Worlds; an Otherworldly Event.
By Megan Grabowski
August 1, 2015, a sultry evening in Pittsburgh. An audience consisting of primarily Gen X through Gen Z, gathered outside the lavish Heinz Hall home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in the Cultural District. The buzz is absolute anticipation for the long awaited music of the media franchise Final Fantasy (FF). The repertoire is a revered piece of the 25 year history of the fantasy video game, as well as a free standing esteemed collection of an infinite number of scores and emotionally charged compositions.
The ambience of Heinz Hall encourages a higher level of respect for the world of gaming than I ever imagined I could hold. The orchestra situated downstage, warms up as patrons file into the posh red upholstered seats, some dressed in FF cosplay and others dressed to the nine. I quickly realize this will be a performance like nothing I have ever seen before.
Quietly the Mendelssohn Choir moves into place. They position themselves tucked behind the orchestra and the large projection screen hanging from the ceiling, fusing into the black curtain, a subtle backdrop creating a mysterious presence on the stage. Arnie Roth parades onto the stage, under the spotlight, hand in hand with Hitoshi Sakimoto. Together they bow and the audience and the crowd erupt in cheers. As the applause subsides, the Prelude begins; next the music flows into another score, Liberi Fatali. With each set the projector illuminates with images of FF characters, complete with fantastical places, battles and dancing. The assorted edits are date stamped; 1989-12-17, 1990- 4- 7, 2000-7-7 and so forth, highlighting more than two decades of an industrious advancement of the graphics in tandem with the ethereal sounds of the symphony and choir.
Grammy award winning music director Arnie Roth turns to face the crowd. With sweeping gestures of his arm he waves to the audience, motions to the spectators on the balcony, and then urges the orchestra to stand. The audience rises to their feet, the hall fills with a roar and whistling and shouting all in praise of the performance about to unfold. Roth speaks with pride about Distant Worlds. He expresses his passion for the show when sharing some background: over 100 performances worldwide in a span of 8 years and always remaining open to new ideas and selections of music the fans would enjoy. Then with dynamic enthusiasm Roth introduces Hitoshi Sakimoto, best known for his orchestral compositions for FF VII, one of the series most popular games. Sakimoto waves appreciatively and the audience continues to cheer.
Roth then takes his place at the podium and cues up the orchestra. A cacophony of sound ignites into the frenzied Victory Theme and The Dalmasca Estersand from FF IX. We lose ourselves to the Roses of May, and FF XIV, Torn from the Heavens. The layered sounds of the symphony and the choir create a synergy unique to this place at this time. The lost score of FF VIII, transcribed for Distant Worlds, Balamb Garden conjures an auditory awakening that transports the listeners’ minds directly into the scenes shown before us; a raging battle in a fantastical land or the serenity of airy, grassy plains beneath falling feathers. Distant Worlds is more than a symphony, it is a full sensory experience.
Next we enjoy the arrangements for FF III, DS Opening, from FF VI, a Character Medley and the 2012 Chocobo Medley, an audience participatory piece which further engages us before intermission and the mad rush to the merch tables.
Returning from intermission we are entertained by the recently composed Battle and Victory Theme Medley, FF VII, Jenova Complete and the FF X, Zanarkand. Both Jenova and Zanarkand possess the complementary sounds of the Mendelssohn Choir. Lightning Returns: FF XIII: Light Eternal is a beautiful medley filled with the sounds of mystery, intrigue, discovery and innovation. Next is the FF IV, Battle with the Four Fiends, which is a great gateway to the Opera, “Maria and Draco” from FF VI. Tim Hartman, professional actor of stage and film, narrates the story, “The war between East and West…” The three soloists; tenor George Milosh, mezzo- soprano Amelia D’Arcy and baritone Skip Napier, operatically share the story or a war, a fallen castle and a surviving soldier, narration by Hartman is interspersed between the various numbers. The choir joins this distinct performance and the audience’s reception is wildly approving. The evening culminates with the FF Main Theme. At the conclusion of the final piece, the house nearly simultaneous gets up for a standing ovation. After the bows cease, Roth returns to the stage announcing an encore number. Once again rallying the audience into a participatory opportunity- shout it out Roth says and you know when, “Sephiroth”.
Reviewed by Megan Grabowski
Positively Pittsburgh Good News Reviewer, Professional writer, Social-Media Junkie, Community Fundraiser and Pittsburgh Enthusiast.