The first thing I noticed upon walking into New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Friday evening was how out of place I was not.
Rewind. If I’m at Jordan Hall for a classical concert, I’m typically the youngest person in my row who isn’t a conservatory student. But this was AWR Music’s “A New World: intimate music from ‘Final Fantasy,’” a concert that promised chamber arrangements of music from Japanese company Square Enix’s flagship video-game franchise. In other words, this wasn’t a typical Friday night at Jordan. The audience filled most of the floor seats and some of the balcony, and the lion’s share looked to be between the ages of 15 and 45, putting me right in the middle.
Some came dressed to the nines. There were snappy suits and cocktail dresses, and even one woman who showed up in the jawdropping red ballgown worn by the “Final Fantasy VII” character Aerith Gainsborough in one of the game’s scenes. Others had clearly come straight from work, like the man seated near me wearing medical scrubs under a vest bearing the logo of a local hospital. Who would pay to hear an hour and a half of video-game music? Better to ask who wouldn’t.
This isn’t just any game music, though. “Final Fantasy” encompasses 36 years’ worth of music across 16 mainline titles and too many spinoffs to count. The plots, characters, and settings of the games are typically independent of one another, but the music is a true throughline. “Final Fantasy” soundtracks were first creations of composer Nobuo Uematsu. Following his 2004 departure from Square Enix, responsibility fell to a stable of composers including Masayoshi Soken, Masashi Hamauzu, Yoko Shimomura, and Kumi Tanioka, with different composers taking leadership on different games. The music draws on myriad influences spanning genres, cultures, and time periods; as I’ve written before, the orchestral “Final Fantasy” concert recording “20020220″ sparked my curiosity about classical music. So popular (and lucrative) is the franchise’s music that Square Enix has released multiple rhythm games solely devoted to music from the franchise — and licensed numerous live concert productions, of which “A New World” is just one.
“A New World,” the brainchild of AWR conductor and arranger Eric Roth, is unusual among these concerts for its focus on small ensemble performances rather than grand orchestral spectacles like those of its big sister production “Distant Worlds,” which nearly sold out two performances at Symphony Hall last fall. Much of the most outstanding music from the series sounds like it was composed with a large ensemble in mind and thus translates easily to being performed by one. With the chamber arrangements conducted by Roth and played by a small ensemble assembled from local musicians (string quintet, three winds, piano, guitar, percussion) for this “New World,” however, it was more hit-and-miss.
When it hit, it hit. It hit during “Valse di Fantastica,” from “Final Fantasy XV,”which neatly scaled down from its grand orchestral original. It also hit with the multitextural “Dark World,” the Renaissance motet-esque “A Place to Call Home” from “Final Fantasy IX,” and the pensive, melancholy “Atonement” from “Final Fantasy XIII.” But when it missed, it felt lackluster. Some of the tunes selected hadn’t been too memorable in the first place, and a handful of the “New World” arrangements didn’t do the music many favors. Simple tunes sounded overloaded with too many flourishes in some cases, more complex music sounded too thinly arranged in others.
Those arrangements weren’t entirely at fault. According to an AWR representative, the musicians only had one rehearsal together, and it often sounded like it. If a small ensemble doesn’t have a comfortable command of music, it’s almost impossible to hide. However, moments of true connection between the musicians were very noticeable for that, such as clarinetist Margo McGowan’s rippling, lyrical solos, cellist Grace Lee adding burnished accents to several pieces, and trumpeter Adam Gautille shouldering the crusading melody of “One-Winged Angel.” Avant-garde pianist-about-town Yukiko Takagi’s bubblegum pink hair was a welcome sight on the stage, and I wished that the lonely “Final Fantasy X” tune “To Zanarkand” had been performed in its original solo-piano instrumentation.
Near the end of the show, Roth picked up a microphone to sing “Serah’s Theme” from “Final Fantasy XIII” with the ensemble, but for some reason he sang while conducting, with his back turned to the audience. He didn’t project his voice, and the mic amplified him so little that I could barely hear that he was singing at all, much less the words. Was there supposed to be a singer who then couldn’t make it? Had he been hoping to not need to conduct during this piece? Why was this on the setlist if they’re just going to play it, not perform it? The questions kept coming.
As Roth announced proudly from the stage a few times, “A New World” is now 10 years old. It shouldn’t sound like it’s still in beta. Is there only so much I can ask from a touring concert series playing a one-off date of video-game music in town? Perhaps, but I also think we eager listeners at Jordan Hall deserved something more cohesive and intentional than we were given.
A NEW WORLD: INTIMATE MUSIC FROM FINAL FANTASY
NEC’s Jordan Hall, Sept. 29. www.awrmusic.com