Final Symphony II: Fantastical Philharmonies

A nostalgic walk down memory lane through some cherished adventures… and also Final Fantasy XIII.

Event: Final Symphony II: Music from Final Fantasy V, VIII, IX and XIII
Compositions by: Jonne Valtonen, Masashi Hamauzu, Nobuo Uematsu
Arrangements by: Jonne Valtonen & Roger Wanamo
Performed by: Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra & Mischa Cheung

Final Fantasy is often the first video game series that comes to mind when people discuss truly legendary video game music, often as a counter-arguement to those who insist that videogame soundtracks never outgrew the repetitive bleeps and bloops of the 8-bit era. Up until recently, Square Enix has had one man to thank for this reputation: Nobuo Uematsu, a composer who moved to video games when he was told that his music was too good for pornography. Since then he has charted out a legacy as a craftsman of heart-wrenching tunes, leading to several sold-out orchestral shows featuring his music. The latest of such shows, Final Symphony II just arrived here in Finland, at Tampere Hall on April Fool’s Day.

While other Final Fantasy and game music concerts have been content to simply repeat the highlights and fan favorites, Final Symphony carries itself differently. The composers don’t simply wish to play the songs as they are, but instead weave each game’s most memorable themes together into orchestral suites that elicit each game’s mood. It’s an approach that’s not just unique, but also allows the composers to show off their own skill and play around with the source material, and also careful enough to pay respect to the compositions themselves.

The biggest problem that the show had against it was its choice of games to draw its source material from: Since the first Final Symphony concert already exhausted fan-favorites Final Fantasy VI, VII and X, now we are left with runners-up like V, VIII and IX. Perhaps the choice to lead the show off with a medley from the widely disliked Final Fantasy XIII was the organizers’ idea of an April Fool’s joke, though the varying quality of the games does little to undermine the music itself.

Naturally, those who are already familiar with the melodies and the contexts that they are associated with are going to get the most out of the show. That’s simply the case with any kind of music associated with such a strong brand and the emotional connections of its audience: The soundtracks of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings would hardly have the same impact without the context of the stories they’re associated with. As such it’s probably saying quite a bit that even separated from that context, the compositions do sound wonderful and the orchestration is consistently beautiful, and without much in the way of visual accompaniment the sounds alone carry the show well.

Surprisingly, the standout segment of the show turned out to be the Final Fantasy VIII medley, even though the odds were stacked against it from the start: Final Fantasy VIII‘s plot is infamously nonsensical, and Liberi Fatali is never going to sound as magnificent as it ought to be without a chorus section. And yet, this medley makes Final Fantasy VIII feel like the greatest love story of our generation, rather than the story of some mopey teens going through military school that it actually is. The orchestra gracefully weaves from one track to the next, even between different time signatures as Eyes On Me seamlessly transitions into the ballroom waltz version of itself, as a display of truly stunning finesse in arranging these classic tunes.

The show finishes on not one but two encores, which seems tremendous for a classical performance, slipping in some more fan favorites to send the audience home on a high note – including a legitimately funny interjection of the Chocobo Theme played on a tuba. In the end, the show reinforces its own mission statement as a nostalgic walk down memory lane through familiar adventures. As the show finishes with the familiar sounds of the Final Fantasy main theme that’s been heard in nearly every single installment in the series, it’s difficult to not feel even a little bit emotional.

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