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Music for a Fantasy Video Game

San Francisco Symphony

Date: Sat July 18, 2009 8:00pm

Anyone who has ever played a video game likely knows that, just as the contours of its control pad can become imprinted on the hand, so too can the game’s musical themes leave lasting impressions on the memory. For gamers and music lovers alike, the San Francisco Symphony will create a similarly memorable musical experience at Davies Symphony Hall on July 18 when it performs Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy.

The video game Final Fantasy was originally released by a Japanese company in 1987. A few years later, it was translated into English and published in the U.S. In the years since, it has become a media franchise, which includes numerous sequels, as well as remakes for various video game platforms.

Final Fantasy is a role-playing game in which four main characters, called Light Warriors, battle evil fiends and another character named Garland. Its groundbreaking graphics and compelling storylines are both historically significant and popular. Its music, by the Japanese video game composer Nobuo Uematsu, is also critically acclaimed. Under the baton of Grammy Award-winner Arnie Roth, Distant Worlds consists of songs from Final Fantasy that have been orchestrated for full symphony orchestra. The program, which should last about two hours, features vocalists in addition to the orchestra. The music will also be accompanied by video and still pictures from the game.

Distant Worlds includes music from the first game and its sequels. Uematsu’s music variously incorporates lush, dramatic melodies reminiscent of late Romanticism, rhythmic repetition that conjures 20th-century composers like Stravinsky and Orff, and even dance-inspired swing and flamenco. “One-Winged Angel,” from Final Fantasy VII, mixes intense rhythms with lyrics drawn from the medieval Carmina Burana. Despite their variety, though, Uematsu’s musical themes are usually coupled with particular characters or events, like “Aerith’s Theme” and “Bombing Mission.” The concert should also include a sweeping “Main Theme,” which is common to most versions of the game.

Distant Worlds premiered in Stockholm in 1997 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the first video game. Since then, the program has been performed by orchestras around the world. Unique to the San Francisco concert, though, is that it will showcase four outstanding young vocal soloists with ties to the Bay Area: Adler Fellows Leah Crocetto (soprano, who just won the $50,000 first prize for vocalists in the José Iturbi International Competition), Andrew Bidlack (tenor), and Austin Kness (baritone), as well as mezzo-soprano Christine Abraham, who once studied at the San Francisco Conservatory.

The San Francisco concert is also special because Uematsu himself plans to attend. Following the concert, both Uematsu and Roth also plan to attend an after-party at Crimson Lounge on McAllister Street. Tickets for this adult-only party will be sold separately from the family friendly concert, starting June 25, through Tickets for the concert are on sale now through the S.F. Symphony box office. Even without the after-party, though, Distant Worlds should be an entertaining, memorable affair — true to the game Final Fantasy itself.

Jessica Balik is a flutist and has a PhD in historical musicology from Stanford University.