Video games meet classical music in Houston Symphony’s ‘Final Fantasy’ concerts

“Distant Worlds Final Fantasy” with orchestra

Photo: Courtesy Houston Symphony

The soundtracks to the best-selling “Final Fantasy” video-game series have helped give rise to a new kind of orchestral experience. It is, explains conductor Arnie Roth, a truly global audience.

“We can put on the concert in Singapore or Sydney or New York or Chicago, L.A.,” he says. “We’ve played Houston a few times.”

He’s about to do it again. Friday and Saturday at the Hobby Center, Roth and the Houston Symphony — and Houston Symphony Chorus — will revisit “Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy,” one of several orchestral programs spun off 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 as many as 140 different scores are at his disposal. They must walk a fine line to balance perennial favorites such as “One-Winged Angel” or “Zanarkand” with less familiar selections, but medleys that fold multiple battle or character themes into one piece help make sure everyone goes home happy.

Either way, the audience is seldom shy about voicing its approval.

More Information

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

“They’re very beloved musical scores, and so therefore the audience is extremely attentive listening to the musical performance,” Roth says, “and then they are like a rock audience in terms of the over-the-top appreciation — standing ovations, cheering for their favorites.”

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

He linked up with Uematsu and began developing a concert program that, notably, added in images from the games on a movie-size screen. After a trial run at the 2004 E3 video-game trade show, the first public concert, entitled “Dear Friends: Music From Final Fantasy,” was held in early 2005. It was an instant sellout. 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.

Occasionally, the “Final Fantasy” concerts will get bundled into an orchestra’s subscription packages, exposing the music to audiences know little of the games, and “all of them have commented how fantastic the music is,” Roth reports. Throughout the series, different themes might be derived from contemporary pop or jazz, but most commonly are the sort of grand, cinematic moments reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, or Mahler.

Not for nothing, Time magazine once likened Uematsu’s work to that of John Williams. “It’s very appropriate, because John Williams uses very specific themes for each character, each battle, each 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 to the “Final Fantasy” series. Other games like first-person shooters may employ a main theme and a few loops, Roth explains, but this franchise goes well beyond that. It also has a sense of humor; Roth says a medley of themes for Chocobo, a yellow chicken that is one of the franchise’s most popular characters, is always a hit.

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

Almost immediately, Roth says, musicians in the orchestras he’s worked with would come up to him after a “Final Fantasy” concert and remark on how “they just could not believe the quality of the scores and the reaction of the audience,” he says. “They’d never seen anything like that.” Indeed, the “Final Fantasy” scores have been accepted in the loftiest corners of classical music — something few other franchises can say. Roth estimates he’s done London’s Royal Albert Hall five or six times. 

“That may give you some indication of the acceptance level,” he says. “Those are halls that I can’t just go out and arrange to do concerts at these halls. They have to review our scores and look at what we do, and make a judgment about whether we’re worthy of being on that stage. That’s saying a lot right there, I think.”

Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.




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