Here's my review of the second Final Symphony show in Wuppertal, which I attended during my six-week whirlwind European tour. (The concert was actually my inspiration for traveling to the continent). Not only did I see a great orchestral concert featuring some of my favorite soundtracks, I got to hang out with STC members Namorbia, Jousto and Echo as well. Good times!
Final Symphony Overview
On May 11 in Wuppertal, Germany, Merregnon Studios presented the fifth in their Symphonic series of orchestral game music concerts, Final Symphony, featuring original arrangements of music from Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X. Though Merregnon's Symphonic series concerts have featured Final Fantasy music before, this was the first to be dedicated exclusively to the series. The first half of the program was divided between two long symphonic movements - an 18 minute symphonic poem for FFVI arranged by Roger Wanamo, and a 20 minute piano concerto for FFX arranged by original co-composer Masashi Hamauzu, featuring Benyamin Nuss on piano. The second half of the program consisted of a behemoth 41 minute, three movement symphony for FFVII arranged by Jonne Valtonen.
Anyone familiar with the Symphonic series concerts knows their arrangements can be fairly complex, and soon into the show it became clear that it's far too much to take in in a single sitting. I'd like to mention several highlights, though, and offer some thoughts on the show as a whole.
Final Fantasy VI
The first part of the concert was my most anticipated, FFVI still being my all-time favorite game OST and Roger Wanamo's arrangement style in previous Symphonic concerts seeming perfectly suited to it. Now the first thing to realize with FFVI is that even an 18 minute arrangement is not nearly enough to cover all its highlights. Wanamo wisely chose certain key story themes and their matching musical motifs to focus on instead. Of the inevitable omissions I'd say FFVI's fantastic character themes and reprises were the most missed, but these could comprise an entire separate twenty minute musical extravaganza on their own (as the ending theme in FFVI OSV proves).
The two character themes that DID make the cut, however, are from a narrative perspective the most important of the soundtrack, Kefka and Terra. "Kefka" we've heard arranged before in FFVI Grand Finale, as well as briefly in Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo, but the arrangement here was far more elaborate and robust. Beginning with an almost elegant waltz, it grew in intensity to a mishievous march and then a chaotic finale fitting the character. "Terra" received an even greater focus; Wanamo's arrangements tend to have certain binding musical themes that surface repeatedly and in this case Terra was the one. First only hinted at, with small traces interwoven into the opening arrangement of the "The Empire Gestahl" (itself superbly done), it made its most pronounced appearances later in the apocalyptic reprise "Metamorphosis" and in a truly grand finale.
Besides boasting the narrative quality common in Wanamo's works, the most impressive quality of the FFVI suite was its use of several minor themes and reprises that, though not favorites in the OST, showed huge improvement and impact in arranged form. The previously mentioned "The Empire Gestahl" and "Metamorphosis" were two such pieces. The spooky, atmospheric "Another World of Beasts" was another - not exactly a favorite on the OST, but important to the narrative and very dramatic arranged.
Fans will be happy to hear that the battle themes made a big appearance. The most memorable among them for me was FFVI's staple "Battle Theme". I would've thought this piece too gamey for a classically influenced symphonic arrangement but Wanamo pulled it off nicely, keeping all the energy of the original but with added drama. A flurry of other battle themes surrounded it, beginning with a riveting rendition of "The Unforgiven" (again, not a favorite in the OST but great here) and ending with "Save Them". One of my favorite things I remember about the Little Jack Orchestra FFVI concert several years back was their unabashedly powerful, immensely enjoyable performances of the FFVI battle themes, and this segment in Final Symphony brought much the same feeling.
In a departure in style from his previous Symphonic series works, Wanamo brought the suite to quite the chaotic climax. I found this to be the one weak moment of the suite, with some jolting, forced interruptions by Kefka's theme detracting from the excitement of the battle pieces, and the climax feeling a bit rushed. Fortunately the arrangement of Terra's theme that followed quickly set things right, concluding the suite with triumph, classical grandeur, and a touch of reminiscense.
Even with the uncharacteristically chaotic climax I enjoyed every minute of the FFVI suite. There was some nice fan service in the battle themes, several important pieces that would have been overlooked in any other production were given very impressive orchestral treatments, and the few major themes that had been arranged previously boasted dramatic new interpretations unlike anything before. As a FFVI fan it was great to be there listening.
Final Fantasy X
Of the three titles featured in the concert, my recollection of FFX's piano concerto is the most vague. Though a large part of this is no doubt because its OST is by far the one I listen to the least of the three, also I think it's because Hamauzu's use of the original themes wasn't quite as pronounced. It often felt more like an original orchestral work paying homage to FFX than a traditional arrangement per se. Does that mean it was bad? Not in the slightest. It was, to put it succinctly, very pretty. Hamauzu seems to be at his best when combining piano with orchestra, and certainly it made for a lovely combination here.
The first movement was from start to finish a serene affair, the soft strings and piano reminiscent of Hamauzu's Symphonic Legends Donkey Kong Country arrangement and even some of Yoko Kanno's works (both high praise). "Zanarkand" was the recurring theme for this movement, and though foregoing the heart-rending poignancy of the dedicated Distant Worlds arrangement, it was beautiful nonetheless. The second movement changed to "Song of Prayer" for its recurring theme and briefly picked up in intensity for a lively arrangement of "Thunder Plains", while the third-movement continued this progression to the battle themes "Battle of Summoned Beasts" and "Final Battle".
Mostly though the suite had as much an emphasis on mood and texture as on the melodies of its source themes. In fact in my two favorite moments of the suite I couldn't place their origin from the OST at all. I just enjoyed soaking up the gorgeous violin solos and the fluttering winds and chimes.
Though the piano arrangement played an important part throughout the concerto, by Symphonic series standards it seemed on the simple side and I think couldn't have been as challenging for Benyamin Nuss as his previous performances. That said when the suite picked up in intensity so did Nuss's performance, and by the time the climactic third movement came along he was at times out of his seat.
With so much original material arranged for it, Hamauzu's piano concerto seemed almost like a FFX side story in and of itself. The lack of a clear direction midway through had me questioning the outcome, but by the end it felt like it had all come together. Even not being a FFX fan myself, I found the concerto a beautiful interlude between the surrounding two more dramatic suites.
Final Fantasy VII
The entire second half of the program was dedicated to Jonne Valtonen's three movement, 41 minute FFVII suite. This one began at its darkest and most furious, the first movement focusing on the likes of "Jenova" and "One Winged Angel". I would be the first to bemoan yet another "One Winged Angel" arrangement but this one was intriguing from start to finish, among other reasons for being the first to be arranged purely orchestrally - no choir involved. (In fact there was no choir for the entire concert, a refreshing change of pace when almost all VGM concerts strangely insist on one.) The arrangement was chaotic and quite loud in places but as with Kefka's theme this seemed appropriate, and the roaring timpani at its end brought the movement to a raging conclusion.
The second movement I call "the pretty one". Beginning with "Interrupted by Fireworks", it then moved on to "Main Theme of FFVII", "Tifa's Theme" and "Aerith's Theme". "Interrupted by Fireworks" especially I was thrilled to hear - an immensely pretty and poignant piece held back before only by the OST's limited sound system, in arranged form it was more beautiful than ever. "Tifa's Theme" was lovely as well, Valtonen's arrangement remedying the slightly excess sentimentality of the OST version. The other two themes we've heard orchestrally before, but the unique arrangements here made great use of solo instrumentation and intertwined the themes beautifully together.
If the second movement was the pretty one then the third was the uplifting one, beginning with the character themes "Cosmo Canyon" and "Cid's Theme". Frankly I would not have expected Valtonen to include these two fairly simplistic - though melodic and very memorable - themes in his suite. Not that I'm complaining. While nicely dressed up for orchestra they remained as melodic as ever and made a great bit of fan service to kick off the final movement with.
As is often the case in Valtonen's works there were parts that were hard to get a handle on at first. In particular at the end of the second movement, following such pretty arrangements for the FFVII Main Theme, Tifa, and Aerith, the music surprisingly moved into dark and dissonant territory, only to shift again at the start of the third movement into the uplifting themes for Cosmo Canyon and Cid. That somewhat dissettling interlude felt like it may have detracted from the emotional impact of the piece more than it contributed (with additional listens and better familiarity that might not be the case). Also, as in Wanamo's FFVI suite, the final climax felt just a bit anticlimactic. It began superbly with a raging arrangement of "Jenova Absolute", but an experimental passage that followed featuring short, abbreviated bursts of various themes from the game felt sudden and slightly underdeveloped. Fortunately, also similar to the FFVI suite, the final resolution set things right - in this case with a beautiful rendition of the ending theme's triumphant final passages.
I consider Valtonen's Secret of Mana suite and Legend of Zelda symphonic poem from previous Symphonic series concerts two of the most momentous orchestral VGM works in existence, so it's hard to say from a single listen whether his FFVII symphony reached that same lofty pinnacle. Certainly it made it very high up the mountain. Of Valtonen's arrangements to date it felt perhaps the most like a true symphony, but at the same time was full of favorite FFVII themes true to the originals' spirit. I'd always wondered whether a purely symphonic work could do justice to FFVII's synth-heavy soundtrack, but in Final Symphony I think they might actually have pulled it off.
Following the main program came two encores. Whereas previous Symphonic series encore pieces have been fairly extensive medleys, this time we had two arrangements focused mostly on singular themes. I couldn't have been happier about the first encore, FFVII's "Anxious Heart". Though more ambient than the various standout battle themes and character themes of FFVII's OST, it's always been one of my favorites, and its orchestral version was all I could have hoped for. (It could just as easily have served as a prologue to the main FFVII symphony.) The second and final encore piece, after a teasingly misleading intro, was the moogle theme from FFV and FFVI. A simpler and obviously more lighthearted piece by Symphonic series standards, it made a nice bit of fun to close the program.
Venue & Performance
These two opening performances for Final Symphony were held in the Historische Stadthalle in Wuppertal, Germany (a third performance was later held in London). It was a smaller venue than I'm used to for orchestral concerts, which from a listener's perspective is not a bad thing at all. Unlike certain other orchestral game music concerts there was no use of amplication, so you could hear the music directly from the orchestra as it should be. Sitting in the middle of the hall the sound stage was one of the most surround-like I've heard - several times I found myself closing my eyes just to soak it all in. When eyes were open the spectacular interior of the Historische Stadthalle contributed to the classical quality of the show. It being my first time to hear each arrangement it's hard to judge the quality of the performance, but given the complexity of the material I'd say the Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra performed impressively.
Compared to other orchestral game concert series the Symphonic series productions have been nothing if not ambitious. The results have been in some cases among my all-time favorite VGM works (Symphonic Fantasies and Symphonic Legends), in others not so much so, but in each case have offered completely original, aspiring takes on their featured series. Final Symphony was no different. As a fairly strict critic of orchestral arrangements and a huge fan of two of the soundtracks featured I'm sure I wasn't the easiest audience member to please, but I came away impressed by the show and feeling justified in making the trip to Germany for it. Not to mention very hopeful for an eventual album release, so I can enjoy it again many times over.