Symphonic Fantasies: London, October 2016

Back in 2009, Symphonic Fantasies was a huge deal. It was like a tectonic shift in the world of game music concerts. Not only was the concept of four long arrangements fresh, but four legendary Square composers were present in the same place at the same time. Everything about it was spectacular.

Or that’s what everybody told me.

You see, for me it was quite different. I did go to the 2009 concert, but my game music knowledge was quite limited back then and I knew less than half of the music in the concert. I had only been to one game concert previously and didn’t know that several composers as special guests was a rare thing. Back then, I enjoyed the Final Fantasy arrangement the most because of nostalgia, and the Chrono one the second most, because I knew the music to Chrono Trigger. All other music was pretty much unknown to me, and Kingdom Hearts and Secret of Mana flew by without leaving any impression on me at the time.

Since then I have been to dozens of VGM concerts and started to really appreciate what a rare event Symphonic Fantasies was back in 2009. I always wanted to see it again and experience what others did seven years ago. When I read that Symphonic Fantasies is coming to London, I was super ecstatic. The LSO (London Symphony Orchestra) started performing yearly game music concerts in 2013 and I have been to all of them. They blew my mind each time and became my favourite orchestra in Europe. So you can imagine my excitement, when I found out that THE event I wanted to re-experience the most would be performed by THE orchestra I love the most.

To give you a bit more perspective, I should say that I don’t listen to these concerts on CD much at all, because orchestral music is so much better live. I can’t remember the last time I’ve listened to the Symphonic Fantasies album, which is a good thing, because I got to experience the concerts with very fresh ears. I was very excited and managed to hear the concert three times in London: at the rehearsals, at the dress rehearsals, and at the concert itself.

Unfortunately though, the concert didn’t live up to my expectations. It was actually hard to write this review, because I’m a huge fan of Thomas Böcker’s concerts, especially of those with the LSO. It’s hard to criticise things you love, isn’t it? But I did my best to stay as honest as I can, to not dramatize trivial things, and to give praise were praise is due. In my mind, I compared this concert to earlier game music concerts by Thomas Böcker and the LSO: Final Symphony, Symphonic Legends, and Final Symphony II.

Fanfare Overture

The concert began with an overture composed by Jonne Valtonen. The first third of the overture is solid, but the rest felt like it didn’t have a common thread to follow to the end. I concentrated more than usual in order to understand what Valtonen was going for in the last two thirds. Unfortunately I didn’t get that part, but that’s okay, since I was there for the big four fantasies that follow.

Fantasy I: Kingdom Hearts

The Kingdom Hearts arrangement was the most joyful piece of the night. After a short intro with “Dearly Beloved”, it goes straight into a fun adventure – first restrained, then in all it’s joyous glory with the entire orchestra. It sounds almost like an opening fanfare, which makes it very fitting to be the first of the four big pieces. You wouldn’t even need the previous “Fanfare Overture” at all in my opinion, “Fantasy I: Kingdom Hearts” is plenty overture-esque to start off the concert.

After all the adventure and joy, there is a complex enchanting part that winds it all down to solo piano, which goes nicely into “The Other Promise”, a track originally heavy on the piano as well. I loved the structure of the piece this far. From fun adventure to full-on joy to piano only, and finally “The Other Promise”.

After a few moments of musical material there to fill the gap between tracks, the piece transitions to “Happy Holidays”, a very joyful track. I think it was a fantastic choice, because this arrangement began with cheefulness, then went to ominous darkness, and now it was about time to get some battle music. And precisely because this arrangement’s forte is joy, I’m glad Valtonen chose “Happy Holidays” as the battle track. I read somewhere that back in 2009, Yoko Shimomura picked which pieces this arrangement should include and “Happy Holidays” wasn’t one of them. Apparently it was Valtonen’s choice and it was a great one!

Afterwards the piece continues with a rendition of “Dearly Beloved” that was sadly uninspiring. It just didn’t sound as good as the simple original tune. Maybe it only works in the beginning of the soundtrack and feels out of place in-between other tracks?

“A Fight to the Death” comes next with a march rhythm and powerful low piano notes. Here is the first time I really notice the piano. Before this, the piano didn’t draw my attention and I mostly forgot it was there. I’m not sure if this piece is considered a piano concerto or not, but to me it simply feels like a piano-heavy orchestral piece.

I like how long “A Fight to the Death” was and how it had time to build up. But then it transitioned not so smoothly into “Hand in Hand”, which was quite short and I thought, “What is this doing here?” The ending was a similar rendition of “Dearly Beloved” as before.

Fantasy II: Secret of Mana

The Secret of Mana suite was the most artistic piece of the night. It was also the most coherent piece, which makes sense because apparently Jonne Valtonen had free hands in arranging it.

In a nutshell, the structure of this piece goes like this:

  • Impressive sound effects – wind noises made by the choir, finger snapping that sounds like water, cellos that sound like old gnarly trees, a percussion instrument called “thunder sheet” that sounds like thunder.
  • Epic rendition of “Angel’s Fear” with choir and thunder.
  • Fun and long adventure with “Into the Thick of It”.
  • “Eternal Recurrence” with minor sound effects in the background.
  • “Angel’s Fear” again, in even more glory.
  • “Prophecy”, maybe my favourite part. Kikuta’s signature background arpeggio-like melodies were done fabulously.
  • “Angel’s Fear” again, which takes over “Prophecy” a bit too quickly. Very visual, like falling down or shooting up through the sky.
  • “The Oracle” with choir chanting.
  • “Phantom of the Rose” in a beautiful serene way, with goregous cello akin to the Journey soundtrack.
  • Ends with “Angel’s Fear” and amazing sound effects.

I really loved the piece and thoroughly enjoyed it during all the rehearsals. But when I compare the actual concert to the rehearsals, the choir felt less powerful during “The Oracle” and the sound effects a bit less pronounced. It could have also been due to me sitting in a different place during the concert than during the rehearsals. Acoustics can vary quite a bit depending on where you sit.

Arrangement-wise, “Fantasy II: Secret of Mana” was the best in the sense that I would absolutely love to hear it again. It felt like a complete package with a coherent flow. For my tastes there was a bit too much “Angel’s Fear”, though it did always fit well in all the places it was featured in. But I can’t help but wonder whether Valtonen could have found another track in its place to serve the same musical purpose, since the soundtrack has so much more great music.

Fantasy III: Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross

The Chrono arrangement was the most entertaining piece of the night. It was wild, action-packed and emotional, but did have some things that took you out of the experience.

Rony Barrak was a guest soloist who played the darbouka, a hand drum that you hold sideways in your lap while sitting. Barrak is always a great show man and this time he was also – as expected – very loved. His drumming was really captivating and great almost all of the time. But sadly there were two places where he was off, one minor miss and one major miss. His minor miss came after being silent for a while – he came back with a bang, but his first powerful hit came on the wrong beat! Even though it was an important note, it was still only one note, so I just smiled a bit. His major miss was during the ending, when he played early in relation to the orchestra (which was confirmed by my friend after the concert). This kept going on for quite long. I cringed and it was hard to watch and listen to. But please don’t get me wrong, I do love Barrak’s playing. It’s otherworldly and crazy wild, and it was amazing most of the time. But his drumming at the ending really took me out of the music.

Another thing that slightly bugged me was the guest violinst, Roman Simovic. The expression on his face suggested that he didn’t even want to be there. He didn’t look at all into the music. I know this is quite a petty thing to say, but it does make a difference whether the musicians look or don’t look like they are having fun.

What about the arrangement? I loved most of it. Even though I didn’t see much of a common thread or story throughout the piece, the arrangement is still outstanding, since it simply is so entertaining musically. I was surprised by how fantastic “Gale” was and the “Bom! Sha! Bom! Sha!” shouts by the entire choir almost made me faint, literally! My heart pounded so fast and I felt light-headed from the power. I also liked how emotional “Prisoners of Fate” grew into, despite being quite simple at first.

I don’t have any criticism regarding the arrangement. There were no parts that were even slightly boring. This is quite rare for me. But if I were forced to suggest some improvements, I would have personally preferred “Peaceful Days” to be a bit longer, “Frog’s Theme” to be faster and punchier, and Barrak’s drumming to have a different pattern – perhaps closer to the original track – during the alternating 5/4 and 7/8 rhythm parts in “Battle with Magus”. Chrono Trigger is probably my favorite game and soundtrack ever, and I can be quite picky if forced!

Fantasy IV: Final Fantasy

The Final Fantasy arrangement was my least favourite piece of the night. After hearing it at the rehearsals it felt like I don’t need any more of it. And now after the first and second Final Symphonies, this arrangement felt so much less in every way.

The parts that I liked were “Let the Battles Begin!” and “Bombing Mission” from Final Fantasy VII. They work really well as straightforward arrangements. I also enjoyed the “Chocobo” theme. However – and I cannot believe I’m saying this – I was bored by “Battle at the Big Bridge”, the “Final Fantasy Main Theme” and slightly by the “Prelude” as well. I don’t really have an answer as to why. Perhaps I compare these too much to the Final Symphony concerts?

The strange thing is that back in 2009, my favorite arrangement was this one and my favorite part was the “Prelude”. A flood of nostalgia and chills in my spine came when I heard it live. I remember it so vividly. But I guess that after a few live experiences, the magic wears off, since the “Prelude” is quite simple after all. But I’m sure that many newcomers enjoyed this entire piece a whole lot, like I did seven years ago. Unfortunately for me, parts of it didn’t stand the test of time.

Encore: Final Boss Suite

This medley of final boss music is the only Symphonic Fantasies piece I’ve listened to at home dozens of time. I think it’s absolutely fantastic and it was great hearing it live for the first time.

Conclusion

When I saw the London Symphony Orchestra perform their first video game music concert – Final Symphony in 2013 – I was absolutely in love. I saw them again in 2014, and again in 2015, and every time they re-captivated me. Even though I had seen a concert somewhere else before, I always decided to see it again in London, just because of the LSO.

But there’s something I didn’t mention yet: the LSO’s performance was a little disappointing this time. In my opinion they were not up to their previous standards. A friend of mine felt the same way. They didn’t feel like a tight musical unit, which I was used to. I wonder what happened with them, but I sure hope that it was a one-time thing, or that me and my friend’s ears were out of whack.

What about hearing Symphonic Fantasies for the second time after a seven-year pause? It wasn’t what I hoped it would be. Back in 2009, I enjoyed only the second half while others were also raving about Secret of Mana in the first half. This time I kind of enjoyed the concert more, except for the Final Fantasy arrangement. After the Final Symphonies (2013 & 2015) and the Zelda concert Symphonic Legends (2014), it was overall a bigger step back than I would have thought.

Symphonic Fantasies now feels to me like the beginning of something great, not the culmination. Like a promising young talent, but not a top performer at his peak. There are two things made me feel that way.

First, I didn’t find the orchestration as full of details as in Valtonen’s and Wanamo’s later concerts, which I think have more finesse and interesting things going on. And also more playfulness and small good tidbits that make you go, “Oh! Wow! Yeah! What was that!” I also think that the transitions between tracks are better in the arrangements in later concerts.

Second, I don’t think the story-telling aspect is there in Symphonic Fantasies. The arrangements weren’t visual for me, which means that I didn’t get any images in my head while listening to the music, except for some background-art-esque nature images while experiencing Secret of Mana. The story-telling and visual aspect was a huge deal for me in Valtonen’s and Wanamo’s later concerts, but I wasn’t expecting to be so bummed to not have those in Symphonic Fantasies.

The only piece from Symphonic Fantasies that is perhaps up to the current standards of Valtonen and Wanamo is the Secret of Mana suite. I really want to hear it again. If the performance and acoustics were top notch, I could see myself giving it 4.5 stars out of 5. I think I would give the same rating to the Chrono arrangement, because it’s so amazingly entertaining. But for me it doesn’t go much beyond entertainment, so I don’t feel a need to hear it again live. Kingdom Hearts would be my third pick, with perhaps 4 stars, if the circumstances were top notch. I’m not sure what rating I would give to the Final Fantasy arrangement, since it’s such a hit-and-miss in my opinion.

Whenever Symphonic Fantasies will be performed again, I will definitely give it a third shot. While I don’t think the performance and/or acoustics were as good this time around, I do think that most of the arrangements are great. I will keep an eye out on the official Game Concerts website, and I recommend that you do too!

Symphonic Fantasies: London, October 2016 Nikolas Broman

Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!

3.5


Posted on March 1, 2017 by Nikolas Broman. Last modified on March 1, 2017.

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About the Author

Hi, I'm Nikolas Broman and I've been to 50+ game music concerts. I run a company called VGM Land where we produce game music concerts. In the meantime I write about video game music at the VGM Land Blog, but also do concert reports here at VGMO. I know quite a lot about the Japanese VGM concert scene, since I have lived there and speak the language, so if there's anything you think I could help you with, please let me know!



2 Responses to Symphonic Fantasies: London, October 2016

  1. Sandra says:

    Storrytelling. That’s the word I was searching for the Symphonic Game Music Concerts. I listen to the concert series since 2009 as well. I prefer their arrangements in comparison to other game concerts like for example “video games live” because listening to their arrangements is in my opinion more complex, full of details and therefor more challenging.

    • I agree, the arrangements in these concerts are a lot more interesting than in any other Western VGM concert. It’s an entirely different style. My favorite by Merregnon Studios (= Thomas Böcker’s company) is Final Symphony, which takes the story-telling aspect to its extremest.

      But I’m not against straightforward arrangements. In fact, some of my favorite concerts from Japan contain nothing but easy-to-understand straightforward pieces, but the overall execution and concert structure is better than for example Video Games Live, Distant Worlds, or Zelda Symphony. I do enjoy those concerts too, but their concert programs are in my experience quite hit-and-miss, and overall they feel like solid entertainment without much depth.

      Going back to the topic of storytelling – I didn’t feel like the Symphonic Fantasies arrangements were that storytelling, but I’m curious to know – did you think so? For me, they are musically interesting, but Secret of Mana was the only one that actually painted a picture in my head. And even that was more about the world and its nature/weather, and less about specific events. I equate storytelling with seeing specific events unfold in my head.

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