VG Tribune

Upcoming “Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy” Show in Boston – Interview with Arnie Roth

October 1, 2013 / 8:49 AM

By: Matthew Williams

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I recently had the amazing opportunity to interview famous conductor, Arnie Roth, about the upcoming Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy concert occurring in Boston on October 6th. For avid fans of the series, you will be extremely happy to hear that this show will have a considerable amount of unique content that has been prepped especially for Boston. In addition to the special performances (like the North American premiere of “Hymn of the Fayth”, and a new “Chocobo Medley Theme”), Nobuo Uematsu will be in attendance. I will be attending the concert this Sunday, and am excited to see how the show has uniquely evolved for this stop. If you are in the area, tickets for the show can be found at the link here (there is a discount code for fans who wish to purchase tickets – just input the word ‘nobuo‘ to receive 15% off). Contents of the entire interview can be read below.

Roth: [In terms of new content that will be played at the show]. There’s going to be some exciting highlights. We’re going to be performing “Hymn of the Fayth” from Final Fantasy X. This is for the first time anywhere outside of Tokyo. That piece was performed live in the Voices concert in 2006 – that was the only time it was performed live. I always thought that was a shame; it’s a beautiful hymn, like an anthem. We’re going to be doing that in Boston for the first time.

Williams: [In addition to that piece] Can the Boston show expect any new content to be performed that are different from other cities in the past?  

Roth: Keep in mind; we just came through the 25th anniversary celebration in November/December. We generated a tremendous amount of new arrangements/scores during that period, so I am able to bring many of those to Boston. For instance, we will be doing the new “Battle Medley”. There are three battles within that medley. We did that for the Celebrations concerts.  The three battles are: “Clash on the Big Bridge”, “Fight with Seymour”, and “Those who Fight”.

We also have a new “Chocobo Medley”. All of these will be new to Boston from the last concert we did there. The new “Chocobo Medley” is also widely popular, because we are using a little bit from Final Fantasy XI’s “Choc-a-bye Baby Theme”. We also have excerpts from Uematsu’s “Mambo de Chocobo” and Hamauzu’s version of the Uematsu Chocobo Theme from Final Fantasy XIII, which is “Pulse de Chocobo”, which is a cool, up-tempo version of it. I just mentioned Final Fantasy X’s “Hymn of the Fayth”. We’re going to start performing it more often, when we have a good choir. We put that together with “Zanarkand”, which we are playing. That’s a real classic masterpiece. In this case, putting together “Hymn of the Fayth” and “Zanarkand” makes a lot of sense [since they’re both from Final Fantasy X]. This will be another thing about the Boston show, unique to them that we haven’t done anywhere else yet.

Williams: That is quite an extensive list of unique titles coming out.

Roth: There is just so much music. Even if you just stay with the main Roman numeral versions of the game, there’s hundreds of thousands of hours of music. We play a lot of it. Literally, we have about 70-80 Final Fantasy scores for orchestra, chorus, etc. We could [in theory] play 5-6 nights in a row, and never repeat anything. There’s that much music already, and we keep adding new ones. It is very difficult to program these things, when I have a limited 2 to 2.5 hour performance length. You have to pick and choose these things. I think you’ll agree, we couldn’t think of doing a Distant Worlds: Final Fantasy concert without doing certain key pieces – “Zanarkand”, “One Winged Angel”, “Liberi Fatali”, “Don’t Be Afraid”. Every time I put a new piece in, I have to remove another piece because there’s a finite amount of time in the program. Uematsu himself likes balance in these things, and doesn’t like concerts to be ‘endless’. We look at what we performed last time in Boston, the strengths of the performers we have on stage, what soloists do we have – all of these go into this ‘equation’ when I’m trying to figure out what program we’re trying to do.

Williams: You mention that some of these pieces require the use of a choir. You’ve also been practicing with the orchestra [Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra] already in Boston for a few weeks before the concert. From other video game concerts I’ve seen, they really only get 1-2 nights to practice before the concert.

Roth: You are correct – it is not the norm. We’ve setup a situation in Boston where I have a tremendous amount of rehearsals [around 6 or 7], with the orchestra. Which is great; because they will be more secure will all the music. But you are absolutely right, most of the time when I am performing with other orchestras; I get ‘maybe’ 2 rehearsals at best. That is the ‘norm’, rather than what I have in Boston. Part of it was an overall scheme with Boston, in that we wanted to try and reach out to grab musicians that were more familiar with different genres of music. Musicians that were ‘quicker on their feet’ – for example, playing something resembling ‘hard rock’ orchestration , then  play something that is an ‘up-tempo/swing/jazz’ theme, then playing something strictly ‘classical/operatic’ style. Not many orchestras are able to switch these styles quickly, but that’s what our concert calls for. It’s very difficult when there are only 1-2 rehearsals for them to grab the style quickly. This is making it better for me to teach the rhythms and get the proper inflection in style. I’m excited about the Boston performance for that reason.

Williams: The orchestra will definitely be more prepared.

Roth: The Berklee College has a Contemporary Arts Orchestra and we are using them on this concert. We are going with a very young and exciting university orchestra. They actually made it part of their curriculum. When they started school in the beginning of September, our music was their regular orchestra repertoire for their semester – it was coursework. We’ve never done that before, and it is a groundbreaking way to go about and teach it. This is part of the reason why I have to go out there more often for rehearsals. They meet every week, so they’ve been working on it. I’m very optimistic that this is going to be a group that is really well-trained and ready to go.

Williams: Sign me up for that class – I’d love to play that music!

Roth: The choir, by the way, is doing a great job. The guitar soloists, too. We’re going to perform “Dear Friends” from Final Fantasy V and “Vamo Alla Flamenco” from Final Fantasy IX. The guitarist is Shota Nakama, who is based in Boston and is a friend of Distant Worlds. We’ve worked with him before – he is a fine guitarist and runs an organization called the Video Game Orchestra, which meets on occasion and does some concerts of their own. It’s a smaller ensemble – an orchestra maybe in the teens [numbers-wise]. He is knowledgeable about the video game industry and music scene.

Williams: That’s great. In addition to other soloists, I remember Susan Calloway was in Houston [during our first interview]. Will she be a soloist at this show?

Roth: She won’t be in Boston. In this [the Boston show] case, we had so many new scores. For instance, we are doing a new opera. It’s “Maria and Draco” from Final Fantasy VI, but this is the new ‘25th anniversary’ version of it, which now involves a new battle scene that never existed in our original version. Nobuo wanted a more ‘perfect’ opera. In the original score, it was always implied that there was a battle raging outside of the castle walls. Now, we actually have 2-3 minutes in the middle of this opera scene – some ‘real’ battle music that is in there. Because he [Nobuo] also loves the idea of having the choir with the orchestra, we added chorus to this opera. The opera now features 3 vocalists, the choir, orchestra…and we’ve also added a narrator. If you are familiar with Final Fantasy VI, there were little narrations that used to pop up on the screen, giving out background information of what was going on in the story. Now, we will have a lot of that information being read, live on stage, in the appropriate spots.

Williams: At the Houston show, there was cut scenes/footage from the game being shown. Will you have footage from Final Fantasy VI playing while the narration is going on?

Roth: As you know, we do have video, images, and artwork going on from beginning to end with Distant Worlds…and these are full sequences. They are high definition with the newer versions of the game. We will have some of the early Final Fantasy VI animation up on the screen. But because of all the soloists and different aspects of the opera, we love to showcase the performers on stage. Much of the opera is without any video going on. There will be certain fights/battle scenes, like the Waltz that happens in the opera, which will show the original game’s footage. Distant Worlds is wall-to-wall video content, from beginning to end.

Williams: With Final Fantasy XIV (i.e.: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn) recently re-launching, will you be incorporating music from this game as well?

Roth: We have performed a lot of music from the original version of Final Fantasy XIV. The main theme, which is “Answers”, does feature Susan Calloway. This re-issue of the game still uses “Answers” as the main theme. We are not playing any new music from the re-release during the Boston concert, but we are starting to add new music as these new games come out. For instance – Susan is with us in Miami, later at the end of November. We are going to do “Answers” there. Naoshi Mizuta, the composer of Final Fantasy XI, will be with us in Montreal in December. He just completed a new score [from Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII]. He actually did the new arrangement of the main theme. We will be showcasing the premiere of that in Montreal as well. It’s very fitting that “Hymn of the Fayth” is being added to the Distant Worlds repertoire, because they are about to release the remastered version of Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2.

Williams: It is all quite a bit of music – it’s hard to keep which songs are with which titles at certain times. I’m sure it is very difficult to find time to play through all the games.

Roth: The issue with that is I literally have to get so good at a particular game. If I want to hear some of the music that enters later on [in the game], I have to get good enough to get there! My time is much better spent trying to work directly with the composers. They send me their original notes and scores, as well as Square Enix sending me material. The way this music is used within the game itself, I can get to it [the music] much more quickly than if I had to sit there and play the game for hours just to get to that musical theme. It’s more efficient.

Williams: I agree. As you know, like other fans, each game requires hundreds of hours for any game.

Roth: I know, they’re also terribly difficult.

Williams: Going back to the wide range of musical content that you will be presenting at the Boston show – based on the various cities you stop in, the audience reaction to Final Fantasy music can be quite varied…especially with some [fans] not being your typical ‘run of the mill’ concert goers. They are so passionate about the music, that they will stand up and applaud for [pretty much] every piece. The musicians are probably not used to that.

Roth: They are not. One of the great joys, no matter where we go, is there is a certain unanimity of response from all the fans. It’s a beautiful thing to see. However, Final Fantasy fans are very wise when it comes to the music. While it may be their [the fans] first time at a symphony hall or concert, they are disciplined listeners; they know this music well. What I find – the fans rarely interrupt during the music while we are performing. Every now and then, something comes up on the screen and everyone’s excited and they shout, and I love that enthusiasm. But it is not like a ‘rock concert’, where people are standing in the aisles and singing along or dancing. In our concerts, they are very disciplined. They are better than most classical audiences. They are on the edge of their seat during our performance, trying to hear because they really are here for the live performance of this music. Then, at the end of it [the performance], you’re right: we do get standing ovations and cheers. I get cheers every time I announce one of the pieces we’re going to perform. But orchestras are not used to that. Every single orchestra I’ve worked with, they’ve all come to me to say ‘what an unbelievable audience’. It’s very inspiring for musicians to hear that reaction to the music and get that appreciation/feedback. It really does enhance the performance. These fans want to hear the performance. Last year, when we played in Boston, Nobuo Uematsu was not able to make that concert. We are thrilled that he is able to make it this year.

Williams: Yes, I’m excited to see what the audience reaction is like, especially with Nobuo in attendance. This is the Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra’s first time playing in front of this audience. Have you prepped them for what to anticipate?

Roth: I’ve been gradually prepping them. To be honest though, there are a tremendous amount of Final Fantasy fans and players within the orchestra. It was fun to rehearse some of these pieces, and having them jumping up and down in their seats because they are so excited about getting to play some of these. That enthusiasm goes a long way in the performance.

Williams: It helps bring the experience alive if the musicians are avid Final Fantasy fans. It helps them become more focused on the music they are playing, and means more to them when they are playing through it. I’m sure they will be extremely giddy when they hear the audience’s reaction and hear themselves playing it. Going back to the uniqueness of this Boston show – it’s rare that you will see concerts return to cities in consecutive years, which I find great for this city. When I see the concert being played here in 2012, and then returning the year after, it tells me that the reception amongst the Boston audience members was greatly received. Is that one of the reasons you chose this city again, as opposed to other cities?

Roth: There are many factors that go into organizing the concerts for these cities. The presumption that we arbitrarily ‘pick cities we want to be in’ happens sometimes. But more often than not, ours [the concert] is a very big production, in terms of professionals that need to be on the stage performing. We have well over 100 musicians in between the orchestra and the chorus. It is a combination of having a quality group and proper venue both available. The best venues in the world are very difficult to get into and may not be available most of the times. They are booked up well in advance. In the case of Boston, it wasn’t chosen to come back ‘instead of’ somewhere else. Certainly, it was based in part of how well it was received the first time. There are a tremendous amount of universities and colleges in that entire area. Not just in Boston itself, but the New England area. I’ve always thought, even from the beginning of Distant Worlds, that we really need to do a concert in that area.

In general – the cost of the production, difficulties of getting into the proper venues and availability of the orchestras all factor in and can be seen as to why is tough. We want to [perform at new cities], but it would be a disservice to try and ‘force’ a concert at any of these places if the right factors of the concert are not completely locked down. To do it with the wrong performers or venue is never a good idea. With Boston, we were able to get into one of the world’s great concert halls. It became available to us because we sold out the first [Distant Worlds] concert.

Williams: For attendees of both concerts in the two years, Boston concert goers will have an experience…especially with Nobuo going; it adds some specialness to the second concert. One final question – since Nobuo will be there, can we expect any special performance from him or is he just going to be attending?

Roth: We are planning on playing “Dark Worlds” from Final Fantasy VI. This is a piece I did an arrangement of for Nobuo Uematsu and I to play live with the orchestra. We were able to get him to agree to do this piece. If you listen to the original, it is a beautiful, haunting melody. You can hear on the original 8-bit recording, Nobuo Uematsu playing a keyboard pattern, with what sounds like, a synth violin. We thought it was a perfect pairing, which means I have to pull out my violin and practice, too. We’re planning on doing that in Boston this weekend.

Williams: That’s very exciting to hear. Thank you again for the interview – I’ll be sure to let the audience know they need to get their tickets soon.

Roth: They are going fast. The beautiful thing about the venue is there are no bad seats. It is almost acoustically perfect. You are very close to the stage, even if you are on the sides, up above, or further back on the main floor. Thank you and take care.

About the author /


Matthew, a graduate from Texas Christian University, now works as a Senior Digital Analytics Consultant for Ernst & Young. With a passion for video games (mostly retro and survival horror) and data, Matthew is pursuing a career in game analytics.

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