Brian Jacobson

The Milwaukee Theatre hosts iconic “Final Fantasy” scores

"Distant Worlds" takes Nobuo Uematsu's symphonic scores from computer tones to full-fledged masterworks with Bel Canto Chorus.

By - Feb 15th, 2013 12:00 pm

“Distant Worlds” performs pieces from the scores of various “Final Fantasy” games, primarily composed by Nobuo Uematsu. Photo credit Brian Jacobson.

The large crowd for Thursday night’s Distant Worlds: The Music of Final Fantasy at the Milwaukee Theatre was not necessarily the top-hats-and-diamonds crowd one stereotypes as being a symphony audience. In a way, the show was an opening ceremony for this weekend’s popular Anime Milwaukee convention at the Hyatt one block away.  There was cosplay and hardcore geekwear on display, but a great number also dressed for an elegant night out (especially the couples on that St. Valentine’s night) and spoke eloquently about which of Nobuo Uematsu‘s pieces was his magnum opus.

The concert, performed by the Distant Worlds Philharmonic and the Bel Canto Chorus with music direction by conductor Arnie Roth, was epic thanks in part to the particular variation and style of music used by the long-running Final Fantasy video game series.  While they played, video sequences from the particular volume showed on a giant screen behind them.

The sweeping orchestral sound from Final Fantasy owes as much to classical works as it does Hollywood movie scores. The interesting hook here is how the cultural standards were then interpreted by Japanese composers in employment of the storyline and tone.

Final Fantasy game characters, until recent years, have nearly always been drawn to look like a hybrid of Asian and European to give them greater appeal when marketed abroad. Its music is much the same. Final Fantasy composers frequently borrow from European operas and symphonic poem composers like Rachmaninoff, while adding their own influences, like traditional Japanese kodo drums and flutes.

The recording quality of these scores of the computer-animated adventure series has improved over 25 years, along with later iterations of the evolving visual technology.  Early games were scored by having computer tones emulate orchestral instruments.  So some of the greatest shouts and claps of delight from the audience came as Roth would announce song titles before conducting a set and he would say the title of something from created decades ago.  While videos of 8-bit gameplay filled the screen, a fully-fleshed out version of the music filled the theater hall as the audience had never heard it before.

Nobuo Uematsu is the “Final Fantasy” series’ most prominent composer, and received celebrity status at “Distant Worlds” Thursday. Photo courtesy “Distant Worlds'” Facebook page.

The overall sound of the score and some of the particular pieces hold a special value to the sub-culture of video game and anime fans, because they have heard it so much. In Final Fantasy, “Victory Fanfare” is a 5-second piece of music that would be played thousands of times over the months it takes to commit to one volume.  With such incredibly long gameplay, the score seeps into your brain to become part of the player’s being.

The evening was weighted toward Uematsu’s scores from Final Fantasy VI, VII, VIII and IX, four of the most famous installments. Rightfully so – not only is he the franchise’s most acclaimed composer, he was in the audience, taking in the show while in town for an appearance at Anime Milwaukee. His celebrity here is unquestioned; as he walked to his seat, a spotlight followed his smiling face all the way, while the audience gasped and applauded wildly.

The evening concluded after an encore that presented one of the beloved “Sephiroth” movements with Uematsu joining the Bel Canto. Afterward, I passed a trio of young women in evening wear. Referring to their tickets, one said to the others, “Now, wasn’t that a great Christmas present?”

They laughed and nodded in agreement, lifted by the music like a feather in the wind.

Front page photo of Distant Worlds performance in Adelaide, Australia; credit Distant Worlds Facebook page.

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