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.
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.