by Uematsu and Jeremy Soule’s Elder Scrolls series - need only listen to the diversity of Uematsu’s back catalogue to recognise the talent on show. The question for any discerning fan of either videogame or orchestral music, then, isn’t “if” you should see Distant Worlds, it’s “when”. And with Roth promising to return to the UK with an entirely new set, there’s really no excuse not to go.