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Distant Worlds: San Francisco Symphony Plays Celebrates Music from Final Fantasy


Sold out SF Symphony show

There are 3 takeaways I hope to convey in this post.  First, I’d like to share what it was like to be there Saturday night in the symphony hall.  Secondly, I want to describe what I thought about my second time at an FF concert (my first is described here).  Most importantly, I want to discuss a bit about the significance and meaning of such an event.  There is great meaning evident in the type of response that a video game event, such as this one, creates.  Unlike what is often described of video games in the media, this is not just an exploitation of fanaticism, rather, it is a celebration of the deeply meaningful presence Final Fantasy has had.  I cannot think of a better example to show that video games, rich and full of meaning, are about more than “just playing a game.”

After seeing the concert, there are certain things I’d do differently.  For one, I probably shouldn’t have started this post the night before the concert.  It sort of prepared me to over think the experience while I was there.  What makes it awesome is quite indescribable, and trying to explain it definitely takes away from the experience.  So I am going to put up my pics, finish capturing the moment, and forget as much about it as I can before the next time I go.  I suggest that if you plan to ever see a Final Fantasy show (and haven’t yet) that you similarly forget anything you know about it, or that you don’t read anything about it (and just take my word that it was awesomely moving).

1. What it was like to be there Saturday night…

The seating for the Davies Symphony Hall in SF.  This was a sold out show.

30 minutes before the show

The show was set for July 18, 2009 at the Davies Symphony Hall.  Arnie Roth conducted the SF Symphony for the evening, and composer, Nobuo Uematsu, stepped on stage for a standing ovation at the end of the show.   Showing up 30 minutes early, there was no line to get in, and the seats were about half filled by the time I entered the concert hall.  I had heard about the show last minute and bought one of the last seats they had.  If I recall correctly, the cheapest tickets were $30 (for an adult) up to $90+ for the better seats.  I ended up paying $60 plus $10 for shipping.  From what I could gather, there weren’t many $35 seats and they were long gone.

Once I was inside the symphony hall, I was greeted by a number of ushers and directed to my seat in the D section of the first tier.  Musicians were warming up, as people filled in the seats, and above the stage was a big screen that read, “Distant Worlds, music from Final Fantasy.”  As the lights dimmed, a female voice informed us that the show is about to begin and to turn off all electronic devices (no cameras or phones).  Arnie Roth, the conductor and master of ceremonies, introduced the musicians, the composer, and the show to the audience.  He explained how such a production was put together, that the night had been sold out, and that Distant Worlds will be performed in Vancouver in October and Chicago in December.

The night was filled with moments of laughter and moments of noticeable tearing and sniffles from the audience.  Songs were from Final Fantasy I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VII, IX, X, and XI, and the screens showed a montage of cut scenes (which included scenes from FFXII and FF Advent Children), CG art, battle scenes, and original art by Yoshitaka Amano.  Cut scenes came in the form of pixilated sprites moving about to modern 3-d rendering and animation. The night ended with a standing ovation for Nobuo Uematsu and an encore performance of “One Winged Angel.”  With an intermission in between, the concert started at 8 and ended at 10 pm.

Standing ovation for Nobuo Uematsu

Standing ovation for Nobuo Uematsu

2. What I thought about my second time at an FF concert…

Civic Center in San Francisco

Civic Center in San Francisco

The last concert I was at was in 2005 in San Francisco during (my first) GDC.   By chance, a girl, going there with her FF XI MMO party, offered giving me a ride to the performance.  This time, I figured that the venue, being a few blocks away from the Civic Center BART station, would be easily navigated, especially since, I am far more familiar with SF than I was back then.  This time around, I regret not making more of an effort to invite someone along.  So, more or less, I kind of went by myself (again); (although, I did know a bunch of people who were going and ran into people I knew while I was there).  That day, in SF, was full of interesting encounters, meeting with old friends along the way, and circumstantially meeting a bunch of new people.    Most of my encounters were unexpected, which makes for great stories and friendships (I’ll spare the details).   Honestly though, I don’t really save money (or time) living this way, and I think I’m getting too old to keep it up (lol).

Of course, being my second time, I had some expectation of the event– live music with cut scenes projected in the concert hall.  If you were at “Distant Worlds” you might remember over half of the arrangements from “Dear Friends.”  Having listened to the soundtrack from Dear Friends quite a bit, I knew these songs pretty well and recognized them immediately.   New songs included: music from FFXI, the opera song from FFVI, and a JAZZ orchestra, swing rendition of the Chocobo song.

Throughout the whole concert, I could feel the an atmosphere of suspense and a constant feeling of butterflies (all over).  I laughed and cried with the audience from song to song and re-experienced the moments captured in each piece.  Each song summarizes the ups and downs of truly compelling stories, which I found to be a unique symphony experience.  The images tell the story fairly well, but it helps to have actually played all the games to have a full understanding of each song’s significance.

If I were to give myself advice as to how to go to an FF symphony concert, I’d say:

  • Finish as many Final Fantasy games prior, but especially Final Fantasy 8.  I avoided finishing FF 8, b/c I heard that it wasn’t very good.  The SF Symphony has convinced me otherwise.
  • Replay games on the newer systems.  I played the older FFs on NES and SNES, but the cut scenes were mostly of the remakes.  I did feel a bit disconnected because scenes didn’t look the way I remembered.
  • Even playing a little bit of each games makes a difference.  I only got up to level 10 in FFXI, yet its music was one of the most memorable tear jerking moments of the night.
  • Buy a seat that is as close to the musicians as you can afford.  I thought I’d like to be in a balcony, but I think I’d prefer to be as close to the performance as possible for a better sense of presence.
  • Take a look through some of Yoshitaka Amano’s art.  I’m glad that I knew some of his work, b/c it isn’t a direct resemblance to the characters as they are typically shown.
  • Bring a Friend.  I’m not going to the symphony by myself if I don’t have to anymore.  I just need to make friends who aren’t poor grad students or who love FF enough to pay the $$.
  • Unless you live close to the concert hall, make good travel plans.  I was kind of exhausted when I got to the venue, I had too much stuff with me, and had to worry about how I was getting back/where I was going to spend the night.
  • Don’t write a blog post the night before.  It’s best to be relaxed, carefree, and thought-less when you get there.

Maybe I’ll run into you next time!

Exiting the Show

Exiting the show

3. The significance and meaning of such an event…

To give a bit of context, video games, for me, had a special meaning during the late 80’s/early 90’s.  I’d venture as far to say that there is some era of video gaming around that time that is in fact quite special and sentimental to a majority of game players.  Whether it was a “Romantic Era” or a “Golden Age” is not my liberty to say, but roughly, this era begins with the launch of Nintendo Entertainment System (1985)  and ends at the launch of Yahoo! (March 1, 1995) or the launch of AOL 3.0 for Windows 95 (June 1995).  More specifically, this was the era of ubiquity for video games, before the ubiquity of the internet.

Final Fantasy spans 1987-present, preserving a solid lineage for where we’ve been to where we are now.   As a young child, immersed in the narratives of games, I was exposed to concepts of complex emotion, determination, struggle, loss, adventure, and accomplishment.  These defining experiences, captured in sound and scene, are easily lost throughout the years, but I can attest that the significance of these experiences are effortlessly resurfaced by the resounding presence of nostalgia.  Listening to the music that spans 20 years at the symphony hall both poetically and beautifully captures the progress of culture, technology, and our personal lives.

I’ve experienced so many profound things from video games, and it makes me sad that they both aren’t typically seen as such or created for these purposes more.  That’s why it was so meaningful when the San Francisco Symphony played celebrated music from Final Fantasy for so many people.

(Something went bad with the compression, but it’s probably for the best ^_^)

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