Music from Final Fantasy at Powell Hall, 3/23-3/24/12: Review, Photos and Setlist

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Some fans came in costume: Yuna from Final Fantasy X. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Some fans came in costume: Yuna from Final Fantasy X.

Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy Powell Hall March 23 and March 24, 2012

The most interesting aspect of a Final Fantasy concert could be the audience. The orchestra was often met with thunderous applause and screaming between pieces or at the start of familiar and popular songs -- more like a rock show than a typical orchestral performance. Once the music began, the crowd was unusually quiet, wanting to soak in the sounds of their beloved games.

Since its inception in December 2007, Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy has traveled the world, sharing with audiences the grandeur and elegance of the musical scores found in the video game series. Not unlike the films of Disney or Lucas Arts, Final Fantasy has provided a fictional universe to intertwine with the childhood memories of many and has done this through the malleable art-form of video gaming.

Distant Worlds is a collaborative effort between series composer Nobuo Uematsu and Grammy Award-winning artist and composer Arnie Roth. Featuring carefully considered selections from the history of Final Fantasy, Distant Worlds carries with it a wide range of musical styles and techniques, reminding fans of accompanying scenes of despair, love, unity and betrayal.

Final Fantasy premiered on the Famicom, better known as the Nintendo Entertainment System, in the late days of December 1987. The series allows players a considerable degree of interaction with the characters and story featured therein. The Role Playing Game genre is dependent on the emotional attachment of the player -- with the limited technologies available in 1987, the creative staff behind Final Fantasy had to consider the audio just as carefully as the visual elements to convey a deep and enriching plot.

Photos were not allowed in the concert hall, but the lobby made for a vibrant scene. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Photos were not allowed in the concert hall, but the lobby made for a vibrant scene.

Composer Uematsu has been absolutely essential to the growth of the music found within the video games. It has largely been his brainchild since the first title launched in 1987, and Uematsu's innovations have been expressed through the growth of the series, from the first installment to the most recent entry, Final Fantasy XIV.

On March 23 and 24 of 2012, Uematsu and Roth, in a collaborative effort with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, brought Distant Worlds to Powell Hall. The artfully crafted atrium and the elegant layout of the building lent itself to the fantastical music of Distant Worlds.

The concert was split between two nights, and each evening had a unique set list. A few of the selections were shared on both Friday and Saturday, but the fans who attended both nights didn't seem to mind the overlap. Each performance carried a different tone, with Friday focusing on the chorus and Saturday involving more crowd participation.

Note: Hereafter, each game in the Final Fantasy series will be referred to by its Roman numeral.

Cosplayers spotted in the wild: Red Mage from Final Fantasy V (left), Setzer from Final Fantasy VI (right). - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Cosplayers spotted in the wild: Red Mage from Final Fantasy V (left), Setzer from Final Fantasy VI (right).


Friday evening began with "Prelude," a recurring piece in the Final Fantasy ethos. "Prelude" was a fitting start to an aural tour of Final Fantasy, as it was the first piece one usually heard when booting up a copy of the game. The St. Louis Symphony Chorus followed "Prelude" with the first verse of "Liberi Fatali," the vocally driven title song for VIII. Although most pieces in the series share a single composer, each Final Fantasy game contains its own world, characters and mythology that rarely connects from entry to entry. In fact, II is not a sequel to the first Final Fantasy title. The music has evolved over time with the available technology, and Uematsu took a different approach to composing with each entry.

"Liberi Fatali" was followed up by the most used piece in Final Fantasy: "The Victory Theme." This jingle is an indicative piece that is triggered in the game every time the player wins a battle. Each title in the series has its own incarnation of "The Victory Theme," but the basic tune remains the same. Composer Arnie Roth introduced the song, saying that it was "the most important piece we play."

The symphony went full-steam through VIII's "Don't Be Afraid" and XI's "Memoro de la Stono-Distant Worlds," the piece from which this concert takes its name. Susan Calloway entered the stage on "Distant Worlds" for a gripping vocal performance. Calloway's guest appearance was especially striking because she has recorded with Uematsu in the past, most recently for XIV. Game footage was projected above the orchestra, providing a fitting and nostalgic backdrop. The images often served as comedic relief, showcasing the light-hearted nature of the series.

One of the night's highlights was IV's "Theme of Love," one of Uematsu's most renowned and recognizable pieces, fully arranged for orchestra. Because of market decisions, IV was released in the United States as II on the Super Nintendo and was the first game in the series to see commercial success in North America. "Theme of Love" was followed up by XI's "Ronfaure" and "Clash on the Big Bridge," a particularly memorable piece from V that featured a battle with recurring villain Gilgamesh. Before the intermission, the audience was treated to a flawless rendition of "Fisherman's Horizon" from VIII, which was followed up by the "Final Fantasy Main Theme." Roth and the orchestra closed the first half with "Chocobo Medley 2010," the theme song for a recurring animal in Final Fantasy lore: the Chocobo. The projection showed a comically close up rendition of the chicken/ostrich hybrid. The tune itself is particularly upbeat and cheery and lends itself to be played in many styles. The second half of the "Chocobo Medley" was a swing-style piece, not unlike the sounds of a Big Band.

Many fans lined up to take photos with cosplayers: Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Many fans lined up to take photos with cosplayers: Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII.

The intermission provided enough time to escape to the lobby, where you could find a few select fans clad in the clothing of their favorite Final Fantasy character. Known as cosplayers, these die-hard fans spend considerable effort on elaborate costumes and make up. The lobby was an epicenter for fandom. A large merchandise table beckoned to patrons, selling live performance DVDs, t-shirts, glossy full color programs and CDs.

The second half began with the "Opening from VII." It led the best selling Final Fantasy title worldwide, and this piece was grand and familiar, followed by the second piece from VII, "Bombing Mission." The projections played out in sync with the music, lending a wave of nostalgia to the song.

The St. Louis performance of Distant Worlds was special in many ways, but the highlight for me was "Dark World."

"Dark World" is a melancholy piece that is played throughout VI. The slow pace is brooding and the way it's used in Final Fantasy VI augments a particularly gripping and depressing story arc. Before "Dark World," Roth revealed that he and Uematsu made a deal. Uematsu would join the orchestra in performing "Dark World" on keyboard, but only if Roth performed the violin solo.

XIII's "Blinded by Light" followed "Dark World" and was the only piece of music featured in Distant Worlds not composed by Uematsu. Composer Masashi Hamauzu wrote the score for XIII after having been influenced by Uematsu's work in the early Final Fantasy titles. Hamauzu performed on the original recording of "One Winged Angel," a piece written for the final moments in VII.

The second half flowed as seamlessly as the first, as VII's rock oriented "J-E-N-O-V-A" was followed by "A Place to Call Home-Memories of Life" from IX. Zanarkand, a piece recognizable by any who played X, came next and was immediately followed up with "Answers," a piece from XIV featuring the vocal styling of miss Susan Calloway. As the concert drew to a close, "The Man with the Machine Gun," a battle theme from VIII, was performed and followed by a crowd favorite from VI called "Terra's Theme."

After a short dialogue between composer, conductor and the audience, Uematsu took the microphone and attempted to whistle the familiar "Victory Theme." Uematsu's endearing modesty prevented him from completing the tune, and the composer fell to his knees, laughing and embarrassed.

Uematsu then joined the chorus in singing "One Winged Angel" for the encore. It's arguably Uematsu's most famous piece, taking lyrical content from Carl Orff's "O Fortuna" and repurposing the words for VII's story.

Uematsu himself wore a bandana over his hair and traditional Japanese sandals on his feet. His demeanor was pleasant but nervous throughout the night.

The St. Louis Symphony Chorus was especially on point both evenings, delivering a compelling performance with precision and emotion. Video game music can be quite a challenge, especially when the composer is an innovator such as Uematsu. Kudos to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for properly delivering Distant Worlds.

More cosplayers pictured from left to right: Yuffie (VII), Squall (VIII) and Princess Garnet (IX). - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • More cosplayers pictured from left to right: Yuffie (VII), Squall (VIII) and Princess Garnet (IX).

Day two appeared to be more crowded, possibly due to the evening's set list. As many Final Fantasy entries as there are, it wasn't very surprising that Distant Worlds had to split its set into two evenings. Saturday's featured more music from the older entries. The nostalgia alone cut my age in half, and I was an over-stimulated twelve year old for just one more night.

Saturday's show seemed to move much faster, opening with the hectic "Bombing Mission" piece from VII and quickly moving past the familiar "Victory Theme" to a medley featuring music from the earliest entries, I-III. Much of the music in this medley was unfamiliar as II and III didn't see major North American releases until 2003 and 2006, respectively. "Zanarkard" was repeated from the previous night and followed up with VIII's "Eyes on Me."

Solo guitarist Kirk Hanser entered the stage to perform with the orchestra on "Dear Friends" from V and "Vamo' alla Flemenco" from IX. These guitar driven pieces provided a variance in sound and highlighted the diversity in Uematsu's style of composition. Susan Calloway returned on Saturday evening and followed the guitar driven pieces with "Suteki da ne" from X. As with Friday evening, the orchestra ended its first set with "Chocobo Medley" 2010.

The second half began with two favorite pieces from the previous night, "The Man with the Machine Gun" from VIII and "Dark World" from VI. Uematsu and Roth performed alongside the symphony once again for "Dark World" just as precisely as the night before. Romantic themes "You're Not Alone" from IX, "Kiss Me Goodbye" from XII and "Aerith's Theme" from VII provided an uplifting trio after the dire sounds of "Dark World."

"Don't Be Afraid" from VIII and "Hamauzu's Blinded by Light" from XIII made a return before the symphony finished its second set with "Opera 'Maria and Draco.'" The "Opera" is a particularly interesting piece because it is introduced in VI as a story element in which the player must memorize the lyrics. Since VI was originally released in America on SNES under the title Final Fantasy III, the hardware limitations made it impossible to play back vocalized music. The video game had a synthesizer mimicking the human voice, and the results sounded awful but endearing.

In VI the player must enter an Opera house, where she finds a graphic representation of a symphony. I wonder if Square-Enix, the minds behind the game, ever considered the implications?

Debby Lennon, Keith Boyer and Mark Freiman provided deep and engrossing performances, using non-verbal cues alongside powerful vocalizations. This was especially essential for the piece to work, since the original recording never featured human voices, and could have easily been derailed by substantial changes to the composition.

Uematsu appeared more dignified and comfortable on Saturday, as he entered the stage several times and played a comically involved role during the encore performance. Through the show, I noticed that the chorus was absent. Would this concert really go by with no "One Winged Angel"?

Uematsu joined Roth on stage after the "Opera" and the two revealed that tonight, the audience would be the chorus. The results were thunderous. Uematsu not only encouraged the crowd with a whistle solo of the "Victory Theme," a feat he had failed the night before, he directed the crowd on the tones to sing during the chorus of "One Winged Angel." SE-PHI-ROTH!

As the piece began, the projector displayed the lyrics and Uematsu provided encouragement via a giant notepad, displaying comments such as LOUDER and I CAN'T HEAR YOU. Uematsu even broke from his encouragement to advertise his record label, Dog Ear Records, via hand-written posters. The symphony broke into a wild chorus, some shouting and some trying their very best to accurately bellow the syllables of their beloved "One Winged Angel." After the show, every soloist entered the stage for a final farewell and Powell Hall rumbled with the exhausted shouting of gratitude and excitement.

Notes, setlist and music are on the next page.

The Distant Worlds program and live concert DVD were just a few of the items begging for your dollars. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • The Distant Worlds program and live concert DVD were just a few of the items begging for your dollars.


Personal Bias: I was first introduced to the Final Fantasy series with VII in 1997. I have played every entry to a varying degree, but have only completed VI-IX. My favorite entries to this date are VI, VII and IX, in no particular order.

Overheard: Uematsu-san! Uematsu-san! Not kidding here. The suffix is a term of endearment, but is most commonly heard in America amongst the most rabid of Japanese anime and video game fans. Conductor Arnie Roth used the suffix in reference to Uematsu on more than one occasion. I imagine that the phrase is much more fitting coming from a close friend and colleague.

Cosplayers spotted throughout the weekend: Red Mage(V), Setzer(VI), Sephiroth(VII), Aeris(VII), Vincent(VII), Yuffie(VII), Squall(VIII), Princess Garnet(IX), Yuna(X). Sorry to those I might have missed. Powell Hall really is sensory overload.

More ways to drain your wallet:
Distant World gray short sleeve T-Shirt: $20
Final Fantasy VII Original Soundtrack: $50
Final Fantasy VIII Original Soundtrack: $50
Final Fantasy XIII Original Soundtrack: $50
Final Fantasy VII Reunion: $20
Distant Worlds Concert Program: $15
Distant Worlds - Returning Home DVD/CD box-set: $25
Distant Worlds I CD (Dog Ear Records): $15
Distant Worlds II CD (Dog Ear Records): $15

Friday, March 23:
FINAL FANTASY Series: Prelude
FINAL FANTASY VIII: Liberi Fatali
FINAL FANTASY Series: VICTORY THEME
FINAL FANTASY VIII: Don't Be Afraid
FINAL FANTASY XI: Memoro de la Stono
                                     - Distant Worlds
FINAL FANTASY IV: Theme of Love
FINAL FANTASY XI: Ronfaure
FINAL FANTASY V: Clash on the Big Bridge
FINAL FANTASY VIII: Fisherman's Horizon
FINAL FANTASY Series: Main Theme
FINAL FANTASY Series: Chocobo Medley 2010
FINAL FANTASY VII: Opening - Bombing Mission
FINAL FANTASY VI: Dark World
FINAL FANTASY XIII: Blinded by Light
FINAL FANTASY VII: JENOVA
FINAL FANTASY IX: A Place to Call Home
                                      - Melodies of Life
FINAL FANTASY X: To Zanarkand
FINAL FANTASY XIV: Answers
FINAL FANTASY VIII: The Man with the Machine Gun
FINAL FANTASY VI: Terra's Theme
ENCORE: FINAL FANTASY VII:     One Winged Angel

Saturday, March 24:
FINAL FANTASY VII: Opening - Bombing Mission
FINAL FANTASY Series: VICTORY THEME
FINAL FANTASY I-III: Medley 2010
FINAL FANTASY X: Zanarkand
FINAL FANTASY VIII: Eyes on Me
FINAL FANTASY V: Dear Friends
FINAL FANTASY IX: Vamo' alla Flamenco
FINAL FANTASY X: Suteki da ne
FINAL FANTASY Series: Chocobo Medley 2010
FINAL FANTASY VIII: The Man with the Machine Gun
FINAL FANTASY VI: Dark World
FINAL FANTASY IX: You're Not Alone
FINAL FANTASY XII: Kiss Me Goodbye
FINAL FANTASY VII: Aerith's Theme
FINAL FANTASY VIII: Don't Be Afraid
FINAL FANTASY XIII: Blinded By Light
FINAL FANTASY VI: Opera "Maria and Draco"
ENCORE: FINAL FANTASY VII:     One Winged Angel

Website for vocalist Susan Calloway: http://susancalloway.com/
Nobuo Uematsu's record label Dog Ear Records: http://www.dogearrecords.com/
Official Website for Distant Worlds-music from FINAL FANTASY:

Final Fantasy VI's depiction of a symphony orchestra. Inaccurate? Check. Charming? Double check. - LET'S PLAY ARCHIVE
  • Let's Play Archive
  • Final Fantasy VI's depiction of a symphony orchestra. Inaccurate? Check. Charming? Double check.

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