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Distant Worlds Double Concert (New York City) :: Report by Matt

Since my first exposure to Distant Worlds in July 2010 at Wolf Trap's beautiful outdoor Filene Center, I have been eager to hear the music of the Final Fantasy concert series performed in a more traditional orchestral venue. This weekend, I had the opportunity to do so, twice, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House. While scarcely a century old, this was a perfect venue for an orchestral concert and so it is understandable why so many fans of Distant Worlds — myself included — were excited. Performed on two successive nights, the set listings for each Distant Worlds performance in New York City were considerably different and each featured their own exclusives.

Set Listings - Friday April 1, 2011

- Prelude (FF)
- Liberi Fatali (FFVIII)
- Victory Fanfare (FF)
- Don't be Afraid (FFVIII)
- Memoro de la Stono - Distant Worlds (FFXI)
- Ronfaure (FFXI)
- Man with the Machine Gun (FFVIII)
- Suteki da ne (FFX)
- Swing de Chocobo (FF)
- Clash on the Big Bridge (FFV)
- Opening - Bombing Mission (FFVII)
- Fisherman's Horizon (FFVIII)
- Kiss me Goodbye (FFXII)
- To Zanarkand (FFX)
- The Promise (FFXIII)
- Blinded by Light (FFXIII)
- Navigator's Glory (FFXIV)
- Answers (FFXIV)
- Terra's Theme (FFVI)
- One-Winged Angel (FFVII)

Set Listings - Saturday April 1, 2011

- Opening - Bombing Mission (FFVII)
- Victory Fanfare (FF)
- To Zanarkand (FFX)
- Don't be Afraid (FFVIII)
- Melodies of Life (FFIX)
- Aerith's Theme (FFVII)
- Medley (FFI-III)
- Dear Friends (FFV)
- Vamo' alla Flamenco (FFIX)
- Swing de Chocobo (FF)
- Clash on the Big Bridge (FFV)
- Ronfaure (FFXI)
- Kiss me Goodbye (FFXII)
- Man with the Machine Gun (FFVIII)
- The Promise (FFXIII)
- Blinded by Light (FFXIII)
- Navigator's Glory (FFXIV)
- Twilight Over Thanalan (FFXIV)
- Opera "Maria and Draco"
- Terra's Theme
- One-Winged Angel

The audience on both nights was a good mix both casual and hardcore fans of the series. Many came dressed in expected New York theatre finery of somber suits and conservative dresses, while others came clad in jeans and their favorite gaming t-shirt (with my personal favorite being "Grand Theft Chocobo" seen on Friday night.) The juxtaposition of casual convention wear and strict formal attire was something that only a Distant Worlds concert in New York City could accomplish and, although Friday saw disappointingly little Cosplay from the audience, a few proud souls ventured into the opera house on Saturday dressed as Yuna, Squall, Edea, or Snow thus completing the Distant Worlds experience.

One interesting aspect of the setlists for the two nights was the lack of a choir for Saturday's performance. This allowed Friday's set to focus on more choral pieces featuring "Liberi Fatali", "Fisherman's Horizon", "Memoro de la Stono - Distant Worlds", and "JENOVA". The vocals, provided by The Riverside Choral Society under the direction of Rutgers University's Dr. Patrick Gardner, featured a broad range of performers including a handful of current Mason Gross students. When I caught up with Dr. Gardner briefly to inquire about his experiences with his first video game music concert, he jokingly responded that "I'm teaching them about Bach, and they're teaching me about Chocobos and Sephiroth!"

Saturday's show offered no supporting chorus and focused on more orchestral pieces such as "Dear Friends", "Vamo' alla Flamenco", the classic Final Fantasy medley. Nevertheless, "Opera - Maria and Draco" all but brought the house down with its three featured operatic soloists who maintained their professional poise but managed to crack a few smiles here or there as they adapted to a more relaxed setting than they are used to performing in. Roth's direction and the orchestra's performance supported them exceptionally and, when the two combined, the piece became a powerhouse performance of one of the most memorable scenes from the Final Fantasy franchise to date. While I grew up listening to the synthesized female vocals on Final Fantasy VI, mezzo-soprano Teresa Buchholz's commanding and clear voice was a very welcome addition to the piece.

Although this weekend marked the first performance of Distant Worlds in New York City, fans had two additional reasons to celebrate. Firstly, at the outset of this performance, Arnie Roth announced that Square Enix had officially extended the run of Distant Worlds for an additional three years. Secondly, and more immediately, the concert series at BAM would mark the North American premiere of arrangements from Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIV, and "Clash on the Big Bridge" from Final Fantasy V.

Judging from the audience reaction on both nights, the newly premiered arrangements will no trouble finding fans in the United States, or the rest of the world. The offerings from Final Fantasy XIII, composed by Masashi Hamauzu, both drew excited reactions from the crowd who cheered in response to Arnie Roth's asking if there were "any fans of 13" in attendance. "The Promise - Fabula Nova Crystallis" was a beautiful, ethereal piece featuring a brilliant piano soloist and a terrific unified performance by the string section; that is no small praise, considering the ensemble for New York's performances was a pastiche of freelancers and not a founded orchestra. Adding to the tenderness of the piece were beautiful visuals from the game on the large screen above the orchestral stage, which I caught more than one musician transfixed with during their rests between measures. "Blinded by Light", a brilliant and percussion-driven action track which featured a strong showing by the brass section, served as a perfect counterpoint to the preceding arrangement from Final Fantasy XIII.

The North American premiere of music from Final Fantasy XIV was split between the two nights with "Navigator's Glory" being performed on both... with good reason. Opening with a swirling woodwind fanfare before establishing itself as a strident, brass-heavy march supported by a wonderful percussion section, "Navigator's Glory" is set to become one of the most popular songs from the budding MMORPG for its classical feel. "Twilight over Thanalan" was premiered on Saturday and was certainly the more subtle of the two pieces, offering terrific string swells and featuring an impeccable solo by the lead violinist and pianist; it moved with a steady flow and never once felt as sleepy as the title might suggest. The in-game cinematics which accompanied the two pieces served as the most glowing endorsement for the game to date when displayed with the orchestral arrangement of their music.

Friday night saw the North American Premiere of Final Fantasy XIV's main theme "Answers", an epic antiphon featuring talented soloist Susan Calloway. "Answers" began softly, with a great blend of male vocals opening the song in the style of a dirge before Calloway's soaring voice, with excellent support from of the orchestra, answers in response. The two play off one another, building to an incredible auditory climax before Calloway ends the piece with a soft, almost apologetic, solo. The song plays like a fantasy version of Stairway to Heaven and will likely occupy a similar iconic spot in the annals of video game music once it gains a little more exposure.

The final piece to have its North American premiere was "Clash on the Big Bridge", which has the potential to be the most challenging, and exciting, arrangement offered by Distant Worlds at any of its performances. The punishingly fast tempo, soaring violin runs, staccato brass (and chorus, when applicable) hits, and excellently timed percussion accents will make this piece a crowd favorite in the future. Both performances in New York were, unfortunately, a bit off due to muddy low brass which seemed to struggle to keep up with the more unified string section and failed to establish the main theme clearly. This was no fault of the composition — it should be noted — which will likely outshine other crowd favorites in the performances ahead.

Several traditional standards of the Distant Worlds catalog were heard on both nights and were no less enjoyable when heard the second time around. "Ronfaure" was as polished and evocative as it has ever been and Roth's proficiency at directing the intricate arrangement shows. The in-game graphics from Final Fantasy XI's opening full motion video are beginning to show their age, but when paired with the flawless musical performance of "Ronfaure" I briefly toyed with the idea of reactivating my subscription for the MMORPG. "To Zanarkand" held the audience in rapt attention with its subtle dynamics, exceptional piano solos, and powerful swells. As I looked about the audience members near me on Saturday night to identify the source of an annoying sniffle, I saw one young woman wipe a tear from her cheek as she watched the Yuna perform The Sending on the screen. That moment of pure emotional release is something few other video game concerts could ever hope to accomplish.

But in addition to tears, there was plenty of cheering and laughter on both nights. Final Fantasy VIII was represented strongly with "Don't be Afraid" and "Man with the Machine Gun" performed wonderfully, both drawing tremendous reactions from the audience with their driving tempos and shining performances by the violin section. Many critics have dismissed the title as the least popular in the franchise, but one would never know that from the reactions of the audience on both nights. The barking dog at the beginning of "Don't be Afraid" always draws a consistent laugh from the audience, and on Friday a handful of musicians joined in as well. These laughs ended as soon as the arrangement began and the urgency of the famous theme was established. While one of the most difficult arrangements present on the Distant Worlds program, the musicians at BAM made it sound easy.

Susan Calloway, present for both nights, loaned her sultry, smoky vocals to Final Fantasy XII's "Kiss me Goodbye" and delivered an emotionally charged performance with the help of the supporting piano soloist and the orchestra's string section. Her smooth, languid movements behind the microphone matched the silken feel of her voice perfectly and added a human element to the beautiful, high-fantasy visuals from the title. Although the game itself is something of a departure for the franchise, this arrangement — which highlights the range of her Calloway's powerful voice — is a tremendous addition to the Distant Worlds catalog and is an absolute joy to listen to.

Two classics from the Distant Worlds catalog were revised for the Returning Home concert in Japan and saw the US premiere of their updated versions in New York as well. "Swing de Chocobo" opens with a new rendition of the chocobo theme from Final Fantasy XIV with a distinctly western, Magnificent Seven feel. The arrival of the more familiar portion is announced by the customary floor tom introduction that sets up the big band mood handily. The classic medley was the other piece to be updated, with the redundant chocobo theme removed entirely, and the main theme ("Opening Theme") of Final Fantasy added in its place. The inclusion of this series-defining theme is a welcome one, and its building intensity makes a much smoother transition into the trombone-driven "Rebel Army" theme the medley's conclusion.

By far the most enjoyable moment of the concert weekend came during the encore performance of the customary closer "One-Winged Angel" on Saturday. With no chorus to provide the familiar vocals, Roth and Uematsu transformed the audience into the choir by adding karaoke-style phonetic lyrics at the bottom of the video screen. As Roth conducted, Uematsu cavorted across the stage singing along with the audience and encouraging them to belt out the lyrics as best as they were able to. Friday night's encore performance was incredibly powerful thanks to tremendous vocals of The Riverside Choral Society but the staggering amount of fun and raw energy that Saturday night's audacious approach to "One-Winged Angel" created will be an experience that will stay with me, and those in attendance, for a long time.

With so many arrangements being added, revised, and reprised at each performance, casual and hardcore fan of videogame music alike should make every effort to see Distant Worlds live to experience all of the smiles, laughter, tears, and memories evoked by Nobuo Uematsu's music and Arnie Roth's skillful direction. With upcoming US performances in Atlanta (5/6 & 5/7), Chicago (6/26), Houston (7/16), and Baltimore (7/30), you will have ample opportunities to do so.