I went to the first of two Distant Worlds "The Celebration" concerts in Tokyo a few days ago (the second is tonight). Review follows.
On Dec. 26 the first of three special "The Celebration" Distant Worlds concerts in Japan was held at the Tokyo International Forum (this following two similar recent concerts in Chicago and London). Arnie Roth conducted the Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra (no stranger to orchestral game concerts) and Real Singers of Tokyo choral group, with featured solo performances by Susan Calloway and Crystal Kay.
The Japan concert tour coincides with the release of the Blu-ray "Final Fantasy Orchestral Album". Said release shares not only several of the older, oft-featured arrangements in the Distant Worlds series, but some of the new ones featured in these Celebration concerts as well.
On a personal note this was my first Distant Worlds concert and my fourth Final Fantasy-related concert overall, following 20020220 (also in Tokyo International Forum), the unofficial (but awesome) Little Jack Orchestra FFVI concert, and the part-Final Fantasy (and also awesome) Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo.
The Program (as I remember it):
FFI-III Medley 2002
FFIV Battle with the Four Fiends (new)
FFV Main Theme (new)
FFVI The Phantom Forest (new)
FFVII One Winged Angel
FFVIII Don't Be Afraid
FFIX You're Not Alone (new)
Chocobo Medley (new The Celebration version)
FFXI Medley (new?)
FFXII The Dalmasca Estersan (new)
FFXIII Blinded by Light
FFXIV Answers (ft. Susan Calloway)
FFIV Theme of Love
FFVIII Eyes on Me (ft. Crystal Kay)
FFVI Opera "Maria and Draco" (new The Celebration version)
Battle Medley (new)
Final Fantasy Theme
The First Half:
The program began by proceeding in chronological order through the series, which was a nice touch for an anniversary concert. Of the nine arrangements in the first half of the program only four were old standbys. The FFI-III Medley is hardly an exciting choice but it's hard to argue against its inclusion, and even having tired of One Winged Angel long ago I'll admit the quality performance (one of the best I've heard) accompanied by some of the more kinetic visuals from Advent Children actually gave me some chills, while the beautiful Zanarkand arrangement is welcome in any concert.
FFIV, V, VI and IX all featured brand new arrangements. Though some of the arranged additions in FFIV Battle with the Four Fiends and FFVI The Phantom Forest I found detracted from the mood of their respective pieces as much as they contributed, I'd still be very interested in hearing them again on the Orchestral Album. The brighter, uptempo arrangements for FFV Main Theme and FFIX You're Not Alone fared somewhat better. Closing out the first half of the program was an entirely new Chocobo Medley, which started with an original composition from I think FFXI before segueing into FFV Mambo de Chocobo (the chorus got to have some fun with this one) and FFXIII Pulse de Chocobo, which couldn't quite keep the energy of the OST version but did a good job trying.
The Second Half:
Continuing in chronological series order, the second half of the concert began as a sort of dedication to the contributing composers of the series. The surprisingly lengthy FFXI Medley must have featured a good four or five themes, including Vana'diel March and either Metalworks or Wings of the Goddess. Next came the highlight of the instrumental pieces for me, FFXII The Dalmasca Estersan. It was great see FFXII's orchestra-friendly score finally get some love from Roth and co., and this fairly straightforward but energetic arrangement further convinced me that an FFXII orchestral album would be to die for. FFXIII's Blinded by Light was a somewhat mundane selection by comparison, but at least the arrangement was given a much more substantial finale over its Distant Worlds: Returning Home arrangement.
The real treat of the concert came with the onset of the vocal pieces (not something I'd usually expect to say), and especially with Susan Calloway's chorus-assisted performance of FFXIV Answers. I can't stress enough how astoundingly epic this piece is - having written off FFXIV's OST I was stunned by the arrangement on Returning Home, and the performance here absolutely matched it. Calloway's stage presence could be more bold and theatrical to match the tremendous drama of the piece, but in any case her vocal performance was impeccable. Following this and a brief instrumental interlude via FFIV's Theme of Love came Crystal Kay's performance of FFVIII Eyes on Me, which again was shockingly good. Given the generally low talent level of the mainstream J-pop scene I wasn't expecting much, but Kay's performance was both elegant and powerful, possibly surpassing Faye Wong's original performance (again we'll have to listen to the new Orchestral Album to say for sure).
The final vocal piece was the famous Opera "Maria and Draco" from FFVI. This is another piece in the Distant Worlds repertoire I consider overemphasized and overplayed, but this highly-touted new arrangement for The Celebration had some surprises in store. As with One Winged Angel the performance - both by the orchestra and the Draco soloist - was one of the best thus far (though the other two soloists' performances were more average and the cheeky narration I could do without). The real surprise however came at the end of the arrangement, when it shifted into an orchestral rendition of the Black Mages 3 version's original finale. Now as someone who pretty much hated that album and particularly that arrangement, I literally grimaced when I realized the turn the piece was taking, but once you get past the complete shift in tone from traditional opera to rock opera, it turns out to be a delightfully indulgent and energetic addition to the program, with the orchestra having far greater impact than the Black Mages rock performance did. As the arrangement is still missing the OST's "Grand Finale?" movement, the classic Orchestral Game Concert 4 version remains a mainstay, but this new Distant Worlds version is now something to be excited about for upcoming shows.
Closing out the main program was the new Battle Medley, which as best as I can recall included FFV Battle on the Big Bridge, FFVII Fighting, FFX Seymour Battle, and the Victory Fanfare. As the transitions from piece to piece were arranged pretty lazily the emphasis here was on the themes themselves, and though Seymour Battle is a hard piece to work with the others had at least plenty of energy, and best of all Fighting finally (finally!) received the purely orchestral performance it's been begging for all these years.
For the finale Roth returned on stage to conduct the Final Fantasy main theme. If they really want to go all-out with their shows they could consider going with something more ambitious here - any of the ending themes from FFIV, V or VI or even an orchestral arrangement of the SQ Chips ending medley would make mind-blowing finales to the concert program. But even with a predictable closing selection it's hard to argue such a jam-packed concert program to be short on substance or new material.
With its vast scale, modern architecture and premium location, Tokyo International Forum is one of the most famous event venues in Tokyo. Unfortunately it may have been too big for this event. I'm not sure whether this is standard practice for all orchestral concerts held there or was a Distant Worlds decision but the use of heavy amplification via only two speakers almost killed the experience. Even sitting in a decent location (halfway back from the stage on ground level, just slightly left of center) no sound could be heard coming from the stage whatsoever, or even from the right speaker for that matter - just that huge left speaker in front of me. Except for the occasional sound of sheet music rustling (and even that loses its novelty at 20,000 watts), the aural effect was akin to listening to a Final Fantasy CD in a big room with a really big, loud speaker - in mono.
As I didn't experience the same problem in the similarly large Pacifico Yokohama hall for the FFVI concert (played by an amateur orchestra no less) I can't help but think the concert producers dropped the ball here. I don't consider myself a seasoned classical concert-goer, but the lack of that live sound sapped a large amount of fun out of the experience.
Despite the poor sound setup I found myself still enjoying the concert, especially the second act, though with a bit more investment in the arrangements and the visuals the show could have been better. I'm glad I didn't miss out this time around but I came away with little desire to see the second Tokyo show.
For Final Fantasy and game music fans who haven't experienced many orchestral concerts I'm sure the Distant Worlds events will impress, but even occasional classical concert-goers may want to take good consideration of the venue before buying tickets or making long road trips to see the show. The addition of quite a bit of new material to the program is encouraging though, and I hope we get to hear all of it on a Distant Worlds 3 album release sometime soon.
First Half Program: 7 / 10
Second Half Program: 8 / 10
Orchestral Performance: 8 / 10
Venue: 5 / 10
Overall: 7 / 10