Concert Recap: Distant Worlds — Music From Final Fantasy

Saturday night, Kathy and I attended the Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy concert in Chicago. A couple years back, we had nosebleed seats to the Dear Friends tour, and we loved it. This time, Kathy went online the minute seats went on sale, and she got a pair of choice seats as a birthday present for me.

Rosemont Theater

Before the show, we walked around, checking out the crowd. It was pretty much what you’d expect from a concert celebrating Japanese RPG music: lots of guys, many with some combination of ponytails, bad facial hair, and/or trenchcoats; white guys with Asian girlfriends; white girls with chopsticks in their hair; and tons of attendees wearing glasses (including Kathy and me). There were plenty of cute, young couples dressed up for date night, making it a kind of homecoming for nerds. All in all, my kind of people.

And of course, there was cosplay. One girl in particular did a spectacular job emulating FFVIII’s Sorceress Edea, and it seemed people were taking pictures of her from the minute she arrived until the show started.

Hot Edea

I was in the aisle seat of our section’s front row. Just before the show began, a door opened to our right, and in walked Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu, wearing a drapey black outfit and some flip-flop sandals (with socks). He had a couple toadies with him, each wearing a dark, fitted suit. Kathy figured they were probably dressed up as Turks.

Turks 182

The show itself was a blast. Starting things off with FFVII’s “Opening — Bombing Mission,” tour conductor Arnie Roth guided the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra through songs from each of the Final Fantasy games Uematsu has scored. Roth, a confessed fan of the series and its music, has been arranging and conducting Final Fantasy concerts for several years now, and he’s got the process down to a science. The performances were spot-on, and the pacing was perfect.

Overhead, three video screens displayed scenes from the various games. In one sequence, a battle scenario from FFVIII aired, as the orchestra played “Don’t Be Afraid,” the battle theme from that game. Another video featured a montage of chocobo footage, set to a swing version of the chocobo theme.

One of the best parts of these Final Fantasy concerts is the audience’s reaction. The shows are unlike any other symphony orchestra I’ve seen, in that the audience claps, cheers, and laughs at the beginning and end of every song–sometimes even during, when appropriate. This all cracks up members of the orchestra, who often turn to each other and laugh when the response is especially raucous.

The only time I was a little disappointed in the crowd was just prior to the performance of FFXI’s “Memoro de la Stono — Distant Worlds.” Before the song began, an attractive young soprano, who was set to solo, stepped to the front of the stage. Of course, some asshole had to wolf-whistle, and some other assholes had to laugh. Not a lot of people joined in, but it was enough to make things uncomfortable for a moment there. I apologize, Miss Soprano, on behalf of all of us.

For the most part, the setlist was an easy-to-predict greatest hits compilation, comprising classics that have been recorded and played live plenty of times before, like “Theme of Love” (IV), “Dear Friends” (V) “Aerith’s Theme” (VII), “Liberi Fatali” (VIII), “Vamo’ Alla Flamenco” (IX), “To Zanarkand” (X), a medley of songs from the first three games, and “Main Theme from Final Fantasy.” The first encore was “Terra’s Theme,” from FFVI. And there was no way the audience would have allowed the orchestra to get away without playing the closing number, FFVII’s “One-Winged Angel.”

The setlist also contained a couple of surprises, both pleasant ones.

Though “Fisherman’s Horizon” is one of my favorite songs from FFVIII, I never would have predicted it to make the cut for this tour. It’s not an essential theme for one of the series’ major characters or events. It’s just the background music for one of the towns you visit, midway through the game. That said, it’s damn good background music. The arrangement was a little bit different from the version on the Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinisec CD, but it sounded great.

The second surprise of the evening was the last song before the encore: FFVI’s “Opera — Maria and Draco.” Three vocalists sang (and acted out) their parts with hilariously exaggerated earnestness, as Super Nintendo graphics from the original scene played overhead. It was the first time I’d ever heard the piece sung by actual humans. Previously, I’d only experienced the in-game version:

For me, the night’s highlight was “Love Grows,” the instrumental version of FFVIII’s popular vocal theme, “Eyes On Me.” In contrast with “Fisherman’s Horizon,” this arrangement was pretty much identical to the Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec version.

In many ways, Final Fantasy VIII is the worst of the post-Nintendo FF titles. Its gameplay is a pain, the plot twist is idiotic, and the main character is a bit of a douche throughout the first half. And yet, I adore the game. I’m a sucker for the love story, and the opening and closing movies still give me chills.

The live performance of “Love Grows” was excellent, particularly the piano roll, which conductor Roth described as “difficult, like playing Liszt.” Combined with the video–which featured footage from the game’s ending and other key moments–the performance really got to me. Afterward, I punched the guy sitting behind me, just to feel like a man, again. It felt good.

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