Sunday 2 November 2014

Distant Worlds: music from Final Fantasy @ The Royal Albert Hall

It’s about time that video game music was taken seriously.  It’s come a long way over the past thirty years, from MIDI bleeps and bloops (an art form in itself) to sweeping orchestral scores that rival the best film soundtracks.  The last couple of years of Classic FM’s Hall Of Fame have included game scores, proving that not only are they hugely popular and have young people engaging with classical music, but they certainly stand up to scrutiny within classical music history.

If there’s any series that rises above the rest, it’s Final Fantasy.  Each game in the extensive series creates a distinct world with detailed lore and a score to match.  Composed by Nobuo Uematsu, his music has inspired the Distant Worlds series of concerts that sell out worldwide, under the musical direction of Arnie Roth (here performed by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra). 

With fourteen games in the core series (alongside a plethora of spin-offs), there’s hours of music for Roth and Uematsu to choose from, with the repertoire list changing for each concert.  Some favourites were of course missing from this concert at the Royal Albert Hall and some games were under-represented (where was Final Fantasy VIII’s ‘Waltz for the Moon’ and ‘Liberi Fatali’, the series ‘Prelude’, or anything from IV or XII?), but the first half offered a varied mix of tunes that encapsulated the differing styles of each game: the melancholic VII, the playful baroque IX, the spiritual X and the grandiose themes of the most recent XIV.

The concert opened with ‘Hymn of the Fayth’ from X – a haunting opener that featured singing from local choir London Voices.  Also from X, ‘Zanarkand’ was transformed from a piano ballad into a glorious orchestral piece.  Hearing the mostly electronic sounds from the games re-orchestrated breathed new life into the music (though an electric guitar wouldn’t go amiss), the techno ‘Battle & Victory Theme Medley’ especially.  Other highlights included ‘One-Winged Angel’ and ‘Main Theme’ from VII, ‘Dear Friends’ from V with brilliant live classical guitar and ‘Answers’ from XIV with stunningly powerful vocals from Susan Calloway.  Each piece was accompanied by game footage that brought back all sorts of memories (even if some, like the Don Corneo sex dungeon scene from VII, were a little inappropriate).

The second half was predominantly taken up by music from VI, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of its release.  By comparison to the first half it felt a little self-indulgent, though there were still plenty of magic moments, such as Uematsu himself joining Roth onstage to perform ‘Dark World’ from VI, as well as the hall’s pipe organ being put to good use on ‘Dancing Mad’ from the same game – a rare treat.  There were also a number of premieres for the concert series from IX – including ‘Rose of May’ and ‘Festival of the Hunt’.  Ending the night with the ‘Chocobo Theme’ was a welcome comic finale.

Alongside the music, Distant Worlds proved how passionate Final Fantasy fans are.  Uematsu was treated like a rock star with raucous cheers and shouts, the audience could be heard discussing the games and their childhoods before and after, and numerous cosplayers turned up in superbly detailed costumes.  Spotting the various characters amongst the crowd was half the fun of the evening (kudos to the Cid tribute who brought a mop along with him).

Of course, nostalgia plays a large part in the appeal of the concerts, but hearing the various themes performed by a full orchestra is a treat for any Final Fantasy fan.  More so, the concert proved the genius of Uematsu, one of the great composers of the day no matter what your interest in video games.

Now if you’ll excuse me kupo, I’m off to play the games all over again.  I could be some time.