A baby squirms in a harness attached to a white mage mother, who is holding hands with a black mage father. Lightning and Terra pose for pictures in the lobby. Plush chocobos dangle for sale and action figures line the table. As an intern said, “This isn’t the usual crowd the orchestra gets.” This scene, rote for video game conventions, unfolded as patrons awaited the beginning of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy.
The show is on an international tour with stops at Argentina, China and France. This second international tour of Distant Worlds was prompted by Final Fantasy’s 25th anniversary, and many songs were given new arrangements. Distant Worlds is a multi-media concert; while the orchestra performs a piece, a giant screen shows cutscenes from the matching game. This plays heavily on emotion and nostalgia for the fans.
Arnie Roth, a long-time conductor of video game and Final Fantasy concerts, helmed the show. Clearly as excited to be conducting as the audience was to be listening, Roth explained the selection of some pieces and shared a few behind-the-scenes anecdotes. While any Final Fantasy fan would hope that a conductor for Distant Worlds is familiar, if not entrenched, in the lore of the games, this is not necessarily a given. Roth proved that not only is he knowledgeable about the series, he may be as much a fan as the audience members who stood to applaud after every single song. He encouraged the audience to sing along, insisted the show start with the famous victory tune and added energy to the show.
The one performer singled out was the singer Susan Calloway, who came on stage for the vocals of select songs. A powerful singer, Calloway proved capable of delivering some demanding vocals. The only fault was the double-edged sword of her powerful voice. On the albums, the songs can be mixed so her voice and the orchestra are heard. Live, Calloway sometimes overpowers the orchestra.
And the orchestra was beautiful. The instruments were pitch perfect and the musicians seemed to be enjoying themselves. The new arrangements are amazing and the only way to listen to “One-Winged Angel” is feeling the strings vibrated in your chest. The show includes the highlights of Final Fantasy’s rich oeuvre of songs: “Zanarkand,” “Aerith’s Theme,” “Terra’s Theme” all get their due.
The only other complaint was the lack of a chorus. Roth encouraged the audience to provide the vocals, but audience participation is always a mixed-bag. But that absence was only an issue for “One-Winged Angel,” which was the encore number, so it was not a prevalent issue. Distant Worlds is an excellent concert that further demonstrates video games are a composite work of art. The music of Final Fantasy has always been a trademark of the franchise, and Distant Worlds is a celebration of the great works of its composers. Fans of Final Fantasy owe it to themselves to hear their favorite songs played by a live orchestra.