Review: Final Symphony II

As gaming becomes more mainstream, inevitably the spectre of being a nerd affords the gamer more ability to express their love for the medium. One of the most glaring examples comes, perhaps unsurprisingly, from Japan in the form of Final Fantasy. See, in Japan, video games have been celebrated for a long time. Only now are we realizing that as much beauty can be found in a video game as in any form of art, or more.

Final Fantasy has what must be one of the most appreciated soundtrack histories in video games. Nobuo Uematsu’s classics feature every year in the Classic FM Top Ten list alongside those guys Mozart and Beethoven. Uematsu remarkably does not sound at all out of place, even for those with no experience with the games. The music is as wonderfully diverse as every realm, beautifully scripted and composed, enhancing all of the feelings experienced when playing the games and sending them all back upon relistening.

So it was that several events came about to celebrate Uematsu’s work and provide those former would-be nerds with something to really nerd over by combining Final Fantasy with Orchestral Arrangement. Distant Worlds, an event I’ve been pleased to attend twice, takes the easy route opting for straight and familiar arrangements that deviate little from the original and ultimately are of the same length and flavor.

Final Symphony is something else. Featuring arrangements from world class orchestral arrangers Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo, Final Symphony lives up to its name, taking the listener through a full symphony length journey through each game. The original Final Symphony which I attended in London blew me away and was easily the pinnacle of my journey in the world of video game music. Would the second live up to the first? It would do even more than that.

Featuring arrangements from (in order) Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy V played by the legendary London Symphony Orchestra, the event promised to be special. Things started, however, with a unique introductory piece by Jonne Valtonen himself named simply “Fanfare”. I found this to be quite pleasant, similar in many ways to a March from Final Fantasy XI, with rousing violins and eclectic cymbals sending shivers down the spine. My mouth was wet, what would Final Fantasy XIII bring?

Sheer beauty distilled in musicality. Sweet chords blending to and fro between the themes as Blinded by Light and Prelude touched back and forward, mixing and merging as if one song. I thoroughly enjoyed the soft tones of Vanille’s Theme slowing things down considerably. It really is amazing how much emotion was put in the arrangements and was pulled out by the LSO. My surprise favorite of this arrangement was Nautilus, a piece I’ve often overlooked – but I struggled to keep the tears from showing when suddenly it appeared. Aptly this entire arrangement was named “Utopia in the Sky”. Somehow, it really did feel like it.

Final Fantasy IX‘s “For the People of Gaia” was the one I was waiting for. I’m a big fan of the game but, perhaps more crucially, my wife who was in attendance also had the most experience with it. There were no disappointments. This particular piece featured Slava Sidorenko as a piano soloist with orchestral accompaniment. To say he was stunning would be an understatement. He was fast and fluid, playing with alacrity and amazing skill without even a single musical note before him. As for the music played, interestingly the most predominant melody seemed to be Vivi’s Theme. Indeed, themes were the order of the day. Zidane’s theme was played in full with as much adventure and wonderment as Zidane the character brings along with it. Kuja’s Theme was the opposite – dark, foreboding, slow and all the more malevolent. A mix of battle themes and the always welcomed Hunter’s Chance, something I thought nigh impossible for the piano and orchestra, rounded off the outing before the break.

During the break the opinion certainly seemed to be positive. My wife had gone to get me tissues. They would be needed.

Final Fantasy VIII was named “Mono no aware”, a title the program explains means “Awareness of Impertinence” in Japanese. If you think that title is deep, you should have heard the music. Many themes with similar origins blended and contrasted, such as Eyes on Me and Tell Me/Ami, the theme from Balamb Garden. The rousing Waltz for the Moon came in too, sharing a similar theme and causing the first of the tissues to be used. The string section of the LSO was enthralling, both in presentation and in production. The Landing was perhaps the most exciting piece of the night, each aspect of the theme recreated with effortless ease and sending chills through the system. It should, by all rights, have been my choice for favorite of the symphony and of the night but that was yet to come. A contender, certainly, would rear its head that very piece in (what else) Liberi Fatali. The emotion that was injected despite the lack of choral accompaniment shocked me and I’m unsure if I’ve ever heard it done so powerfully. More tissues gone.

Last up was “Library of the Ancients” from Final Fantasy V, named after the location I will forever associate with Mid. Sure enough, the music begins with Musica Machina that fit the title and the character of Mid oh so perfectly. To be honest, Final Fantasy V may indeed have stolen the show. The soft and melancholy Reina’s Theme, freed from its technical limitations, sounded absolutely beautiful. Spreading Grand Wings was a favorite of mine from the game and it more than holds up in the classical genre. Surely the main theme would be the main theme, I thought? It pounced and darted, appearing here and there throughout but never dominating. That is, until the climax, with a crash and bang, the splendid Main Theme of Final Fantasy V roars home the end of the symphony and the concert to wild applause.

Thereafter, we were treated to two encores and two standing ovations for each. The first a playful arrangement of the Chocobo Theme, as you do. The second, an emotional arrangement of the Main Theme of Final Fantasy, enough for the last of the tissues to finally bow out.

Final Symphony II was stunning. The London Symphony Orchestra are the best in the world, with few peers. Indeed the music was so good that only they could have done it full justice. Eckehart Steir, the conductor, is a virtuoso and a thrill to watch, carefully controlling the ebb and flow of the movements with deft strokes that took the breath away. Everything from start to finish exceeded all expectations and was a pleasure to watch, listen and be involved in.

Should there be a CD release and you are a Final Fantasy fan, or even just a music fan, I would heartily recommend a purchase as this was a testament to good classical music. Until then, do yourself a favor and pick up Final Symphony I on Amazon.

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