zophar53's Blog

Posted on Jul 3rd 2018 at 08:00:00 AM by (zophar53)
Posted under Distant Worlds, Music from Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy, orchestra, symphony, events

Cleveland Play House's State Theater

Walking into the theater lobby, it was pretty obvious this was no ordinary stage performance. It wasn't quite the crowd one might see at a con, but it was close. Some were in cosplay, some were wearing tshirts proudly displaying their love of what we'd all come to see. Part of me felt a little overdressed, but thankfully, I wasn't the only one who'd dressed up for the event. I'd thought about trying my hand at some cosplay, but this was theater, and I'm of the mind that theater should typically be dressed up for. Besides, considering I don't have many instances in my day-to-day life when I have a reason to be all fancy-like, I tend to do so when an opportunity arises.

Started in 2007, Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy wasn't the first FF symphony performance to come together, but it's by far the longest running. And so, me and about 3400 other fans decended on the Cleveland Play House to watch conductor Arnie Roth take us on an orchestral journey through some of the most beloved music in all of gaming.





This wasn't my first time seeing Distant Worlds; I first saw it in 2012. There was no Cleveland date on that year's tour, so me and a friend roadtripped to Pittsburgh for the occasion. Not only was it a great performance, but I was actually able to get my hands on a press pass. This moved my seat up to just a few rows short of the stage and even got me backstage afterward to talk with Roth. I didn't do that this time, partially because I prefer to sit low on the upper deck for orchestra performances so I can actually see all the musicians. Sitting up front for a show like that means you can only see the first couple rows of artists.

Not getting a press pass ended up working out pretty well, since shortly after taking my seat (and pulling up Facebook for the obligatory event check-in), I noticed my friend Amanda was in attendance. Like me 6 years ago, her and a friend had driven in from Pittsburgh for the event and I didn't even know until we discovered our seats were literally right next to each other! Being one of those friend-of-a-friend-Facebook friendships, this and the Pittsburgh Distant Worlds show are actually the only times we've met in person, so it was a pretty neat coincidence.

"Where are you sitting?" "Row G center." "No kidding? Look to your left."

The performance started strong. The series hallmark Prelude eased us into things with a single harp, followed by the chorus providing an almost divine accompaniment, eventually being joined by soft strings and horns that gave it a regal quality. This is the song that started the whole series, and it's come a long way from the crunchy chip sounds the Famicom had to work with. It's a short, simple, yet beautiful piece of music, made even more so when you consider how much it's grown and come into its own.

Without more than a couple seconds for applause, Roth quickly transitioned into another fantastic opening, Liberi Fatali. Personally, I've always felt Final Fantasy VIII was underappreciated, but I think few fans would dispute that the game had at least a couple redeeming qualities. When I first saw the opening sequence Squaresoft showed of the follow-up to FFVII, I couldn't wait to get my hands on a copy. It was grand, exciting, and mysterious. I believe it's still a great opening sequence to this day, and seeing it performed by a full orchestra, it's a track that gives the chorus an opportunity to really shine.


After a brief break to introduce himself and the show, we were treated to something unique and special. Roth has been working directly with series composer Nobuo Uematsu since Distant Worlds was created, and 2017 marked the 30th anniversary of the FF franchise, so to mark the occassion they'd been working on some special compositions for this year's tour. The next song they played that night was a character medley from Final Fantasy VI. Even though I still for some heinous reason haven't played through this game in the series (blasphemy, I know), I'm familiar enough with the characters and their themes that it was still enjoyable to hear them and watch key moments of gameplay on the screen behind the musicians.

From there the first act began to highlight later games in the franchise, specifically XI, XIV, and XV. Although I'm not as familiar with and don't have the same emotional or nostalgic affection for them as I do for the older compositions, it was still affecting to hear beautiful tracks from these entries. Also, I'm familiar enough with Heavensward (and its game's incredible failure and rebirth) that I was able to appreciate it more than the others.

If you're not familiar with the story of FFXIV, check out the documentary Noclip did last year here. It's pretty extraordinary.

The other highlights of the first act for me were selections from Final Fantasy VII and IX. Cosmo Canyon is another song that takes full advantage of a large instrument set. Alas, I don't have the cultural or musical language to give it proper justice, but to this admittedly-ignorant and uncultured writer, the drums, bells, and other purcussive elements gave the oriental tone of this piece a richness you simply can't get any other way. Finally, Roses of May was a curious choice, in my opinion. It's not a song I immediately think of when I think of the adventures of Zidane, Steiner, and Vivi, but its gentle flow was one I was pleasantly surprised to hear, and invoked the grand medieval setting of Gaia well.

After the intermission, the second act focused mainly on fan-favorites from the PlayStation era of the franchise. With much applause, things began with the Opening: Bombing Mission from FFVII. It's a great track, to be sure, but what took us all by surprise was the fact that the screen behind the musicians didn't show the scenes we were all expecting. Instead, we got to watch the Final Fantasy VII Remake trailer from E3 2015. Judging from the response from the audience, fans are still clamoring for this game, even though there wasn't a peep about it from SquareEnix during E3 2018. After the song, Roth assured us all that yes, they are indeed working on it, but was quick to add that he doesn't know anything about its progress.

I didn't need a FFVII remake, but I gotta admit this trailer has me intrigued.

Even though there were lots of popular tunes in the latter half of the show, there was still the occasional surprise. The Oath from FFVIII was another one I hadn't heard a lot of until then, but it was a soothing reminder that the relationship between Squall and Rinoa was arguably one of the series' best. And in another medley composition, a huge smile was brought to my face hearing the evolution of the popular battle themes. Even though the earliest versions were orchestrated, the growing complexity of the rousing fight songs still came across powerfully.

Surprisingly, there was no Aerith's Theme played that night, but I was actually perfectly fine with that. For one thing, it's one of the most overplayed songs in the franchise (for good reason, to be clear). For another, in lieu of that, we were graced with the other memorable tear-jerker, To Zanarkand. Personally, this is my favorite piece from FFX, and ranks right up there with Aerith's Theme in terms of tugging on my heartstrings. It's a lovely song, and seeing it played live was incredibly moving.

The performance finished with the Main Theme of Final Fantasy. It was an appropriate close to such a show, especially being the 30th anniversary celebration tour, but no one in the audience was fooled that night. Roth himself had said earlier in the evening that certain songs are basically requirements for every performance, and they hadn't yet played THAT song. You know the one. The crowd-pleaser, the one that is synonymous with the villian with the preposterously-long sword. After the bows for himself and the musicians and making a show of leaving the stage, Roth came back out for an encore of the one everyone wanted, One-Winged Angel. After the thunderous applause that followed its introduction, Roth encouraged us to sing along. He didn't teach us the full Latin lyrics, but he instructed us on the proper enunciation and strong projection required for the most important one, "SEPH-I-ROTH!" Between the orchestra and the crowd participation, it was expectedly epic.


Overall, I enjoyed the show more than the first time. With the new additions to the track list, the unexpected but welcome company, and seats that allowed me a better view of the performers, it was a wonderful evening. I'm not sure if Roth or the musicians have ever actually played a Final Fantasy game, but seeing as he's worked on this show for so many years now, I'm sure he's managed to at least absorb some of the story cutscenes and emotional context from both the games and the fans who love them. And even if none of them have played the games, their appreciation of the material was and is clear and indisputable. Mass appreciation of game music has been a thing in Japan since the early days of the medium, but it's only caught on in the West in the last 5-10 years or so. Through the work of Roth and incredibly talented musicians with shows like Distant Worlds, Video Games Live, and The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddess, it's brought the more artful aspects of video games to the mainstream in some pretty incredible ways. I know there are people out there who appreciate this music in this setting and context despite not being gamers, and a large amount of game music is of such high quality now that if someone didn't know where it came from, they'd never guess.

If you haven't been to a live game music show before, I highly recommend seeking one out. I would even say it's worth a road trip, especially if you bring a friend or two. And if there aren't any shows in your vicinity, check out some YouTube videos. For the newer songs that were already orchestrated, it can give you a new appreciation, and for the older ones, you'll be able to hear your favorite tracks like you never have before.


I love a well-done gender-swap cosplay, and this lady-Vincent was awesome.



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Comments
 
That is very cool.  I couldn't find the Cleveland one live anywhere on Youtube, but I did find the New York one, and it was very enjoyable.
 
Great write-up, zophar! I'm kinda jealous. I didn't know Arnie Roth was doing video game music conducting. My familiarity with him is from his long time collaboration with Chip Davis and Mannheim Steamroller. I would have loved to be there for One-Winged Angel, and I suspect that would have been a very epic moment, as you said. I will have to check this out, and see if there's a possibility this might come closer to me next time the tour goes around.

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