Dear Friends: Music from Final Fantasy (Atlanta)

Vandemar

When additional dates for the Dear Friends tour were announced, I was excited, hoping for something within a reasonable distance so that I, too, could see the show covered by our esteemed Hawkeye because, frankly, I was jealous that the West Coast gets everything awesome. When the tickets for the Atlanta date went on sale, I was a Visa gunslinger, purchasing two front-row seats before I could even begin to contemplate the financial wisdom of doing so, because one does not consider financial ramifications for what might very well be a once in a lifetime event. One simply goes.

The date approached, and my associate and I set off, scurrying through the rolling lands of South Carolina (Actual Billboard: “Welcome to South Carolina. 1st in violence against women, 50th in women elected to office.”) before parking at a secret airstrip just inside the Georgia line, where a C-130 was waiting with engines already warmed up. The plane carried us deep into the heart of Georgia, where devils have violin contests, and then the green light came on. Show time. We HALO dropped into downtown Atlanta, avoiding the traffic and landing on the sidewalk right outside our hotel, a mere block from the Woodruff Arts Center. We put away our chutes and checked our email once the room was secure. The time changed. 6pm. Clever, but we were already a step ahead. There’d be no stopping us.

An early arrival the day of the show provided ample time to people watch. The crowd tended to be young, but it was fairly diverse, and I spotted everyone from guys there with their moms (5, by my count) to people who looked fairly normal to baffled Symphony patrons wondering just what in the world they’d gotten into. I purchased the $20 program as a keepsake and found it was one of the few programs actually worth the money, with some nice art by Yoshitaka Amano (Sandman: The Dream Hunters, tons of Final Fantasy work) here and there, with screenshots and info on the games, as well as the evening’s songs. The doors opened and everyone moved to their seats, watching the big screens overhead and the musicians wandering out to tune up.

The show started in outstanding fashion, with Liberi Fatali, the opening theme of Final Fantasy VIII. For those not as obsessive about their soundtracks as I am, Liberi Fatali begins with eerie choral chanting before kicking off an energetic, ominous musical piece. The accompanying images of Edea being evil and Squall and Seifer’s big cutscene gunblade duel made for a combination that actually forced me to grow new hair expressly for the purpose of standing on end. I think we were all kind of shell-shocked, sitting there open-mouthed as the floor vibrated beneath our feet. Sure, you’ve heard it in the game (or obsessively on my iPod, in my case), but hearing Liberi Fatali in person, with full orchestra and choral backing, is one of those experiences that sears itself into the mind. You go in expecting outstanding and they blow it away about a minute in.

After some introductions-Uematsu was unable to attend, sadly-the orchestra launched into Zanarkand from Final Fantasy X, complete with a breathtakingly beautiful video from the game where Yuna performs a ceremony on the beach.

And from there, we took a trip back to the old school. Terra’s Theme from Final Fantasy 3/6 followed and the video glimpse of mechs, Terra, and everyone’s favorite evil clown bad guy was accompanied by an outstanding rendition from the orchestra. Theme of Love from Final Fantasy 2/4 slowed things down, but was astoundingly moving for a song written for the Super Nintendo’s sound system. One of the best parts of the show was old favorites like these getting the full-on orchestra treatment.

The guitar came out for Dear Friends from Final Fantasy V and threatened to bring the house down with the next song. Final Fantasy IX is kind of neglected, the red-headed stepchild after the two strapping young lads VII and VIII, but Vamo’ alla Flamenco with the video of Vivi (not as hot as Lulu, but still quite awesome as Black Mages go) staring up at IX’s huge airship threatened the structural integrity of the Woodruff’s roof. The mix in the game doesn’t quite bring out the awesome sound of the Spanish-style guitar, but the players in the orchestra made it an incredibly memorable piece. I’d call it the one song that really surprised me, but I’m a sucker for a well-played flamenco.

Love Grows from Final Fantasy VIII rounded out the pre-intermission set, complete with the famous video of Rinoa and Squall dancing before the story went all crazy. While it wasn’t my favorite scene in the game, somehow seeing it on a huge video screen with orchestral accompaniment made it ten times better than it was, especially as she drags our reluctant hero into something resembling a decent dance and then…fireworks!

Intermission. Time enough to run to the bathroom and run back, barely enough time to catch your breath before it was on again.

Aeris’ Theme (and the accompanying videos) from Final Fantasy VII began the second part of our show, much to the delight of the audience. This slow, sweet song eased everyone back into the show, and the orchestra was again in fine form, riding the high notes to new heights and then easing back down for the soft parts. (You’re) Not Alone from Final Fantasy IX picked things back up, with thrilling cutscenes featuring Zidane and Dagger providing an exciting backdrop to the music. I honestly hadn’t realized that FF9 had such a great soundtrack and I’m definitely going to have to listen to it more than I have been.

Ronfaure from Final Fantasy XI brought us up to date and though I found the MMORPG more fun to watch than it was to play, the music had a magnificent Celtic feeling to it and the ASO played it with much more vigor than the fairly sedate game soundtrack would suggest, filling it with energy and bombast suited to a military march. They gave Ronfaure some serious swagger.

We then went back to 1985 (alright, 1987), like a modern day Marty McFly, for a medley of music from Final Fantasy I, II, and III. The “Dear Friends” title of the concert was appropriate, as listening to these melodies orchestrated was like seeing old friends again, though these friends were far fancier than their 8 bit predecessors. It’s astounding to realize the level of depth the music of a far simpler time had and even the oldest, from Final Fantasy before it had numbers, sounded fantastic.

From the oldest right to the newest. We got to listen to a new song from Advent Children and I’d say audience reaction was on the “Wow, that was cool, but we’re not entirely sure how to react since we haven’t listened to this hundreds of times over” side. It was good, but it was also new, and we were all a little surprised by it. Sadly, there was no Advent Children footage shown. Even a repeat of the trailer would’ve been awesome, but no, it was not to be.

The last song on the official lineup was Final Fantasy, the musical theme that binds the series together. It was very well done, an extremely touching way to end the concert, and if it ended there, I would’ve said it was an awesome show. The conductor took his bows and retired, but the audience demanded an encore, and everyone who’d read anything about the show knew what was coming when he came back out. Though I suspect there’s never been a more rousing chorus of cheers than the first minute or so of the song that followed, as Sephiroth appeared with a flame background and the orchestra and chrorus began a rafter-shaking version of One Winged Angel. This was fan service at its absolute finest, the atmosphere electric as they roared through the song. Sure, it sounds awesome on the soundtrack. However, no matter how world-shaking your home theater setup, it cannot possibly compare to the magnificent sound of a well-trained orchestra just smashing through it at ear-breaking volume, with all the ominous chorals overlaid. It was a magnificent way to spend an evening, five minutes of musical perfection that could not possibly be topped.

Well, it couldn’t be topped until our conductor, Arnie Roth, left and then came BACK out and said, “Well, you guys liked it so much the first time, why don’t we do it again?” I thought it was a joke. And then he proceeded to run through One Winged Angel with everybody again, this time louder and more powerful and with the awesome levels pushed into the stratosphere.

Overall, it was an outstanding show. As a conductor, Arnie Roth cannot be given enough praise. While I can’t tell you if he was musically useful at all, as an audience member, he was outstanding to watch as conductor and emcee. He seemed truly enthusiastic to be leading the orchestra and I felt his energy and enthusiasm lifted the orchestra to another level. He was just plain fun to watch, obviously having a good time with the music, and it definitely came through in their performance. If every conductor exuded as much enthusiasm as Mr. Roth, classical music would be much more popular than it is.

The ASO is also deserving of praise. Given the surprised expression on the faces of our musicians, I suspect screaming, cheering standing ovations are not normal at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, much less people in White Mage costumes. They seemed grateful, yes, but also overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of their reception, as just about every song drew a long round of applause and some cheering. However, they played with tremendous ability and obviously loved what they do, even if they weren’t used to what must’ve seemed a vast sea of hooting hooligans eager for the next song. I don’t know if they were just “on” or if they’re always that good, but there was some seriously good energy coming off the orchestra, like they were having an incredible time playing for us.

If there’s anything worth griping about, it’s the video screens and the system around them. While the video clips were nice, they were few and far between and infrequent enough that I didn’t feel they added anything. I know FMVs didn’t come with Final Fantasy I-III originally, for example, but I also know they added them for the Playstation releases and they went to all that trouble to set up the screens, so give us something to watch, please. When the video was off, the focus was on the orchestra, but the cameramen had an uncanny ability to find the spot where nothing at all was happening in the orchestra. They’d zoom in to the violins right when they finished and the brass started up, leaving us staring at nicely-dressed musicians doing nothing but waiting for their next part. And it happened all the time. I am no professional camera operator, but even I can tell you that if nothing is going on, I’d just focus on the conductor.

Quibbles aside, this was an outstanding performance and if it comes within flying or driving distance, you should attend whatever the cost or consequences. This is a once in a lifetime kind of performance, a rare gift of fantastic music from the best video game series of all time performed by top-notch symphonies. Run, drive, fly, make your way to one of the handful of North American shows, because you just have to be a part of this. Participation is mandatory.

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