Event Review | Final Symphony II (MusiCube)

By John Son 17.09.2015 1

Following on from the hugely successful Final Symphony series of concerts and album, the Merregnon Studios team, with the aid of Masashi Hamauzu and Nobuo Uematsu, once again graced the Barbican in London to perform music from the Final Fantasy game series, this time taking on the music of V, VIII, IX and XIII.
The main evening performance was preceded by a pre-concert talk, helmed by the London Symphony Orchestra principal flautist Gareth Davies. Present were Thomas Böcker, the main producer of the concert series; Roger Wanamo, one of the arrangers of music for the programme; and Uematsu himself, talking through the aid of a translator. Much of the discussions were geared towards the concert series itself, and Uematsu's personal thoughts and opinions towards the arrangements and the rising popularity of game music within classical music circles.

It was fascinating to hear from the man himself, especially when the floor was opened to questions from the audience. Here, he confirmed that two of his favourite compositions are "Zanarkand" and "Dancing Mad;" that the Final Fantasy VI Piano Collections album almost didn't happen after the arranger/performer failed to produce any work for the session and was blighted by a bout of nerves; and that his and much of the other members of the panel's favourite Final Fantasy character is Kefka.

Image for Event Review | Final Symphony II (MusiCube)
Particularly interesting was Uematsu discussing the fact that the pieces chosen for the concert programme were not pieces that he would have chosen himself - "Musica Machina" from Final Fantasy V was cited as an apparently surprising choice, though everyone present did agree that "The Oath" was more or less a shoe-in for inclusion in the Final Fantasy VIII suite. In one particularly memorable moment, Uematsu also whistled an excerpt of the "Chocobo Theme" at the request of an audience member, much to the delight of everyone present.

The talk was over an hour long, but ended all too soon and felt like it could have gone on for much, much longer - but, of course, the main focus of the evening was the music and the performance itself.

Like the first Final Symphony concert previously, the performance opened with an original composition by Jonne Valtonen, this time entitled "In a Roundabout Way - Fanfare." Similarly to "Circle within a Circle within a Circle," "In a Roundabout Way" was a fittingly energetic and dynamic piece to kick start the evening, while also flexing the metaphorical muscles of the orchestra in perpetration for the pieces ahead. The piece itself also sounded surprisingly well-suited to the overall tone and style of the Final Fantasy series, almost sounding like it could have been a bona fide piece composed for the games; perhaps as the accompaniment to an action-packed introductory FMV sequence or similar.

Image for Event Review | Final Symphony II (MusiCube)
The meat of the evening's programme were four separate arrangements, each devoted to the music of one Final Fantasy game, lasting approximately between 15 and 20 minutes long. The skill and talents of the three arrangers - Jonne Valtonen, Roger Wanamo, and Masashi Hamauzu - shone through in each piece, with Uematsu's and Hamauzu's melodies being taken apart, reimagined and rearranged into complex, many-layered and artistic showcases for the respective games featured. Those familiar with the first Final Symphony recording will be familiar with this process, and Final Symphony II continued this approach with a performance of music unlike anything of which Final Fantasy fans had heard previously before.

"For the People of Gaia," for example, seamlessly blended elements from multiple pieces, such as the usually jaunty and bouncy "Vivi's Theme," and more dramatic pieces, such as "Assault of the Silver Dragons" and "Kuja's Theme," to form one cohesive musical narrative - as a result, Wanamo's concerto for piano and orchestra elevated Uematsu's melodies into a piece that felt far greater than the sum of its parts. This was only helped, no doubt, by Slava Sidorenko's infectiously energetic and virtuosic performance on the piano; in particular the variations of "Vivi's Theme" being performed as a playful back and forth between the piano and sections of the orchestra, making for an especially compelling listen. "Festival of the Hunt" also featured quite heavily, Sidorenko here giving a fantastically adrenaline-pumping rendition of the theme and delivering a near-flawless performance in tandem with the orchestra. Excerpts from "Melodies of Life" and "Zidane's Theme" also made appearances, the former contributing much to the piece's emotional undertones, making for an impressively comprehensive review of Final Fantasy IX's core elements through only a handful of tracks alone.

"Utopia in the Sky" featured Valtonen's and Hamauzu's arrangement of the latter's own pieces from Final Fantasy XIII, including the now widely recognised motif from "Blinded By Light" and other familiar tracks, such as "Vanille's Theme," "Nautilus" and "Fang's Theme." Unlike the other arrangements, however, this one, in particular, felt more like a simple medley of individual tracks (albeit a highly sophisticated and impeccably performed one, as all the pieces were), rather than a complex interwoven narrative, as the others did. Regardless, Hamauzu's cinematic and sweeping score for FFXIII was well-suited to the symphonic style of the arrangement, the rousing and uplifting tone of "Prelude to FINAL FANTASY XIII" sounding especially lovely when performed by the entire orchestra. All in all, it was a satisfyingly complete showcase for a soundtrack that can, unfortunately, feel slightly dicey in some places, yet is still not without its highlights.

Image for Event Review | Final Symphony II (MusiCube)
The third performance in the programme, "Mono no aware" definitely gave "For the People of Gaia" some competition in terms of pure musical enjoyment. Although Final Fantasy VIII never seems to get as much recognition for its music compared to, say, FFVII or FFIX, "Mono no aware" was a truly excellent reminder that, yes, FFVIII is just as good as - if not slightly better than, in places - the rest. Wanamo's arrangement here sounded as if it gave the individual tracks opportunities to breathe and explore their own sound and space - letting the melodies speak for themselves, rather than go too far as to embellish and rework them beyond recognition.

For example, a large majority of the original arrangement for "Liberi Fatali" was left untouched, and perhaps all the better for it - the original track is quite a powerful piece in itself, and even the absence of a vocal chorus did nothing to dampen the dramatic effect of the driving percussion and punchy brass interjections. The same can be said of "The Landing" and "The Oath," both of which were presented in ways that felt fresh enough to suit the arrangement, yet still heavily nostalgic and familiar enough to elicit emotions from those already familiar with the music.

Although it would be difficult to isolate just one particular highlight in such an accomplished piece, the "Waltz for the Moon" section in the middle definitely provided a great deal of enjoyment - the truly lush sound of the entire orchestra performing the waltz was a joy to behold; the subtle romantic undertones and joyously carefree performance provided a far more fulfilling experience than the synthesiser-heavy original featured in the OST. This arrangement was, without a doubt, Uematsu's music as it was always meant to be performed.

Image for Event Review | Final Symphony II (MusiCube)
The final piece of the programme was one entitled "Library of Ancients," a performance that really could have gone either way given Final Fantasy V's somewhat inconsistent OST, which doesn't necessarily represent Uematsu at his very best. Any thoughts that "Library of Ancients" would reflect this and be inferior to the other performances, however, were quickly extinguished, as it became clear that Valtonen's utilisation of Uematsu's material made for yet another effortlessly impressive and beguiling listen. Although much of the source material suffers from a slightly repetitive nature and sometimes cheesy instrumentation and soundfonts, the pieces were released from these restraints and benefited hugely from Valtonen's arrangements for orchestra - tracks such as "Musica Machina" and "Spreading Grand Wings" were performed as if bestowed new life - the latter, in particular, allowing the feeling of flight and freedom, which is at the core of the piece, to be expressed with a distinct elegance and clarity not present in the original.

This, along other memorable moments, such as the tense "Psycho"-esque violin screeches introducing "The Evil Lord X-Death" and the series' "Victory Fanfare" being slipped in to coincide with a triumphant and sweeping rendition of "Main Theme of Final Fantasy V," made for the most pleasant surprise of the night thus far. The result was a musical tour de force, which FFV perhaps always should have been from the beginning, and a reminder that Uematsu's talents extend far beyond what many assume to be his best works.

The orchestra, Uematsu and the Final Symphony team received a standing ovation after it had finished - but the night was far from over. Much to the delight of everyone in the hall, two encores followed, the first of which initially coming as little surprise; after all, how can a Final Fantasy concert perform music from FFV and not include the legendary "Clash on the Big Bridge?" The key surprise came halfway through, though, where the orchestra abruptly stopped playing (so far it had been a fairly standard orchestral rendition of the theme) and the conductor and the tubist proceeded to exchange words in an odd little skit that eventually led to a cute rendition of the "Chocobo Theme" - which the rest of the orchestra picked up on and led to the biggest surprise of the night: a full-blown mashup of the two themes. It was part delight, part disbelief, hearing what was being played, as, on paper, the two would be near impossible to put together musically, but incredibly, amazingly, the end result was nothing short of a triumph. The sheer unexpectedness of such an arrangement was a surprise in itself, but the originality and inventiveness of the piece, in addition to the fact that against all odds, the melding of the two actually worked, was simply a wonderful moment. Although not even listed on the programme, "Clash de Chocobo" (unofficial title!) was by far the best surprise of the evening - a rare musical gift for fans who, up until now, had thought they had heard all there was to hear from the music of Final Fantasy and Uematsu's broad oeuvre.

Image for Event Review | Final Symphony II (MusiCube)
The second encore and last performance of the night was a classic: a rousing rendition of the "Main Theme of Final Fantasy," presented in all its triumphant glory, made for a wonderfully emotional and fitting end to the concert. By this point, the entire hall was on their feet and applauding, whistling and cheering wildly, but the very last surprise of the evening came in the form of a Guinness World Record rep arriving to hand out commendations; firstly for Thomas Böcker for being the first person to hold and organise a game music concert outside of Japan, secondly for Uematsu for being the most performed game music composer in the world (approximately over 520 performances, apparently), and thirdly for the London Symphony Orchestra, which will be the first ever non-Japanese orchestra to play game music in Japan when they hold their upcoming performances in Osaka and Yokohama. After another lengthy standing ovation and much bowing from Uematsu and the Merregnon Studios team, the orchestra finally filed out and the evening came to a close.

There is no other way around it: Saturday's performance was quite simply one of the best performances of video game music to have ever been showcased. It would take at least several more close listens to the material to fully grasp the thought and complexity and consideration put into these pieces, which hopefully will soon be possible if the LSO and the producers return to Abbey Road to record another album - honestly, it would be nothing short of criminal to deny the world a chance to hear this incredible artistic feat. When it does inevitably happen, however, it should be more or less imperative for everyone, ranging from the most hardcore of Uematsu fans to those with only a passing interest in game music or classical music, to give these pieces at least one listen through. The combined forces of Uematsu's legendary tunes, Hamauzu's cinematic sensibilities and the unmatched talents of Wanamo, Valtonen and the flawless performance of the London Symphony Orchestra have resulted in what will no doubt go down in history as one of the landmark achievements in the field of video game music.

Image for Event Review | Final Symphony II (MusiCube)
For those who expressed scepticism or cried foul when Uematsu was inducted into the Classic FM Hall of Fame, Final Symphony is living and breathing proof that the decision was justified. With the material from the first album and also the works showcased in this concert, there has frankly never been a better case for the calling of video game music to be taken seriously as an art form. Even the fact that this music has the capability to move hearts and lift spirits should surely be argument enough, but Final Symphony has again exceeded all expectations of what people have come to expect of game music. As Uematsu himself so rightly said in the pre-concert talk, good music is simply good music, regardless of where it comes from, whether it be games, films, classical composers, or otherwise. It's clear that for sceptics and those still unconvinced of the validity or artistic merit of game music as an art form, the existence of Final Symphony has made it just that little bit harder for them to remain unyielding on the matter - and in the grand scheme of things, that can only be a positive sign of things to come.

Quite frankly, a studio recording of the concert cannot come quickly enough.

Box art for Final Fantasy VIII
Developer

Squaresoft

Publisher

Squaresoft

Genre

Turn Based RPG

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  7/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  8/10 (2 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   

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Saturday's performance was quite simply one of the best performances of video game music to have ever been showcased.
That doesn't make missing this show any easier :p If only it was a bit closer to home. Really hope it comes around again, and they write a CD for it.

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