A Not-So-Final Fantasy: The Distant Worlds Concert Series

It’s another night at the Orpheum Theater, and members of the Vancouver Opera Orchestra are tuning their instruments, the sounds of strings and horns rising to the gilded arches and vaulted ceilings. But this is not just another opera, and the audience is not a group of formally-dressed, stuffy opera-goers. Oh, there are a few people in dresses and suits, but they rub shoulders with youths in jeans and gaming T-shirts and and with spiky-haired heroes in full cosplay. And when the first notes of the evening ring out, they are not greeted with polite golf-clapping but with the same shrieking adulation one would expect at a rock concert.

For the melody is from the Opening of Final Fantasy VII, and this is the Distant Worlds: Final Fantasy concert.

To Zanarkand

For those that don’t know, Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy is an international series of concerts put on in conjunction with Square Enix that highlight, well, music from the Final Fantasy series. Conducted by Grammy award-winner Arnie Roth and featuring local orchestras from each host city, the concerts have gone everywhere from Seoul to London to LA to Toronto – not to mention, of course, all over Japan. The concerts are not only feasts for the ears but feasts for the eyes, as they feature large screen TVs that show cinematics, gameplay and concept artwork during each musical number. Audiences are treated to adorable 8-bit SD graphics in the FF I-III medley one minute; the next, they are swept away to the fully-rendered crystalline forests and crumbling ruins of Final Fantasy X as the soft strains of To Zanarkand play in the background.

The result is an epic trip down memory lane and a surprisingly deep look at the evolution of the Final Fantasy series in terms of its graphics, music and themes, as traditional fantasy with swelling orchestral themes evolved into space fantasy with impossibly advanced cities and hyperactive techno beats. For FF geeks, it was like Christmas and birthday all wrapped up into one.

Oh, and did I mention Nobuo Uematsu was there too?

The Man With The Machine Gun

Many FF fans among you may already own every single soundtrack to every single Final Fantasy game ever and wonder what a live concert can offer that headphones cannot (other than a hefty ticket price). But the experience of hearing these classic and new pieces with a full orchestra, with all the acoustics that a concert hall can provide, is really an experience like no other. Arnie Roth’s conducting is at turns bombastic and gentle, showing a deep appreciation for the music, and the orchestra – many of whom are not gamers at all – did every piece justice. The orchestral arrangements give a lot of old favorites a new life by switching around certain instruments for others, or by rendering one style of music as another. It always keeps your ears guessing.

Speaking of old favorites, a ton of them were played at the Vancouver concert, as well as some surprising new additions. As a touring concert designed to feature a game series with over 500 unique tracks of music, it’s natural that there’s some cycling in and out of music, and as a result this concert had quite a few changes from the concert only one year before.

To be sure, there are always a few tracks that they can’t NOT play; I always joke that they at least have to play One Winged Angel if they want to leave the concert hall alive and unmauled! The Swing de Chocobo number is a bouncy and uptempo take on a classic which looks back at the history of everyone’s favourite bird mount, while Terra/Tina’s Theme from Final Fantasy VI always provides a melancholy and mysterious background to the closing credits. Final Fantasy VIII in particular also contributes quite a few “must-have” numbers to the list, including Don’t Be Afraid and the Man With the Machine Gun, exchanging pumping techno with flutes and strings. The Love Theme from FFIV and Clash on the Big Bridge from FFV are also fan favourite, and of course, the soft strains of Aeris’ Theme resulted in a lot of sniffles and wet eyes in the house.

But there were also a few new additions to the roster, some being played in North America for the first time. Several pieces from the ill-fated FFXIII and FFXIV made the cut, and despite the mixed reception the games received, the music was top-notch and great samplings of the ambiance and cinematics. There were also plenty of new pieces from older FF games. The most impressive of these was Dark World from Final Fantasy VI, a bleak and depressing piece of post-apocalyptic overworld music. Featuring the composer himself, Nobuo Uematsu, on the organ, and Arnie Roth on solo violin, the melody was given a haunting, lonely resonance in the large hall, and the awed hush from the crowd was both one of fannish respect and melancholy reflections on the emotions and memories the music evoked.

Oh, and  there was an opera, of sorts; the famous opera from Final Fantasy VI, performed with professional singers and concluding the final act that was interrupted by Ultros ingame. My friends were polite enough to pretend to ignore my sentimental blubbering as I remembered being thirteen and hearing the sweeping, epic Aria De Mezzo Carraterre for the first time, amazed that a video game could touch me so deeply and stay with me for so long.

Veni veni venias, ne me mori facias…

That, to me, is what is so compelling about this concert series, why I would recommend it to any Final Fantasy fan or even just someone who is interested in learning about it. Distant Worlds is, in its essence, a perfect encapsulation of our childhoods, of the evolution of a game and a fandom, and of the effect it has had on a generation of fanboys and fangirls. With just a handful of songs and an orchestra, it captures a million emotions and fond memories from fans of every generation, whether raised on 8-bit Warrior of Light or 32-bit Cloud.

The concert ended in the most triumphant manner possible, trying something so simple and obvious that it’s amazing they didn’t do it earlier: a sing-along to One Winged Angel with lyrics on-screen. Even in Roth’s secretive buildup (“Well, we don’t have a choir for this next number, but… I think you know the lyrics…”) the fans knew what was up, and the sinister drums and trumpets that heralded the beginning were greeted with a squee so loud it shook the heavens, followed by a thousand rough and straining geek voices giving off-tune but enthusiastic accompaniment to the Advent Children visuals on screen and encouraged by an eager, grinning Nobuo Uematsu.

BEST ENDING EVAR.

So, whether you’re an old school FF fan or a newbie to the series – whether your rosy memories are NES, SNES, or Playstation filtered – you owe it to yourself to check out Distant Worlds. If it’s in your area, run, don’t walk, to your nearest ticket agent.

Dates and info can be found at http://ffdistantworlds.com, as well as purchase information on DVDs and CDs.

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