Symphonic Fantasies: Cologne, September 2009
Welcome to my comprehensive report of the concert Symphonic Fantasies – Music from Square Enix. Given we were given exclusive backstage access to the concert, the first two parts of the report are dedicated to detailing my experiences with the team. The remainder of the report provides a review of the arrangements and performances at the concert from my perspective as a Square Enix fan and clasical musician.
During most of Friday and Saturday, I travelled with the team of Symphonic Fantasies for the rehearsals, concerts, and after-show parties. Don and I were the only fans there, so it was a super-exclusive opportunity. I think the producer Thomas Boecker offered it as a big thank you for promotingSymphonic Shades and Symphonic Fantasies so passionately over the last couple of years — probably even more than any other site. (Ever want the same opportunity, now you know which site to contribute to!) Fortunately, I’ve gained respect for Thomas’ ambitious productions over the years and Thomas likewise appreciates my vision for the site, so it’s always been very easy to work with him. It’s not often that I’d be prepared to spend so much attending one concert, but knowing the spectacularSymphonic Shades, I was convinced it was worth it.
I travelled into Cologne on the Thursday. While the flight from Stansted to Cologne-Bonn last little over an hour, it was much harder to get to and from each airport. In total, I used five different forms of transport in one day and, having left at 1 AM, it was only at 6 PM that I finally met Don at the hotel. He had attended a full-length rehearsal session with the composers the previous day, so I received a chance to learn a lot about the various arrangements. While he was very positive and gave vivid descriptions, I was a little nervous about some of the things he mentioned, such as how a few of the lighter tracks would fit in the concert or whether interrupting “One Winged Angel” could possibly go down well with fans. Needless to say, I should have waited given great descriptions cannot compare to the experience of hearing the music itself and perhaps this discussion spoiled a few of the surprises. Nevertheless, I asked for it!
I first met the team on Friday morning for the interviews with the composers in the hotel lobby. After much pleading, the team were kind enough to grant me interviews with all four of the composers — Nobuo Uematsu, Yasunori Mitsuda, Hiroki Kikuta, and finally Yoko Shimomura. Due to everyone’s strict time schedules, these interviews were completely exclusive. Thomas’ wife Kanako was kind enough to handle the Japanese to English translations and was a wonderful person to work with. It was a pretty nerve-racking experience, but Don and I handled it quite professionally and asked many interesting questions. I was really pleased with most of the replies and they provided a lot of insight and details that have never been published before. The interviews didn’t go entirely smoothly, mostly due to time issues, but thankfully the artists were happy to resume discussions through email to create really definitive articles. Expect them to be published in successive weeks over the next month.
The rest of Thursday was spent travelling with the composers to the Oberhausen concert. It was a surprisingly long ride from Cologne, especially since our coach took the team and orchestra on a detour through pretty much every town in Germany, from Berlin and back. Nevertheless, it was a good chance for a foreigner like me to get a taste of the country. There was still enough time to do a rehearsal at the Oberhausen. Relatively little was played, but hearing the “Fight to the Death” passage from the Kingdom Hearts suite was enough for me to realize I came to the right place and it was literally spine chilling. The majority of the rehearsal was dedicated to conductor Arnie Roth collaborated with the recording engineers to adjust the acoustics. Given the concert was performed in an arena, the acoustics and balance were not ideal — in particular, the first violins too loud and woodwinds drowned out. Nevertheless, the team made the best of the less-than-ideal circumstances caused by the unavailability of the Cologne Philharmonic Hall.
The arena experience was a little disorientating. The stage itself was bright and open, but seemed more accommodated for a sports show than an artistic event. Prior to the event, there were even pretzel sellers and ice cream vendors walking around to the accompaniment of some of the most tacky smooth jazz music I’ve heard. I persistently groaned at Don about the choice of music, much to his irritation, but he agreed that Alphabet Planet should have played instead. Backstage meanwhile was often dark and maze-like, though fortunately enough orchestra members to follow not to get completely lost. I was also confused that there were many posters advertising the concert backstage — I counted seven in the catering room alone — yet there were practically no others elsewhere for the public to see. Despite all its bizarre decorations, the catering room featured an excellent coffee machine, much to my and Jonne’s delight, and this really fuelled my experience of the after-show party back at the hotel.
Despite its presentation issues, the arena concert was a success. The orchestra performed beautifully and the acoustics were much better than the rehearsal session, with the choir coming across well. The soloists, pianist Benyamin Nuss and percussionist Rony Barrak, performed spectacularly on the evening and Barrak was especially well-received. While I couldn’t understand a word of what the MC said, it seemed like he was well-received too and brought a few laughs to the experience. Though the audience took some time to get comfortable, they were very enthusiastic in the second half and the cheers for the finale at the end were especially overwhelming. I used this performance to really start to familiarise myself with the material. The Secret of Mana and Chronos suites really spoke to me when I heard them in full, though I remained to be convinced about the Final Fantasy suite despite the glorious reaction. I soon started to realize that Jonne Valtonen’s arrangements were so intricate that it’d be impossible to spot everything on two listens and already started begging for a CD release.
Following the first of two surreal after-show parties, Don and I caught up on some much-needed sleep. Given I couldn’t afford my own accommodation, I camped on Don’s chair, but eventually managed to doze off at 4:30 AM. On the afternoon of the Saturday, Don and I met some people from various online communities. It was delightful to talk to Kamil, Mateusz, and Mariusz of GameMusic.pl at the hotel and we hope to work together more closely in the future. We also received the opportunity to briefly meet with Andreas and Marcel from Gamingforce, Johan of Spelmusik, Hengun from Game Music Net, and Thomas of Eurogamer before the concert. Located close to the Cologne Cathedral and partly underground, the Philharmonic Hall was a complete contrast from the arena — a truly beautiful venue with hybridised architecture, superb acoustics, and no pretzel sellers. The team could finally feel comfortable… well, most of them. The composers were meet-and-greeted by a queue almost a mile long looking for autographs and small talk. Don and I were grateful to have our albums signed earlier and instead spent the time speaking to Mateusz, Thomas, and Mitsuda’s studio.
The Saturday performance was the real thing for me — the performance I had bought tickets for so many months back and eagerly anticipated since. Having familiarity of the music from the Oberhausen concert just enhanced my musical appreciation on the night, though most others were encountering the music first time. While fans in the hall were respectful throughout, they were an even more enthusiastic audience this time. It was fascinating looking at their reactions, particularly to the “One Winged Angel” tease and Rony Barrak’s solo, and it was so clear that Thomas and Jonne know exactly how to draw listeners in. The final hand-destroying applause wasn’t simply out of courtesy or enthusiasm. The audience felt satisfied and wanted to express intense gratitude for all the time the arrangers, performers, and guests had put into the concert. There were also several cameras strategically positioned to film the concert for the streamed Internet feed and, as with Symphonic Shades previously, a radio broadcast occurred through the WDR4. I’m sure some of these listeners were applausing from home too.
With the production finally over, the team returned to the hotel for the after-show party. This party had an even more ecstatic atmosphere than the earlier one with everyone proud of what they had collectively achieved. The event was quite a bit larger too since some other fans attended — not all with permission — though this didn’t cause too many problems. It was great to speak to Shota and Audun at last, though I felt very sorry that a few of my friends couldn’t attend too given I was told to keep everything strictly confidential. Most of us had a fair amount to drink on this night, as per Japanese tradition and there were a lot of warm and humorous conversations. It was an amazing if slightly unbelievable experience. On the way home, I decided to continue being sociable and ended up having fascinating conversations with a Dutch revolutionary at the Cologne-Bonn airport and an Oxford headteacher. When I finally returned, I realized that I had been on an amazing musical journey and one of the very best social experiences of my life. What a way to end the summer.
During these travels, Don and I received a chance to get to know the various members of Thomas’ team. On the coach to the first rehearsal, I spoke at length with Jonne about his approach toSymphonic Fantasies. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to record these conversations, but Jonne has promised to go into depth about the concert at a later date once he has fully rested from all those months of persistent work. Above all, I learned how he was attempting to offer something so deep and intricate that it was comparable to a true symphony. Yet while quietly self-assured, Jonne proved a tremendously likeable character throughout the trip — very humorous, quite eccentric, and strangely self-depreciating too. As I put it on Facebook, a true legend. I also received the opportunity to talk to Roger Wanamo, the co-arranger for the Chrono suite, who had previously studied with Jonne. He struck me as a polite and well-read guy with a deep fascination towards the phenomenon of video game music.
I mostly talked to the composers at the morning interview sessions and the two after-show parties. Nobuo Uematsu especially endeared at the second after-show party. He spoke excellent English, understanding what Don and I had to say with our strong respective accents, while giving eloquent replies back. Among our informal discussions, I learned that Uematsu prefers to brew English ale, owns a lakehouse near Mount Fiji, likes to smoke at the end of long days, and certainly isn’t a vegetarian like me. He also liked that I was from Liverpool, the city where one of his major influences were born — The Beatles, of course. Having spent many hours talking to him, it was clearly that he was incredibly caring, humble, and sincere man. The official character isn’t just an act and he really is that endearing. He was also very humorous too, even teasing me to buy him a large Kölsch at one point. Of course, I needlessly agreed and he was guilty yet grateful that I did.
I talked to Hiroki Kikuta a little less during the two days, but he certainly made an impression on me during the interview. We planned to do 11 questions in 30 minutes, but he actually talked for 15 minutes on one question. It was very clear he had a lot to say and 30 minutes just wasn’t enough. Fortunately he and translator Justin Pfeiffer are willing to continue the rest through text. The final result is bound to be fascinating! Yasunori Mitsuda and Yoko Shimomura spoke less English, but still enough for me to show my appreciation for their works and offer them drinks at the after-show party (yes, a lot of drinks were bought that night!). While I perceived Mitsuda to be a reserved and gentle person, Shimomura was very warm and bubbly. Some of what she said during the interview was especially hilarious and I really hope the effect isn’t lost in text form.
Two of the composers were accompanied by collaborators too. Uematsu-san was accompanied by his manager Hiroki Ogawa. Even after a few beers, Ogawa came across as a very professional and kind-hearted person, who complemented Uematsu wonderfully. It’s rare that, on offering someone a Cosmopolitan, they end up buying you one instead but Ogawa-san was so kind that this happened to me. More surprisingly, Mitsuda was accompanied by most members of Procyon Studio at the event, namely the composers Shunsuke Tsuchiya and Maki Kirioka, programmer Junya Kuroda, and manager Yoshie Miyajima. While they seemed quiet during the concerts, I realized who they were and took the opportunity to talk to them. There were surprised and complimented that I knew of each of their works. I also received the opportunity to talk to Kirioka-san for half an hour at the first after-show party. While she spoke little English and I spoke even less Japanese, we surprisingly managed to learn a lot about each other. It was a lovely conversation!
The two soloists were also very interesting to talk to. While Benyamin Nuss is a classically-trained pianist, he also enjoys video games such as Kingdom Hearts and expressed a deep admiration for Final Fantasy music veterans such as Nobuo Uematsu and Shiro Hamaguchi. It was a worthwhile experience going to breakfast with him and his girlfriend, even after those late night after-show parties. He talked to me quite a lot about his upcoming classical and video game projects. Needless to say, they’re exciting and it’s safe to say he a big future ahead. Rony Barrak was very exciting to talk to as well. I was shocked by just the extent and range of his works beyond game music, including three multifarious solo albums and his own mini-symphony. He was also accompanied by a very pleasant recording engineer who asked me do a video recording about Barrak’s performance at Symphonic Fantasies. I hope it’ll never show up online since I’m not good at speaking when tipsy!
The other member of the team, of course, was maestro Arnie Roth. Amidst a team of Japanese, German, Finnish, and Lebanese producers and artists, Arnie was surprisingly the only American. He brought a lot of personality to the concert with his warm yet authoritative command of the orchestra and inviting treatment of the special guests. He was also engaging to talk to in person and proudly revealed some of his plans for the three hour Distant Worlds concert to occur in Chicago during December. It was also great to watch his very close relationship with Nobuo Uematsu behind the scenes. I’m not sure if the hotel were as happy with him, though, given he started that trend where pretty much everyone ordered difficult-to-mix Cosmopolitans! Finally, there were two surprisingly friendly executives from Square Enix’s licensing division who were considering the plausibility of publishing a recording of the concert on CD. Given their enthusiastic reactions, I expect a CD release is likely maybe next year, but let’s wait and see.
Overall, the atmosphere within the team was unlike something I’ve witnessed before. The warmth, the humour, and the sincerity expressed by everyone was incredible. Everybody was complimenting each other, from soloist to arranger to composer to producer, while being genuinely modest themselves. They realized it was a truly collective effort and were honoured to have taken part alongside so many other passionate and talented people. It was so good to see that the composers portray their true selves in interviews and they are even more endearing in person. They were very accommodating to fans and, even though I was surrounded by so many geniuses, I felt completely comfortable around them. The whole team really touched me. I’m so glad that such a great bunch of people received the reception and success that they did on the two nights.
Now that I’ve discussed about the backstage experience of Symphonic Fantasies, I’d like to discuss the actual music in some more detail. The first half was a spectacular artistic experience for me. Jonne Valtonen’s opening fanfare introduced the fantastical aura and symphonic colours to expect elsewhere on the concert. While an original composition, its inclusion now makes sense given the symphony-based format of the game arrangements. The composition was premiered through YouTube some time ago, giving listeners a chance to become familiar with it. This was beneficial given there are a lot of colours and intricacies in the fanfare that aren’t always evident on first listen. It’s especially interesting to note how Valtonen presents the focus on successive sections of the orchestra and blends traditional nationalistic elements of a fanfare with more modernist influences. It was an effective introduction to the concert overall.
The Kingdom Hearts fantasy was a particularly emotional experience. Echoing his approach to Turrican II: The Final Fight, Valtonen wrote the arrangement in the style of a piano concertino, but this time it was filled with romantic influences, particularly from Rachmaninoff. The structure and arch of the whole arrangement was spot on, with diverse themes and emotions, yet continuous elements. Several tracks from the series, namely “Dearly Beloved”, “Sora”, and “Hand in Hand”, made recurring appearances during the suite, and were integrated with the other additions to form a cohesive and expansive 17 minute experience. There were original elements too, such as a recurring bass rhythm that initially recreated the grand yet wistful quality of Ravel’s Bolero, but gradually descended into something more apocalyptic, explicitly inspired by Mars, the Bringer of War. The result could have been clichéd, but it was so exquisitely integrated that it just added to the intensity.
Fortunately, the performers did the Kingdom Hearts fantasy justice. Pianist Benyamin Nuss coped extremely well with the technically and emotionally demanding piece — as was evident sitting right in front of him in the arena concert — whether the contemplative cadenzas based on “The Other Promise”, the feathery interpretation of “Dearly Beloved”, or the ferocious virtuosic passagework at the climactic “A Fight to the Death”. He gave an especially polished performance at the Oberhausen. The orchestra nevertheless offered a rich support and each section received an opportunity to shine. The final result captured the drama, darkness, and romance lurking behind each game, but sections such as “Happy Holidays!” also ensured some of the series’ more youthful vibe was reflected. It stayed true to Yoko Shimomura’s intentions while bringing even more artistic integrity to the concert hall. The result was spell-binding for me and fans also seemed to enjoy it.
Perhaps the most fascinating experience was a suite entirely dedicated to Secret of Mana. Valtonen created the spiritual yet natural concept of the game and score with some inspired experimentation. More obviously, he created a range of ‘sound effects’ during the suite, from the stormy opening to the sounds of water dropping at the end, but without relying on computers; instead he used prepared instrumental techniques, unusual choral approaches, carefully oriented percussionists, and dashes of hand-rubbing and floor-stamping to create the desired sounds. While the result was wonderfully aurally, the full effect can only be really felt live given the importance of the acoustics and floor vibrations. The sound design was very novel for all those in the hall — with many of us shaked with each stormy growl of the bass drum. However, it also felt artistic and fitting too when it could have easily been gimmicky.
The melodies of the Secret of Mana suite were presented in quite a different way to others and this only enhanced the spiritual flavour. The opening particularly achieved this with successive cantabile presentations of the “Fear of the Heavens” on violin, brass, and choir against minimal, albeit occasionally earth-shattering, accompaniment. The transposition of the original theme to a major key only enhanced the uplifting quality. Subsequent renditions such as “Into the Thick of It” and “The Oracle” pleased with their strong melodies and quirky rhythms; including pieces like these was essential for capturing the charm and eccentricity of Hiroki Kikuta’s Mana compositions. However, pieces such as “Eternal Recurrence”, “Phantom… and… A Rose”, and the reprise of the main theme ensured the suite was emotionally charged overall. It was a particularly special arrangement and the WDR Radio Orchestra and Choir brought out all of its beauty. Could the second half maintain the same integrity?
The second half opened with a suite dedicated to Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. After the ever-serene “A Premonition”, it was predictable that “Scars of Time” would dominate the first section of the fantasy. Nevertheless, it was more interesting than most performances with the atmospheric opening chromatic progressions, Rony Barrak’s exotic percussion performance, and the eventual segue into “Crono’s Theme”. Darbouka performer Rony Barrak really emphasised the rhythmical focus of the suite and, despite a few balance problems at the arena concert, was perfectly integrated with the orchestra in the Philharmonic Hall concert and very well-received overall. The orchestra also maintained the rhythmical edge with their brisk aggressive performances of battle themes like “Gale”, “Brink of Death”, and “Battle with Magus”. It was also delightful how Juraj Cizmarovic restored the Celtic feel of “Scars of Time” and “Gale” with his fiddle performance. The resulting theme had so much momentum that listeners such as Andreas apparently found that the 16 minutes flew by. This is a good thing in mainstream-targeted concerts given many find the symphony-based approach laborous.
Co-arranger Roger Wanamo was responsible for many of the intricacies of the Chronos suite. He fitted themes from both games together like he was completing a jigsaw puzzle. It was particularly impressive how the Chrono Cross and Chrono Trigger main theme were often unified and playing simultaneously, or how dabs of the descending chord progression from “Battle with Magus” made appearances throughout. At points, Wanamo even offered renditions of three or four themes all at once without and the final result sounded surprisingly natural. However, most themes also received plenty of playtime of their own leaving fans satisfied. I was worried that inclusions such as “Frog’s Theme” would come across gimmicky, yet they were integrated very convincingly into the suite, while the elegaic string-based performance of “Prisoners of Fate” was also a highlight of the entire concert. Between this, the time focus, and the Celtic flavour, it seems Valtonen and Wanamo were once again faithful to the game and Mitsuda’s musical inspiration.
The Final Fantasy suite always seemed like the most challenging arrangement to create. While the original material is solid and popular, there is so much available that it is difficult to know how to condense it into 16 minutes. Rather than maintain the artistic focus of earlier arrangements, Valtonen chose to adopt a more conventional medley-based approach using fan favourites from the series. The individual parts were fantastic. The flanking arrangements of “Prelude” and “Final Fantasy” were spiritual and nostalgic, while “Fighting” and “Bombing Mission” were dramatic with their edgy melodies and brutal choral chants. Even better, Final Fantasy VI‘s “The Mystic Forest” elaborated upon the impressionistic feel of the original to create some gorgeous timbres somewhat reminiscent of those in the Secret of Mana suite. The two renditions of “Chocobo” were surprising too, but both quite amusing given both the original melody and its slightly dissonant harmonisation. An effective mix of drama, ambience, and humour overall.
While I felt entertained with each individual section, I came away feeling more confused than satisfied with the Final Fantasy suite as a whole. While the opener and closer were spot on, the track choices otherwise seemed a little random and more representative of Final Fantasy VII than the entire series. More significantly, the arrangement tended to transition through each theme somewhat abruptly, resulting in many transitions from loud to soft. That said, the audience reaction to the interruption of “One Winged Angel” with the Chocobo theme was exactly as desired — first complete excitement, then groans and laughs — so was clearly successful and showed the team understood fan culture. Aside that, a similar fan service could have been created with an even more artistically inclined arrangement. Now that Nobuo Uematsu has seen what Valtonen did with Secret of Mana, he is apparently much more open to transformative arrangements in the future so hopefully Valtonen will soon do the series justice. And regardless of my own disappointment, partly due to my bias against medleys, the fans seemed to love it given it generated a momentous applause.
After endless cheers, fans were eventually given an encore for the evening. Valtonen chose to orchestrate the most epic themes from each series and present them for orchestra and chorus. While the medley-based structure was simple, it worked better than the Final Fantasy suite given there was a clear progression throughout and breathing space between each theme rather than abrupt transitions. Given the arrangements mostly stuck close to their originals, a strong performance was essential here. It was a big relief that, contrary to the rehearsal, the choir was sufficiently prominent to bring dramatic potency to the Drammatica-esque rendition of Kingdom Hearts‘ “Destati”. Secret of Mana‘s “Meridian Dance” was a well-received choice and reflected the peppy yet bombastic element of many of Kikuta’s finest battle themes. Subsequently Chrono Trigger‘s “Lavos’ Theme” was also straightforward, but created such an awe-inspiring timbre with its combination of orchestra, chorus, pipe organ, and percussion.
Of course, the ultimate finale came with the rendition of “One Winged Angel”. However the team just had to tease the audience one more time here by interrupting it with a darbouka solo by Rony Barrak. While it’s near-impossible for something or someone to interrupt “One Winged Angel” and receive an even more spectacular reaction, Barrak managed it and brought unique solos to each concert. It was amazing to watch the audience’s reaction — a mixture of curiosity, amusement, and awe, often all within the same person — as Barrak’s performance grew more intricate. The performance of “One Winged Angel” was actually brief and stuck closely to Shiro Hamaguchi’s arrangements, but few seemed to care. Even though the piece isn’t always popular with hardcore game music fans, the more mainstream audience mostly felt delighted by it. This gave way to standing ovations aplenty at both concerts, showing most fans were entirely satisfied with the offerings of the evening.
As I said previously, Symphonic Fantasies ranks among the greatest musical and social experiences of my life. Each arrangement took listeners on an extended journey through the atmospheres, emotions, and melodies of their respective series. The majority of the arrangements also felt like cohesive and artistic musical achievements in their own right. Despite this, the last two items lost some of the artistic focus and musical balance of previous items in the concert, resembling a little more the traditional medleys at typical game music concerts than an expression of Valtonen’s creativity. Regardless it was a worthy tribute to Square Enix overall that won the appeal of gamers and musicians alike. Now that this concert successively established the symphony-based format for game concerts and introduced composers to Valtonen’s marvel, there is the freedom available for the team to create an even greater concert. I eagerly anticipate what will be offered at the newly announced concert on September 24, 2010 and hope it lives up to the potential legacy created by Symphonic Fantasies. An album release for Symphonic Fantasies would also be very welcome.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on September 12, 2009 by Chris Greening. Last modified on March 1, 2014.