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Distant Worlds performs music of Final Fantasy

Cecil Harvey from FFIV was featured during "Theme of Love." (credit: Courtesy of Square Enix) Cecil Harvey from FFIV was featured during "Theme of Love." (credit: Courtesy of Square Enix) Yuna, one of the protagonists from FFX, performed a sending for the souls of the dead during "Zanarkand." (credit: Courtesy of Square Enix) Yuna, one of the protagonists from FFX, performed a sending for the souls of the dead during "Zanarkand." (credit: Courtesy of Square Enix) Cecil Harvey and Rosa Farrell from FFIV were featured during "Theme of Love." (credit: Courtesy of Square Enix) Cecil Harvey and Rosa Farrell from FFIV were featured during "Theme of Love." (credit: Courtesy of Square Enix)

The Distant Worlds Philharmonic Orchestra presented its Final Fantasy concert this past Saturday, where it was received by a crowd of hundreds at the Benedum Center downtown. “It’s because of you, the fans, that we are here,” said conductor Arnie Roth as he took the stage — and looking around, that was certainly true.

The Final Fantasy series of video games has its own cult-like fan following. The crowd was rife with everything from cosplayers dressed up as main characters from the series to fans in evening wear, ready for the symphony.

This symphony was a little different from others of its kind. The games are known as much for their narrative as their music, composed by Nobuo Uematsu. Each Final Fantasy title introduces a new and separate world, featuring a full cast of characters and epic plots. The games are always magical, a little over-the-top, and charming in their treatment of the fantasy genre. On Saturday, a tall projector screen served as a background to the orchestra, and during each song, an accompanying mélange of cut-scenes from the games played on the screen, sometimes perfectly synchronized with the music.

But even more wonderful was the way in which the visuals paid homage to the music, and vice versa. The orchestra got into stride with “Don’t Be Afraid” from Final Fantasy VIII; meanwhile, a large mechanical war machine chased the game’s protagonists through a battle-torn city, down to where a ship waited to take them home.

Next was a medley of themes from I, II, and III, which are considered some of the most famous pieces of Uematsu’s repertoire. Fans got teary-eyed hearing the nostalgic pieces, which have callbacks throughout many pieces in later Final Fantasy games.

From there, vocalist Susan Calloway took the stage for “Eyes on Me.” Calloway is best known for her work on the theme from FFXIV, the most recent Final Fantasy MMORPG. Uematsu has specifically requested her vocal talents in the past, and it was easy to see why. She handled the piece with more finesse than even the original singer, Faye Wong; meanwhile, the audience was treated to an homage of Final Fantasy characters Squall Leonhart and Rinoa Heartilly’s budding romance. The couple is a major focus of FFVIII’s conflict, and the choice of this romantic piece was definitely a nod toward that.

From there, the first half of the concert was a blur of beautiful scenes and heartfelt moments; during “Blinded by Light,” the audience witnessed Final Fantasy characters Lightning and Sazh sneaking onto a train into the city, from FFXIII; in “Dear Friends” and “Vamo’ alla Flamenco,” guitarist Shota Nakama played, accompanied by violins. The first of these, “Dear Friends,” was interrupted by a bit of mic feedback, but the rest of the pieces progressed smoothly, and Nakama seemed able to recover well from sound issues.

“Chocobo Medley” had the audience cracking up, as the visuals paid tribute to the lovable yellow birds. Chocobos are a method of transportation in the Final Fantasy series; much like large avian horses, characters can ride and train them. The goofy-looking birds got the spotlight during this piece, and it was definitely the most lighthearted arrangement in the show.

The second half of the show had some of the most moving scenes in Final Fantasy history. “The Man with the Machine Gun” followed the character Laguna Loire in his military forays with his comrades. “Zanarkand” allowed the audience a quiet moment as Yuna, the esteemed summoner from FFX, performed a ceremony to pass on the souls of villagers killed at the hands of a vengeful deity. Men and women wept around her, as coffins floated silently on the water’s surface. “Aerith’s Theme” displayed perhaps the most famous scene of all: As the character Aerith kneels quietly in prayer, she is struck down from behind by the villain Sephiroth as Cloud Strife helplessly watches.

The music really hit its stride during “Maria and Draco,” an operatic piece from FFVI. Three soloists took the stage: Tami Fire as soprano, Juan de Leon as tenor, and Kyle Oliver as bass. These three vocalists brought life to a piece which originally wasn’t vocalized at all — the original game has only lyric text overlaid during the melody. The reinterpretation of the original piece brought wild screams and cheers from the audience. And “Terra’s Theme” served as the penultimate climax of the concert — a classic favorite for fans of the earlier games.

Roth re-emerged from backstage to perform an encore following a standing ovation from the audience: “One Winged Angel.” With original lyrics in Latin, the piece is difficult even for a full chorus to sing in sync, but somehow Roth managed to rally the audience. “I said there’d be work involved,” he told the crowd with a smile, directing participants to sing “SE-PHI-ROTH!” at the correct pitch and timing.

Overall, the show was a respectful and well-executed nod to a series that has shattered many walls in the video game medium. Roth hinted at the possibility of a 25th-anniversary tour in the near future, so it’s possible that there may be a tour returning to the city soon.