Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy is a touring classical concert series featuring the music of Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu, and is performed by symphony orchestra, choir, and guest vocal and instrumental soloists under the direction of Grammy Award-winner and acclaimed conductor Arnie Roth.
Following the success of the 2002 Final Fantasy concert in Japan and subsequent national tour, music director and conductor Arnie Roth worked to bring Nobuo Uematsu's music to audiences around the world. In 2005 he launched Dear Friends, a U.S. concert series, and also worked with the Voices and Black Mages concerts in Japan. In 2007, Mr. Roth premiered Distant Worlds, an international tour launched in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the Final Fantasy game series. The first concert was performed in Stockholm, Sweden, and has since traveled across North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia with orchestras and soloists from each home city performing the work of the Final Fantasy composers under Roth's direction. In 2012, the Distant Worlds concert finally came to Boston, Massachusetts, with Mr. Roth conducting the talented Video Game Orchestra in a one-night sold out show at Boston's Symphony Hall.
As a fan of Uematsu's music, I had been hoping a Final Fantasy concert would come to Boston since the original 2002 concert was held in Japan. After a decade of waiting, I was excited to attend Distant Worlds, even more so after having a taste of what the experience would be like hearing the Video Game Orchestra perform several of Uematsu's works at Anime Boston 2010. We had fantastic seats at Symphony Hall where we could view both the full orchestra and choir onstage as well as the screen over the pipe organ which showed clips from the Final Fantasy games. The concert opened with The Prelude, which I’d never heard orchestrated before and was sung beautifully by the choir. The orchestra then ramped up with engaging renditions of Liberi Fatali and Don’t Be Afraid from Final Fantasy VIII, then changed the tone with a beautiful version of Zanarkand from Final Fantasy X. While these selections were very expected, I was surprised by two of my favorites from the PSX-era games: Fisherman’s Horizon from VIII and Vamo Alla’Flamenco from Final Fantasy IX. The first half wrapped with a medley of Chocobo Theme selections. After intermission, the orchestra delved into the classic repertoire from the older games, including Aeris’ Theme from Final Fantasy VII, Terra’s Theme and The Opera from Final Fantasy VI, and Dear Friends from Final Fantasy V. We were also treated to a rare selection: Dancing Mad from Final Fantasy VI. A full pipe organ is required to play it properly, and luckily Boston's Symphony Hall is home to a set of massive pipes. The rafters shook with this piece and it was thrilling to experience it live.
Sadly, the brilliance of Nobuo Uematsu's work only exemplified the weaknesses of the other Final Fantasy composers when the songs were played in concert. The most lackluster pieces were selections from Final Fantasy XIII, which was seemingly included only because its composer was in the audience. One selection's ending hung in the air so awkwardly that the audience wasn’t sure if the piece had ended until the conductor turned around and the piece was met with polite, half-hearted applause. I was also split over whether I liked the use of the video screen or not, which was at once entertaining and distracting. It worked best when the relationship between the footage and the music was abstract or when it matched the tone of the music well, such as during Liberi Fatali, Don't Be Afraid, Dancing Mad, and the Chocobo medley. However, sometimes the tone of the footage didn't match at all, with the screen displaying scenes of intense emotion or action during lulls in the music and relatively mundane footage during the crescendos. This was especially true during Zanarkand, which drove me so crazy it made it difficult to enjoy one of my favorite songs. At other times the footage was totally off-base; during Aeris’ Theme, a scene depicted Tifa being kidnapped and hauled off to Wallmarket to be offered up as a potential sex slave to Don Corneo. This pairing was so absurd it made me laugh out loud when I didn’t want to.
Despite the minor drawbacks, however, the concert was superb. At the close of the program after the expected standing ovation, conductor Arnie Roth returned on stage to lead the orchestra in an encore performance of One Winged Angel from Final Fantasy VII. As always this was a crowd pleaser, though most of us thankfully balked at the conductor's request that we shout “SEPHIROTH!” along with the choir. I appreciated the enthusiasm but most of the audience recognized the choir sounded a lot better saying "SEPHIROTH" than we did. However the song was lacking the rock element; having heard this same orchestra play this song at Anime Boston in 2010 when they WERE accompanied by a rock band (with Nobuo Uematsu HIMSELF on the keyboard rocking out), this version seemed second-rate without the guitars and drums. Overall, however, I still thought they did a great job and it was wonderful to finally experience some of my favorite music live. Before ending, conductor Roth apologized that it had taken so long for the concert to come to Boston, and I can only hope this means we will be a stop on more of these tours in the future.