Distant Worlds II - More Music from Final Fantasy (Stockholm, June 2010): Concert Report
On Saturday June 12, 2010, I had the pleasure of attending the premiere of Distant Worlds II - More Music from Final Fantasy at the world famous Stockholm Konserthuset. Performed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Arnie Roth, the concert aimed to be the most definitive symphonic commemoration of Final Fantasy to date. The three hour program featured numerous Europe exclusives and world exclusives, along with a range of fan favourites featured earlier in the Distant Worlds tour. While not a completely novel concert, it was still a fitting and special way to commemorate the world release of the new album release for the tour. The album release itself proved quite disappointing for a number of reasons — lack of exclusive material, a flawed centrepiece, and some dubious solo performances — and proved more of a supplement than a definitive release. While still lacking true exclusives, the actual concert proved a much more extensive and rounded overall, capturing a rich tapestry of emotions and melodies from the beloved series and offering a few surprises too.
After a morning of no sleep at Stansted Airport, I arrived at Stockholm at 9 AM on the Saturday morning and immediately headed to a series of interview sessions. It was wonderful to take a sneak peak at Benyamin Nuss Plays Uematsu alongside the master pianist himself. It was also a joy to reminisce about 10 Short Stories with Nobuo Uematsu and Hiroki Ogawa with the help of my friends Thomas and Kanako Boecker. It was also enjoyable to reunite with Johan of Spelmusik and Kamil of GameMusic.net, since our experiences together at Symphonic Fantasies, not to mention meet some more of the people behind Distant Worlds and the Stockholm Konserthuset. Prior to the main concert, there was a range of pre-concert events, dubbed 'An Afternoon with Final Fantasy'. This included a lecture about the history of game music from college lecturer David Westerlund (creator of Castlevania - The Concert). There were also some rocking performances by fan arrangement band Monkey Kong, as well as some gorgeous solo performances from the Final Fantasy Piano Collections and Final Fantasy Vocal Collections. It appears this pre-show event was a huge success and generated much interest and enthusiasm from attendees. Among those that attended were Arnie Roth and Nobuo Uematsu and, though neither could obviously understand the Swedish content, they were likely impressed by the enthusiasm of the performers and guests alike.
Distant Worlds II itself begun at 7:30 to a packed audience in the main hall. The opening rendition of the VOICES' arrangement of "Prelude" was even more stunning than the studio version. The harp arpeggios in the introductory segment sounded exquisite thanks to Laura Stephenson's sensitive performance and the mixed chorus beautifully joined them. As the arrangement developed, slightly thicker orchestral elements entered and gave a sense of the epic journey about to unfold. Nevertheless, a sense of fragility and mysticism was maintained throughout. The subsequent performance, Final Fantasy VIII's "Liberi Fatali", was simply awe-inspiring. The angelic-looking chorus turned devilish with their foreboding chants of "Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec". Soon enough, the ferocious string section dominated, driven at a rapid pace by the energetic Arnie Roth. The experience of hearing this track live is so much more enthralling and affecting than hearing the recording from the game and the soundtrack release. It is usually a cliché to describe something as 'spine chilling', but in this case I did actually get shivers down my spine. After glorious applause, the MC Arnie Roth gave the first of several charismatic speeches of the night and, soon enough, made attendees cry with "To Zanarkand" and quiver with "Don't Be Afraid".
The videography was a highlight of Distant Worlds II right from the first two items all the way to the conclusion. It's been some time since I've played the PlayStation era Final Fantasy games, but the video projections reminded me that I liked them not just for their captivating gameplay, but also their artistic design. It's truly amazing how much intricacy was put into the cinematic sequences of these games — whether Final Fantasy VIII's breathtaking opening, Final Fantasy VII's apocalyptic ending, or the perplexingly endearing depiction of Viva in Final Fantasy IX. Perhaps the most emotional was the portrayal of Yuna's sending and Tidus' fate during the videos accompanying Final Fantasy X's "To Zanarkand" and "Suteki da ne". Video director Chris Szuberla really succeeded in capturing the themes of this game and Shiro Hamaguchi's gushing romantic arrangements were a perfect musical complement. There were also a few surprises too. The baby chocobos from Final Fantasy XIII were portrayed during the extended muted trumpet solo on "Swing de Chocobo" to much comedic effect. Perhaps less successful was the incorporation of frenzied scenes from Dissidia: Final Fantasy during "Dancing Mad" and the sudden cut offs of the Final Fantasy XIV trailer. However, these comments are mere niggles about an otherwise artistically accomplished show.
There were nevertheless limitations in the arrangements and performances that weren't fully resolved here. The emphasis on the trap set and snare drums in interpretations such as "J-E-N-O-V-A" and "The Man with the Machine Gun" largely felt superficial amidst the more intricate symphonic arrangements. Likewise, the trumpet section sounded overly blaring on most of the action arrangements or "Prima Vista Orchestra", a quality that seems to betray Nobuo Uematsu's original intentions. The weakest entry to the Distant Worlds II album, "Dancing Mad", was considerably improved in its live rendition at the end of the first half. This was because the focus remained on orchestra, chorus, and solo organ throughout, unlike the studio version which abruptly introduced a rock component. However, the soloist Oskar Ekberg still really struggled with the complex passagework of the arrangement, resulting in numerous tempo changes and cringe-worthy misplaced chords. Every organist who has played this track live seems to struggle, including Nobuo Uematsu himself on The Black Mages Live, indicating the problem lies with the organ writing not being appropriate for performers in the first place. If this arrangement is going to be performed live in the future, it is imperative that the arrangement is modified to make it more accessible to the solo organist.
Thankfully, the other soloists proved delightful to the audience. The guitarist Per Skareng won the hearts of audiences with his successive renditions of "Dear Friends" and "Vamo' Alla Flamenco". Skareng's performance beautifully resonated with the the various transient woodwind passages on the Final Fantasy V arrangement; it was fascinating how the arrangement often grows more improvisatory and expressive, while still retaining an air of subtlety and continually referencing the minimalistic central motif. Listeners of the original Distant Worlds album should already be familiar with his passionate flamenco rendition of the Final Fantasy IX piece, though there is still something breathtaking about hearing it performed live. The solo vocalist of the evening, Jennie Abrahamson, offered more subtle performances than what Susan Calloway did on the Distant Worlds II. While I remain unconvinced she was a suitable vocalist for "Melodies of Life", both the fans and the conductor seemed to love her. More appealing was her rendition of "Suteki da ne", set to mostly English lyrics. Between the lyrics and performance, the Okaniwan flavour of the original was certainly lost, but the vocals certainly complemented the elegant balladic orchestration. The final result is an entire re-imagining, not just a different performance.
The conclusion of the concert proved popular with fans. Two pieces from Masashi Hamauzu's Final Fantasy XIII soundtrack were performed live for the first time, "The Promise" and "Fang's Theme". While these renditions were essentially identical to their original versions, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic were still able to capture the restrained melancholic feel of the former and the dazzling impressionist qualities of the latter in the live setting. There were also renditions of two tracks from Nobuo Uematsu's Final Fantasy XIV soundtrack, namely the mystical "Twilight Over Thanalan" and the action-packed "Beneath Blood Banners", both of which were short yet promising. The last official item was "Terra's Theme", one of the bonus additions to the Distant Worlds II album, and much nostalgia was created by the way the credits rolled for the concert in conjunction with the Final Fantasy VI's opening scene set in the snowfields. However, almost inevitably "One Winged Angel" followed as an encore. A reviewer at another site recently accused me of being out-of-touch with the needs of fans by suggesting that "One Winged Angel" remains a part of the show's program. However, the amount of cheering, clapping, and stamping caused by the testified otherwise. Personally, I have never cared for Shiro Hamaguchi's arrangement of this track, but I even managed to enjoy this performance, in part due to the hilarious inclusion of Nobuo Uematsu (flowers in hand) in the choir.
Overall, Distant Worlds II - More Music from Final Fantasy was a very satisfying concert to attend. The majority of the issues that were problematic on the Distant Worlds II album were resolved in the live setting. The orchestra were clearly well-rehearsed and passionate about the music played, the arrangements were as gorgeous and captivating as ever, and the video projections added to the emotion and atmosphere. In addition, when featured alongside the core familiar items in the tour, the new items were able to mostly fit in to the program elegantly; the concert felt like a definitive tribute of orchestral Final Fantasy music, rather than a collection of B-sides. Some more exclusive arrangements would be a very welcome addition to the Distant Worlds tour, though it's fully clear from the reception of even well-played tracks like "One Winged Angel" that the majority haven't become exhausted on the general audience. Overall, I had a wonderful experience at the Stockholm Konserthuset and it was clear that all the fans shared the same enthusiasm. Distant Worlds is a must-attend event for any fan of Final Fantasy and its music.