Arts concert review

Symphony Hall resonates with the sounds of Final Fantasy

Arnie Roth conducts the Video Game Orchestra with arrangements of favorite pieces from the history of the epic franchise

Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy

Symphony Hall

Conducted by Arnold Roth

The Boston Symphony Hall hosted a very special event last Saturday. It featured not Dvorak, nor Bach, nor Mendelssohn, but instead video game pieces from almost 25 years of Final Fantasy scores. Even though this event did not attract Symphony Hall’s regular audience, the place was sold out. Symphony Hall was overflowing with Final Fantasy fans, many of them dressed as original characters from the game. A number of fans brought their copies of Final Fantasy soundtracks or games so they could get an autograph after the show.

It was the first time that the iconic music from Final Fantasy came to Boston. It was performed by visionary music director Arnie Roth and the Video Game Orchestra as part of the Distant Worlds — Music from Final Fantasy concert series. Arnie Roth is well known in the Final Fantasy and video game community for directing the best orchestras around the world, performing video game scores. His focus, however, is on the Final Fantasy series. Roth is the musical director and principal conductor of the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra of Rosemont and a classically trained violinist and composer. He has performed with many well-known artists from around the world including Diana Ross, Andrea Bocelli and The Three Tenors.

The concert featured some of the greatest music from decades of Final Fantasy games, including the famous opera “Draco and Maria” as well as “Dancing Mad” from Final Fantasy VI. Many pieces featured special guests like solo guitarist Shota Nakama, who performed a stunning version of “Vamo’ alla Flamenco” from Final Fantasy IX. The 12-minute opera “Draco and Maria” — a highlight of the concert — was performed in full length, with Symphony Hall’s gigantic organ accompanying three opera performers singing the entire original passages of Draco, Ralse, and Maria. Altogether, more than 100 performers filled the stage, including a 40-head choir, several soloists, and of course the conductor himself.

However, there was also something going on above the stage. An HD screen showed concept art and key scenes from the original video games while the orchestra performed the corresponding scores. Throughout the performance, Roth announced the individual pieces, put them into context, and explained the background of their development and stories.

The concert also featured special guest Masashi Hamauzu, the composer of the Final Fantasy XIII score. When he was spotted in the audience, the crowd became electrified; the cheering did not stop for minutes. Hamauzu even joined the choir at the end of the concert for the performance of the last piece.

The concert was an absolute blast. The individual pieces were carefully chosen and arranged into a coherent structure, and the combination of the HD screen with the soundtrack greatly enhanced the experience. Despite all this, however, one could clearly see in the eyes of the fans that the greatest gift the performers gave to their audience that night was not the presentation of the music but instead how seriously they took the music, the story, and the characters of their audience’s beloved fantasy saga. On the audience’s part, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Whenever a well-known piece was announced the audience cheered like they were at a pop concert. The orchestra presented, for instance, an entire medley of chocobo bird themes from different Final Fantasy games. The chocobo is the travel companion in the world of Final Fantasy, which replaces horses in all the games.

It was not surprising that the concert was followed by an extended standing ovation and frantic applause so enthusiastic that the orchestra ended up playing an encore.

Arnie Roth and his orchestra wonderfully translated a video game score into a fantastic evening of classical music. If you have the chance to see one of their concerts, don’t hesitate to line up for tickets. They will be back with a new concert series this winter to celebrate Final Fantasy’s 25th anniversary.