Traversing "Distant Worlds"
|North River Road is a path I regard with fondness, for is was inside the Rosemont Theater, located on this bustling boulevard, that I first met with what had up until recently been the definitive experience in my video-game-themed concert outings: the world premiere of "PLAY! A Video Game Symphony" on May 27, 2006. For me, it was a true spectacle unlike any before it, featuring an assortment of wonderful musical pieces from blockbuster video game titles performed by a full orchestra and choir, led by Grammy-Award-winning music director Arnie Roth. Memories of Akira Yamaoka's electric guitar screeching the sounds of Silent Hill, Koji Kondo's New Super Mario Bros. piano solo, and Angela Aki performing "Kiss Me Good-Bye" and "Eyes On Me" still, to this day, glisten freshly in my mind with deep affection. Indeed, it was a show to reckon with. Nearly two years later, on March 1, 2008, I was fortunate enough to return to this street and adjacent performance hall for the North American debut of "Distant Worlds: music from FINAL FANTASY."|
I arrived at the Rosemont Theater approximately forty five minutes before the event's 8 p.m. kickoff time. Inside, a diverse assembly of fans dotted the terrain, much of which consisted of younger individuals accompanied by their parents and grandparents. A sizable commotion was visible upon entry at a nearby souvenir stand within the large hall. There, Final Fantasy freaks from all walks of life could purchase official "Distant Worlds" merchandise: a program for $30 and a logo-branded t-shirt, poster, and CD for $20 each. There were a handful of costumed enthusiasts in attendance. The most memorable of these was a young woman sporting and extremely impressive-looking Edea outfit. After I purchased and consumed a seven-dollar recreational beverage in the name of Square Haven, the doors leading to the performance area were unbarred and we were consequently able to make our way to our seats.
1. "Liberi Fatali" After a few moments of sitting, Nobuo Uematsu and his entourage made their way through the theater and into their chairs, receiving a standing ovation for their trouble. Soon thereafter, the aforementioned conductor of legend, Arnie Roth, waltzed on stage, faced the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra and, without formally introducing himself or the venue, began swaying his wand slowly. A second later, the audience responded with thunderous applause to what it had just heard: the sound of a choir singing "Fi-thos!" Simultaneously, three large screens above the platform began displaying footage from Final Fantasy VIII's preliminary sequence, mixed into some other full-motion-video clips from later portions of the game. In agreement with the duel scene between Squall and Seifer, Roth's thrashing become more violent as the piece progressed. "Liberi Fatali" was executed with complete perfection, just as it was when performed in this very building during "PLAY!" years ago, and the performers were again treated to a roaring round of approval. Once the clap fest subdued, Roth introduced himself and his troupe, subsequently mentioning how honored he was to perform on this evening and pointing out Uematsu-san and the two Japanese men that strode in with him, both of whom were Square Enix representatives; enter more clapping. It should be mentioned that Roth seemed very shaky while speaking on this occasion as well as several others throughout the evening. He was shaking the piece of paper in his hand, quite literally, as if it were a salt shaker. Whether the feverous shaking of his parts was attributed to some kind of disorder or nervousness, however, I know not. Though considering the precision movements of his hand during the performance, I'll assume the latter.
2. "To Zanarkand" Another masterful piece performed to absolute precision. With a melody initially carried almost entirely by the super-talented pianist, this re-arranged version ended up moving toward what sounded similar to the edition of "To Zanarkand" heard near the finale of Final Fantasy X. The FMV sequences overhead, which surprisingly dropped no spoilers whatsoever, accurately complemented the piece. The on-screen supplement, in fact, consisted largely of the "sending" scene with Yuna in Kilika.
3. "Don't be Afraid" This tune started off with an actual PlayStation-rendered visual cue from Final Fantasy VIII; the scene involving Seifer and "the dog" at the Central Square in Dollet was displayed with Japanese text in the dialogue boxes, much to the nostalgic delight of the attendees. A few seconds passed, then the player, as Squall, accompanied by Zell and Rinoa (instead of Selphie, oddly) progressed toward the Communication Tower -- until he was interrupted by a random encounter! At that exact moment, the orchestra began playing "Don't be Afraid" just as in-game battle began to play itself out, all of which was welcomed by laughter and heavy applause. I simply cannot overstress how well the entire segment was carried out. The video later advanced to the stage with the large mechanical spider chasing our heroes back to Lapin Beach, where Quistis goes to town via a turret aboard the party's vessel ... Very, very creative.
4. "Aerith's Theme" Roth took a break from flailing his wand to tell the audience the tale of a man who proposed marriage, presumably at a Final Fantasy concert, to the song "Aerith's Theme." Yet, we were not told whether man's potential bride accepted, assuming the proposition was made to a female. Before he could properly present the teary ballad, however, Arnie's microphone became unplugged and he was unable to figure out how to mend the situation for the life of him. The music began shortly thereafter juxtaposed to familiar scenes from Final Fantasy VII, such as Aerith walking through downtown Midgar while holding her basket and Cloud resting atop a bed of flowers in the church. The piece was full of emotion and, again, the overhead footage revealed none of the later developments in the game. This arrangement, too, was performed during "PLAY!" in 2006 ... More microphone shenanigans followed.
5. "Medley 2002," consisting of "Main Theme" (Final Fantasy), "Matoya's Cave," "Aria's Theme (Maiden of Water)," "Chocobo Theme" (Final Fantasy III), and "Rebel Army" This set of fantastic themes, originally rearranged for the "20020220 - Music from Final Fantasy" concert, managed to dazzle despite the age of its progenitors. The visual addendum consisted of some Famicom-powered in-game selections, which evoked giggles, as well as a few still frames of Yoshitaka Amano's exquisite artwork and FMV excerpts from the Nintendo DS version of Final Fantasy III.
6. "Dear Friends" Arnie McShake'ums paused, yet again, to invite an acoustic-guitar-playing musician on stage in order to assist him with his next trick. An elderly guitarist took center stage and began playing the very relaxed melody that is the backbone of this simple tune from Final Fantasy V; it sounded great. It was more superb-quality stills of Amano-san's beautiful art that made up the entire backdrop for this piece. Afterwards, the acoustically-inclined person remained seated for what would be, without a doubt, one of the coolest numbers of the evening.
7. "Vamo' alla Flamenco" The essence of this, another "20020220" arrangement, playfully romantic and intensely whimsical, was captured to exactness by Roth and his orchestra. The visual accompaniment consisted of Blank and Zidane's duel mini-game sequence near the beginning of Final Fantasy IX and led into FMV scenes featuring Garnet and Eiko during Alexandria's destruction.
8. "Fantasy Main Theme" This amazingly commanding piece is a nostalgic one deeply woven into the memory of every Final Fantasy fan. In addition, it was the last one performed before the intermission; as such, it made the seemingly difficult task of bringing the first half of this epic concert to a close a simple matter. On this occasion, the music prompted a video collage made up of Final Fantasy "moments" borrowed from the twelve main installments of the series ... Simply awesome.
Intermission Outside the mens' restroom, a line of superfluous proportions waited. Exploring the lobby just outside the performance area, one could witness some of the attendees as they continued to purchase merchandise and drinks, while others photographed themselves along visitors masquerading as Final Fantasy characters. Having spent nearly $100 already, I took little time returning to my seat, where I eagerly anticipated the second half of "Distant Worlds."
9. "Opening ~ Bombing Mission" As expected, this one got a warm reception. The robust sound of the strings kicked things off, carrying the piece into a furry of orchestral intensity. Above, scenes of Aerith approaching the busy intersection during the opening cinematic FMV of Final Fantasy VII were shown for a second time this evening, leading to the zoom out and subsequent thunderous "boom" introducing the title to all. Clips of in-game battles complimented the mood of the song extremely well during the segment.
10. "Fisherman's Horizon" Arnie made use of the singers in his choir once more for this tranquilly cheerful piece. At this point, the three screens were laden with imagery from Final Fantasy VIII, including Seifer's failed attempt at a fishing career, Balamb crashing into the docks, and other Horizon-themed scenery.
11. "Memoro de la Stono ~ Distant Worlds" The very vocal, incredibly potent opening arrangement of Final Fantasy XI. The introductory visual sequence of the game synchronized with the foreboding disposition of the piece seamlessly; you could almost feel the brutality of the Beastman horde overrunning the Hume stronghold. I knew for a fact (from conversations I overheard within close proximity) that there were a number of Vana'diel citizens in the house ... Needless to say, it was exceedingly well received.
12. "Theme of Love" According to Arnie, this one of Uematsu-san's personal favorites. Breathtaking FMV sequences from the DS remake of Final Fantasy IV decorate the large background displays, along with many in-game clips.
13. "Swing de Chocobo" Arranged by Roth himself, this is a very fun-sounding tune. The accompanying video showed footage of what looked like a 16-bit Chocobo whipping back and forth to the music, which stirred giggles. Later visual captures depicted Tidus riding a chocobo up and down the Mi'ihen Highroad across the three large screens. The piece was reminiscent of the "Brass de Chocobo" theme off the Final Fantasy X Original Soundtrack. The increased capricious temperament added to this song by Roth and his ensemble was a definite plus ... Also performed during the "PLAY!" world premiere.
14. "Love Grows" The last Final Fantasy VIII piece of four performed at "Distant Worlds." The soothing arrangement was coupled with images of Squall and Rinoa, with a bulky serving of the lengthy scene between Laguna and Raine near the end of the game. The pianist's performance eclipsed the rest of the orchestra for the duration of the arrangement.
15. "Opera 'Maria and Draco'" Maestro Roth introduced three local opera singers who would play the roles of Maria, Draco, and Ralse. The three stood near the piano on the far left of the stage, just ahead of where I was sitting. The visual assembly shown was made up of in-game Final Fantasy VI clips related to the opera segment, with the 16-bit conductor swinging his wand parallel to Roth's, standing below. From where I was sitting, I could see clearly how completely involved each of the very-gifted vocal performers was in the execution of the piece. All three, moreover, sounded spectacular. This presentation absolutely rocked the socks off every person in the theater, totally stealing the show and receiving heavy praise in the form of the evening's second standing ovation.
Encore: "Terra's Theme" After completing "Maria and Draco," Arnie inexplicably leaves his post and heads backstage, leaving the audience on their feet and clapping. After about thirty seconds, the conductor re-emerged and announced he had made a mistake; in his nervousness, Roth forgot to mention that the opera piece would be the last of the evening ... with the exception of one more arrangement, to no one's surprise: an encore piece! Now, those well versed in concerts of Rothesque natures know that Arnie has a definite favorite encore song, established by trends he has demonstrated at "Dear Friends - music from FINAL FANTASY" and "PLAY!" performances. Knowing of the coordinator's previous constancy, one fan shouted "One-Winged Angel!" Roth, who by this point was shaking like a human Polaroid picture, mustered a composed laugh and assured those in attendance that his trademark finish would not be next; instead, it would be "Terra's Theme" that would bring the evening to a close. After a considerable amount of cheering, the band began playing the classic opening composition of Final Fantasy VI. A momentary darkness filled the hovering screens, only to be replaced an instant later by Super-Famicom-rendered scenes of three Magitek Armor units marching through the snowfield toward Narshe. The implemented combination of beautifully-performed music and video, played adjacent to the concert staff credits (substituting the original game credits) on screen, was flawlessly stunning. The whole thing blew the roof off of the joint and received standing ovation number three. Roth bowed and scurried backstage yet again, only to rematerialize after some serious standing and clapping.
Encore: "One-Winged Angel" Remember when Arnie said he and his would not be performing "One-Winged Angel" this evening? He lied. Everyone in the place knew this one, but the audience loved every second of it nevertheless. The video compliment consisted of in-game scenes from Final Fantasy VII and footage from Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. Again, a standing ovation makes itself known. Roth invited Uematsu-san on stage, where the latter took a deep bow before the appreciative crowd.
Back in the main hall, once more, I made my way through the hustle and bustle and into the "meet and greet" line. I should note that the whole "VIP" procession seemed to be very effective, with some noteworthy exceptions, in weeding out the more deranged-looking fans; that is to say, most of those ahead of and behind me, astonishingly, looked more like travelling businesspeople than the ilk you'd expect at a video-game-themed outing. Some regular-ticket-holding zany stragglers attempted to remain in the vicinity, only to be asked to leave, in a rather unnecessarily harsh manner, by staff members present. Additionally, I was pleasantly surprised with how serenely lengthy and well-paced the entire procedure turned out. The theater workers present did not attempt to rush any of the VIPs in any manner whatsoever, letting each have their personalized jiffy with Roth and Uematsu-san. Each person in line was handed a program and CD, just before approaching the table where the two centerpieces of the show sat. After absorbing the whole experience, I must say I was shocked with how utterly humble and grateful Uematsu-san seemed toward those present. He came off, to me, as a very respectable, upright, and startlingly normal guy whose works definitely merit the adoration of his legions. Roth, too, seemed like a modest, thankful man.
In conclusion, I can wholly and honestly say that "Distant Worlds: music from FINAL FANTASY" was a superb experience well worth the admission price. Now, if we could just get the folks at AWR Music Productions to beef up their two-to-three-performances-per-year schedule ...
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