For several years now the Distant Worlds concert series has been recreating the music of the Final Fantasy series in the form of stunning orchestral rearrangements, but to celebrate this year’s 25th anniversary of the series, they’ve decided to do something a little special. The Celebration is a special, limited run program featuring music from all 14 mainline Final Fantasy games. It’s so limited in fact, that there are only going to be five performances, one each in London, Chicago, and Osaka, and two in Tokyo. I was lucky enough to snag tickets to the London performance alongside a few friends, so here’s what we got to experience back on the November 2nd.
The London performance was held in the Royal Albert Hall, a huge, vaguely coliseum shaped Victorian concert hall that seats around 5000 people. My friend who booked the tickets had been quick enough to snag some of the best seats in the house, so we had an excellent view of the Royal Philarmonic Orchestra, Britain’s finest orchestra who were performing the music. The queues outside were heaving, filled with all sorts of people, with outfits ranging from black tie to Chocobo cosplay. Personally I felt those who showed up in costume were being a little silly – it’s a classical orchestral concert, not an anime convention – but maybe I’m just old. In any case, the audience behaved impeccably throughout, with an atmosphere a bit more rowdy than a ‘proper’ performance would have been, but still respectful of the music and musicians.
Even before the concert started we were in for a surprise, as conductor and orchestrator Arnie Roth (who was an excellent MC all night long, having great chemistry with the crowd and clearly a big fan) introduced the dignitaries. We’d already known beforehand that Final Fantasy’s musical godfather Nobuo Uematsu would be there, alongside FFXIII composer Masashi Hamauzu. What we didn’t expect was a surprise visit from series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, who got one of the biggest cheers of the evening when he was introduced.
Unlike previous Distant Worlds concerts, this one for the most part was strictly chronological and aimed to showcase a piece from every single one of the numbered games. After all 14 had been covered the orchestra played a selection of favourites and new arrangements to close the concert out. Each piece had an accompanying video presentation shown on the big screen above the orchestra, which mixed art, gameplay footage and cutscenes. I’ve linked various videos of the performances, but bear in mind since they’re all amateur handicam stuff the quality isn’t great, especially on the vocal tracks. It’s just to give you a taste of what it was like, and obviously all the videos belong to their respective uploaders.
The music began with a performance of the series’ famous ‘Prelude’ opening theme as a video comprising a brief potted history of the series ran. It’s a simple but beautiful tune, and hearing it live really got you into the mood for what was to follow.
“Medley 2012” (Final Fantasy I, II, III)
It’s a little odd that you’d choose to start with a medley, but it also sort of makes sense. There’s not really a standout, iconic tune from any of these first three games in the series, and even superfans would be hard pressed to argue they’re classics by modern standards. Instead, this medley gave the orchestra a chance to hop between styles and get the audience used to the kind of stuff they’d be hearing. A different medley of these three games was in the original Distant Worlds setlist, hence the ‘2012’ in the title.
“Battle with the Four Fiends” (Final Fantasy IV)
Big cheers for this, a stone cold classic being performed for the first time as part of a Distant Worlds concert. The addition of full orchestra, especially of a booming brass and percussion section, really adds a lot to this one, giving it huge amounts of punch and drama you just couldn’t get out of 16-bit console.
“Main Theme” (Final Fantasy V)
After the very heavy, intense previous number this was a slight relief in terms of being lighter, more upbeat and more traditionally ‘epic’. In terms of sheer recognition, “Dear Friends’ would probably have been the obvious choice from V but having already been performed as part of the original Distant Worlds setlist this was a fine alternative.
“Phantom Forest” (Final Fantasy VI)
Again, perhaps not the most obvious choice, but given that VI was one of the privileged few games to get two songs in the show there’s room for a little unconventionality. It certainly inspired a superb performance, as some great woodwind work embellished a song both beautiful and haunting.
“One Winged Angel” (Final Fantasy VII)
The most predictable choice in the history of predictable choices, and boy did Arnie Roth know it, teasing the audience to guess the tune, before coaxing them into playing singalong with the famous ‘Sephiroth!’ chorus. They actually even threw the lyrics onto the video display for those who wanted to sing along with the Latin but for the most part we were content to sit and listen to the superb choral performance. The song might have become something of a cliché, but it’s still a damn good tune.
“Don’t Be Afraid” (Final Fantasy VIII)
An amusing little snippet from the game was the lead in to one of the series finest battle themes, given a superb rendition that rendered its driving strings and parping trumpets into a full-blown wall of sound.
“Not Alone” (Final Fantasy IX)
The obvious choice, but no less stirring for it as this gorgeous ballad represents the crowning achievement of one of the most underrated Final Fantasy games of modern times.
“To Zanarkand” (Final Fantasy X)
The incredible, iconic theme from my favourite of all of the Final Fantasy games, this was one of my personal highlights of the evening. As we move into the PS2 era the music begins to increasingly resemble the versions from the game, but that didn’t make this wonderful sweeping orchestration any less of a joy.
An unexpected delight to end the first half of the performance, this was, as the name suggest, a medley of various Chocobo-related music from all across the series, pepped up by some delightful video selections that interplayed with the performance of the choir. While the medley had been performed before, this was a brand new arrangement.
After this there was a 15 minute interval where you could be crushed alive trying to buy merchandise in the lobby, or opt for an incredibly overpriced drink. So standard concert fare then.
“Procession of Heroes~Vana’diel March Medley” (Final Fantasy XI Online)
Quite a low-key but upbeat opening to the second half of the show, this new medley was a world premiere, having never been performed before.
“The Dalmasca Estersand” (Final Fantasy XII)
Kind of an odd selection here, as I would have easily picked “Kiss Me Good-bye” (Uematsu’s only contribution to XII) as the standout track, but it was a much more exciting track than I remembered and in retrospect was probably a fine choice, especially since we had several big vocal performances to come.
“Blinded By Light” (Final Fantasy XIII)
A great track, powerful, punchy and perfectly suited for a live concert like this. Whatever issues people may have had with XIII, few could deny it still possessed an amazing set of tunes.
“Answers” feat. Susan Calloway (Final Fantasy XIV Online: A Realm Reborn)
There was no mention of Final Fantasy XIV at the event without the forceful appendage of the Realm Reborn subtitle, appropriate since the original game is one of the Square’s most embarrassing cock-ups in years. None of that was important here though, as Arnie Roth invited original singer Susan Calloway onto the stage for a powerful rendition of the new game’s opening theme ‘Answers’, noting she’d been hand picked by Uematsu himself. The song is only so-so to my ears, but there was no denying Calloway’s extraordinary voice or the passion she bought to her performance.
“Theme of Love” (Final Fantasy IV)
With the chronological progression complete, the final part of the show jumped around a little more. It was fantastic to see IV get so much love, with this classic being its second appearance in the program. There’s not much more that needs to be said really, it’s a timeless melody that was flawlessly adapted to the full orchestral format.
“Eyes on Me” feat. Crystal Kay (Final Fantasy VIII)
For one of the most famous ballads in series history Roth invited multi-million selling Japanese pop star Crystal Kay onto stage, and she responded with a powerhouse performance that had the crowd on its feet. It’s an amazing song and the combination of Kay’s incredible voice and a gorgeous orchestration made this a real candidate for performance of the night.
“Maria and Draco” (Final Fantasy VI)
This time it was VI‘s turn to get a second bite of the cherry, and what a bite it was. The Opera scene is one of VI’s most famous, but naturally it’s kind of hard to represent an actual opera on a sound chip about as powerful as a calculator. For this performance version Uematsu himself helped with the orchestration and wrote score to replace what was missing or not present in the original SNES version. We also had three superb singers belting the words out, the backing choir in full force and the orchestra providing all their thunder, making this a truly unforgettable experience.
“Battle Theme Medley”
The show ended on a grand medley of the battle themes from various games, namely ‘Battle at the Big Bridge’ (FFV), ‘Fight with Seymour’ (FFX) and ‘Those Who Fight’ (FFVII). It also allowed, of course, the flourish of finishing off with the traditional victory fanfare, a rousing end to the concert which was followed by a minutes long standing ovation
Encore – “Final Fantasy”
Arnie Roth returned to lead the orchestra in an encore of ‘Final Fantasy’, better known simply as the series main theme, as credits rolled on the screen above. Afterwards, Uematsu and Sakaguchi returned to take the final curtain calls before the orchestra trooped out and the evening was over.
Overall, I’ve got to say it was an absolutely fantastic evening. The music was beautiful and incredibly well performed, and there was an amazing thrill hearing familiar tunes scaled up and reinterpreted to fill a concert hall, as well as see Uematsu and Sakaguchi and hear the enthusiasm from Arnie Roth and the fans all around. Though The Celebration is only being performed a few times, there’ll be a new Distant Worlds tour scheduled for next year, and I highly recommend anyone who’s a Final Fantasy or even just a music fan in general to not miss it.