For the first time since 2005, Atlanta hosted an event featuring the music that has helped to turn the Final Fantasy series into one of the most popular video game franchises in the world. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy, an internationally renowned concert featuring songs from the famous video game series, on May 6-7 at Atlanta Symphony Hall.
The night was certainly not lacking for star power. Arnie Roth, the primary conductor for the Distant Worlds concert series, was on hand to lead the ASO; notably, Roth also conducted Dear Friends, an older Final Fantasy-themed concert series, when the ASO performed it in Atlanta in June 2005. Additionally, Nobuo Uematsu, the primary composer for the first 11 Final Fantasy games as well as the upcoming Final Fantasy XIV, was in attendance.
Entry was expensive—ticket prices ranged from $40-$150, considerably higher than most ASO concerts—but everyone in attendance was treated to a highly memorable experience that showcased a wide range of music from the Final Fantasy series.
Roth and the ASO led off the show with “Liberi Fatali,” the opening theme of Final Fantasy VIII. The ASO’s version was almost identical to the original in-game piece in most respects; the occasional half-step alteration was noticeable but did not detract from the quality of the music at all. The Georgia Tech Chamber Choir was brought on to perform the choral parts and did a superb job handling the vocals, which form the primary focus of the piece with the instrumentals serving mainly as accompaniments. Really, from start to finish—through the gradual buildup, the furious final stretch and the soft piano note at the end—it was a strong performance to kick off the evening.
The opening song also highlighted a key aspect of the Distant Worlds experience: the concert was intended to highlight both the aural and visual aspects of the Final Fantasy series, and to this end images from the games were projected on screens above the stage during each song. Thus, the music of “Liberi Fatali” was accompanied by several memorable scenes from FFVIII, including the train mission and the missile attack on Balamb Garden.
The orchestra followed up the opener with “Don’t Be Afraid,” the regular battle theme of FFVIII. The violins and brass instruments complemented each other nicely to perform the steady-paced melody, but it was the creative addition of prominent timpani play at several points that set this version of the song apart. With scenes from throughout FFVIII’s Dollet mission playing overhead, this truly was one of the more impressive songs of the evening.
Although the majority of the music was from the more recent Final Fantasy games, the concert did feature a medley from the first three games of the series. It began with a rendition of the original Final Fantasy’s “Prelude” in D major, and the gentle harp music gradually morphed into a woodwind-led performance of FFI’s main theme. Among other songs, the main theme of the Final Fantasy series and “Rebel’s Army”—a strong military march from Final Fantasy II—were featured prominently, and overall the medley provided a nice mix of sounds and tempos as it paid homage to the earliest installments of the series amid a backdrop of both scenes from the original NES games and high-quality CGI scenes based on scenes from FFI.
Among the other highlights leading up to the intermission were “To Zanarkand” from Final Fantasy X, a beautiful piano piece that was converted into a stunning orchestral arrangement that began with a piano solo and later featured melodies led by the strings and woodwinds. “Vamo’ Alla Flamenco” of Final Fantasy IX offered a steady, happy theme that switched between A melodic minor and A major and built up to a fast and powerful ending.
One of the few songs that suffered in its new arrangement was “JENOVA” from FFVII. What was an eerie, even creepy piece in its original form suddenly featured a very prominent drum part that dramatically changed the nature of the song, reducing the chilling effect that the song naturally produces.
This is not to say the song cannot be transformed in that sense; the Black Mages, a small band led by Uematsu that produces rock-themed versions of Final Fantasy songs, successfully composed a more rock-styled version of JENOVA—but even for them the drum was far less prominent. It may have been a simple matter of being unable to achieve the same balance in a massive concert hall, but the Distant Worlds rendition of JENOVA ended up as an odd cross between a chilling theme and a rock song that failed to achieve a strong identity as either one.
Following the fun and fast-paced “The Man with the Machine Gun” from FFVIII, the ASO went to a brief intermission, and upon starting up afterward Roth and the orchestra opened with a familiar theme for many: the music from the opening sequence of FFVII, featuring the song “Bombing Mission.” The key change here was that the low-pitched accompaniment of “Bombing Mission” was either muted or nonexistent for much of the song, resulting in a more orchestral piece that felt much slower-paced; however, the new arrangement featured the horns prominently and powerfully, and while the nature of the song changed somewhat, it was still an impressive piece.
“Fisherman’s Horizon” from FFVIII was up next, and a simple, relatively relaxed song in its original form turned into an absolute work of art when played by the full orchestra. The first half of the song was soft and sweet, with the strings, woodwinds and chorus combining to produce a very melodic theme; as time went on, the song evolved from a sweet melody to produce a strong and majestic stretch before returning to its roots for a soft, touching finish.
Two songs from the most recent game, Final Fantasy XIII, followed and presented a nice microcosm of the range of musical styles that power the Final Fantasy series. “Fabula Nova Crystallis” offered a beautiful string-driven love song amid the backdrop of a romantic scene from the game, while “Blinded by Light” was a powerful, brisk march powered by the brass instruments and played amid a series of action and battle scenes.
Afterward, the audience was treated to “Navigator’s Glory,” a song from the upcoming Final Fantasy XIV. The slow, hopeful-sounding song displayed is versatility as it served as a backdrop for scenes from the not-yet-released game, which played overhead and featured a tavern meeting and a battle with a Malboro, a monster that has appeared throughout the series.
The most fun song of the night was easily “Chocobo Medley.” With scenes of the yellow birdlike critters from throughout the Final Fantasy series appearing on the overhead screen, the music first touched on a light rock-themed version of the popular Chocobo theme and then brought a jazz-themed twist to one of the happiest songs in the series. The jazzy version was, without a doubt, one of the coolest themes of the night.
The Chocobo theme, arguably the happiest song of the series, was followed up by the music from one of the most dramatic scenes in the Final Fantasy mythos: the opera theme from Final Fantasy VI. With three professional opera singers on hand to play the parts of the three characters from the scene—Princess Maria, the heroic Prince Draco and the evil Prince Ralse—the ASO launched into a 12-minute rendition of the FFVI opera that featured just about everything, from the beautiful theme played during Maria’s solo to a slow version of the race-against-the-clock song from the scramble to save Celes, the warrior-turned-actress playing Maria. The lyrics for each of the singers were changed dramatically, but the song was nevertheless a highlight of the evening.
The show appeared to conclude with a D-minor version of “Searching for Friends,” the post-apocalyptic world map theme from FFVI, as the screen featured the credits scene from the game with a clever twist: the names of those involved with the ASO production replaced the traditional game credits.
However, all was not over quite yet. Roth invited Uematsu onto the stage after the song concluded, and after a brief and amusing conversation he revealed that the ASO had one final act planned: “One Winged Angel,” the powerful theme song of Sephiroth, the villain of FFVII.
“One Winged Angel” was and is arguably the most popular song in the entire series, and for good reason: the Distant Worlds rendition draws from the entire orchestra to produce an absolutely frightening introduction, and the chilling nature of the song does not decrease at any point from start to finish. It is a song that is impressive regardless of the manner in which it is heard, but to hear it performed live by a symphony orchestra is to hear something simply transcendent. It was a dramatic finish to an evening of music that ranged from beautiful to powerful to simply scary; it was, in short, the end of a masterful concert that quite literally featured something for everyone.