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The Fantasy of a Lifetime – A Review of Nobuo Uematsu’s Distant Worlds

Uematsu’s music means something different to everyone. But beneath the reasons, the explanations, or the excuses given for the attraction lies a commonality that exists among lovers of his work everywhere: we are truly moved by what we hear.

In the Beginning…

My love for video game music set its roots in my heart at an early age. I remember exactly how it happened. My dad was in the Air Force at the time and was often away, overseas for days and weeks on end. Upon his return, he would always have something to bring back from his travels, a knickknack or some other arbitrary item that he thought would hold my attention long enough to keep my A.D.D. at bay. As fate would have it, what he brought home this time around would actually hold sway. I distinctly remember sitting in my room, my eyes glued to the TV, deeply concerned with the game of Super Mario World that I was playing.

I remember hearing my dad come in through the front door of the house, setting his things on the table, and the sound of his military-issued boots moving across the carpet towards my room. From the corner of my eye, I spotted an extended hand with a gray Super Nintendo cartridge in it. It was Final Fantasy II (or, to be technically accurate, Final Fantasy IV as it was released in Japan), the first role playing game (or RPG) I had ever owned. The moment I put that cartridge in and heard the, now-classic, opening arpeggio of the Final Fantasy “Prelude” I knew that something inside my brain’s makeup had changed. I must have sat there, just staring at the opening menu screen, listening to that heavenly sequence over and over (by the way, this is EXACTLY what the game looked like!):

Over the next few months, time and space seemed to disappear, seasons bled into one another, and I immersed myself in one of the most innovative gaming experiences ever made. As a boy, I felt like I belonged in that world, and everything that happened in the game was real to me. Every emotion the character experienced, I felt it even deeper, and all the while, game composer Nobuo Uematsu‘s music was with me the entire time. I must have beaten that game dozens of time, which, as any FF fan can attest to, is no walk in the park! From then on, I was destined to explore every FF game released, mostly in hot anticipation of the epic Uematsu score that was sure to accompany it.

I realize that most, if not all of what you’re reading right now, has probably elicited a few smirks and chuckles by now. “Who gets that emotional over a video game?!” I do. And so do millions of fans around the world! You see, the Final Fantasy series are so much more than just another video game to its fans. The music of Nobuo Uematsu stands apart in its own world, separate from the constantly changing stories found in the games.

Uematsu’s music means something different to everyone. But beneath the reasons, the explanations, or the excuses given for the attraction lies a commonality that exists among lovers of his work everywhere: we are truly moved by what we hear. For some, Uematsu’s music moves us to tears. For others, Uematsu’s music is anthemic, victorious, enabling even the most introverted to boldly face and overcome any obstacle they encounter, just like their favorite characters in the game. It is for these very reasons that fans of Nobuo Uematsu’s timeless work, re-visit and immerse themselves into the games of the Final Fantasy series time and time again. It is for these very reasons that fans of Nobuo Uematsu’s work flock in herds anytime he makes a live appearance. It is for these very reasons that I myself, with my brother in tow, instantly made arrangements to see our childhood hero-composer’s music performed at the Atlanta Symphony Hall in Atlanta, GA, on Saturday, May 7th, 2011.

This One Concert…

Cozily nestled in the heart of downtown Atlanta, right in the middle of the bustling Peachtree Street, the Atlanta Symphony Hall resides inside the spacious and accommodating Woodruff Arts Center. Parking was about what you would expect for downtown Atlanta on a Saturday night. Chaotic! But my brother and I managed to find a space in one of the several parking garages supplied by the venue. As we walked approached the Arts Center, one truly profound observation that I made was the incredible variety of people who were attending the event. I saw people, young and old, from all walks of life, every race and ethnicity you could imagine there in attendance. It was a true testament to the man who, through music, could bring the world together in a positive way. Once inside, we finally made it to our seats after a couple of stops at the concession tables for some wine and beer (mmm, nothing says “symphony” like a good ol’ Sweetwater IPA!) and then it was time to start the show!

A quick note: Initially, I had embedded some really high-quality footage of the performance throughout this article, but due to legal constraints between the Symphony Hall and the Musicians’ Union, they unfortunately had to be removed. Fortunately for you and I, I was allowed to simply link to those videos! They weren’t taken by me, but by another fan from the audience who had the better sense to bring a high-quality recording device to capture the magic. So, incredible thanks to YouTuber Papadoplas, whoever/wherever you are!

Inside the Woodruff Arts Center

Inside the Woodruff Arts Center

Immediately after walking on to the stage and giving the audience a bowing greet, conductor Arnie Roth immediately launched the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra into the very epic, “Liberi Fatali” from Final Fantasy VIII. The visuals from the fight sequences of the game were synced perfectly as the orchestra, along with the Georgia Tech Chamber Choir, soared through their first performance of the evening.

Shortly after the conclusion of “Fatali,” Arnie officially introduced himself along with the one and only Nobuo Uematsu who was in attendance that night. If that weren’t exciting enough, I was sitting THREE SEATS AWAY from the man on THE SAME ROW (big ups and huge respect to publicist Kimberly Nogi of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for her help in making this happen)! This was definitely an amazing treat to experience some of my favorite music while sitting next to the composer who made created it! As the night progressed, Roth lead the orchestra on a journey through some of the Final Fantasy series most celebrated pieces. Roth’s electrifying and dynamic work as a conductor truly spurred the orchestra on, and, when paired with the visuals displayed on the giant projector above, resulted in a massive audio/visual spectacle.

I can honestly say that I’ve never been to a symphony performance quite like that one. I swear, it felt more like a rock concert than a performance that you would expect to see in a symphony concert hall! It was clear to Roth and everyone there that the house was not filled with your average concert-goer and Roth acknowledged this by his frequent interaction with the audience members.

Among my favorites were beautiful pieces such as:

Final Fantasy X: To Zanarkand
This piece gave me goosebumps, especially when Yuna started to dance on the water.

Final Fantasy I-III: Medley 2010
This medley really brought back some fond memories for me of when I was a kid. I love that they were able to weave in gameplay footage from Final Fantasy I-III (through IV, really) on the good ol’ SNES. Remember when the Super Nintendo was still hot? Yeah, those days!

Final Fantasy VII: One-Winged Angel
The real treat for fans happened towards the end of the concert when Uematsu himself was called on stage for a special encore performance. After receiving the resounding audience request of “One Winged Angel”, Roth then prompted Uematsu to perform along with the choir, to which he kindly obliged on the merits that the audience would participate as well.

Reflections Eternal…

Thinking back on that evening, everything still seems so surreal. The entire car ride to the Arts Center… Sitting next to NOBOU UEMATSU and then watching him slide across the stage like a cartoon character… Our trip to the always-delicious Vortex after the concert… It all seemed like a strange dream that I had. And then it occurs to me that I was actually there. I was able to physically witness, first-hand, the magic that had, up until then, been available to me only in cartridges and CDs. To see that magic come to life before my very eyes was truly remarkable and those memories will always be with me. Few people get the chance to revisit firsthand the things that had such a profound effect on them earlier in life. For those fortunate enough to experience that second round, a new breath of life is given to them. It’s something that helps to keep their memories close, something to remind them that their dreams are as near as they want them to be. And around every turn, the chance of a lifetime could be waiting for them.

Be sure to check out Square Enix’ website for more info on Final Fantasy releases as well as Uematsu’s website for more info.

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