Video Games Meet Classical Music at Houston Symphony’s “Final Fantasy” Concerts

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“Distant Worlds Final Fantasy” with orchestra

Photo: Courtesy of the Houston Symphony Orchestra

The soundtracks of the hit video game series “Final Fantasy” helped create a new kind of orchestral experience. It is, says conductor Arnie Roth, a truly global audience.

“We can hold the gig in Singapore, Sydney, New York or Chicago, LA,” he says. “We’ve played in Houston many times.”

He’s about to do it again. Friday and Saturday at the Hobby Center, Roth and the Houston Symphony — and the Houston Symphony Chorus — will revisit “Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy,” one of many orchestral programs from the long-running franchise’s sprawling musical scores. (A 16th installment is due next summer.)

Roth and his collaborators regularly rotate the selections to accommodate the truly massive amount of music under the “Final Fantasy” umbrella; he estimates that up to 140 different scores are at his disposal. They have to walk a fine line to balance perennial favorites such as “One-Winged Angel” or “Zanarkand” with less familiar selections, but medleys that bundle multiple combat or character themes into one piece help balance each other out. make sure everyone goes home happy.

Be that as it may, the public is rarely hesitant to express its approval.

More information

Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy with Houston Symphony
When: 7:30 p.m. on July 22 and 23
Where: Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St.
Details: $29 to $99; 713-224-7575; www.houstonsymphony.org

“These are highly regarded musical scores, and so the audience is extremely attentive to listening to the musical performance,” Roth says, “and then they’re like a rock audience in terms of over-the-top appreciation — standing ovations, cheering on their favourites.

Orchestral concerts of “Final Fantasy” music date back to late ’90s Japan when Nobuo Uematsu, the series’ original composer, staged concerts based on the games using his own arrangements. (The original was released in 1987.) A few years later, a colleague suggested that Roth, then head of the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra, consider conducting gigs of video game music.

He partnered with Uematsu and began developing a concert schedule that, among other things, added footage from the games onto a movie-sized screen. After a preview at the E3 2004 video game trade show, the first public concert, titled “Dear Friends: Music From Final Fantasy”, took place in early 2005. It was an instant sell-out. Roth and Uematsu began working with the game’s publisher, Tokyo-based Square Enix, on a touring version, and “Distant Worlds” premiered in December 2007 with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic.

From time to time, “Final Fantasy” concerts will be bundled into orchestral subscription packages, exposing the music to audiences unfamiliar with games, and “everyone has commented on how fantastic the music is,” reports Roth. Throughout the series, various themes can be derived from contemporary pop or jazz, but most often these are the kind of great cinematic moments reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, or Mahler.

It’s not for nothing that Time magazine once compared Uematsu’s work to that of John Williams. “It’s very fitting, because John Williams uses very specific themes for every character, every battle, every environment in something like the Star Wars series or Harry Potter or any of those,” Roth says.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of music in the “Final Fantasy” series. Other games like first-person shooters may use a main theme and a few loops, says Roth, but this franchise goes way beyond that. He also has a sense of humor; Roth says a mix of themes for Chocobo, a yellow chicken who is one of the franchise’s most popular characters, is always a hit.

“In ‘Final Fantasy,’ it’s really a role-playing game where you’re a character in this plot, and it’s a bigger plot,” he says. “You interact with other characters. Your character has its own theme music, and you might be fighting a battle that has its own theme music. I could go on and on here, but those are the reasons why the music gets so criticism in this game.”

Almost immediately, Roth says, musicians from the orchestras he worked with came to see him after a “Final Fantasy” concert and remarked how “they just couldn’t believe the quality of the scores and the reaction from the audience,” says -he. . “They had never seen anything like it.” Indeed, “Final Fantasy” scores have been accepted into the highest corners of classical music – something few other franchises can say. Roth estimates that he has visited the Royal Albert Hall in London five or six times.

“That can give you an indication of the level of acceptance,” he says. “These are venues that I can’t just go out and organize to do shows in those venues. They have to review our scores and watch what we do, and judge whether we deserve to be on this stage. That says a lot there, I think.

Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.




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