Sunday, October 23, 2016

SYMPHONIC FANTASIES (London Barbican, 06/10/16)

There's no one person more responsible for my deep and enduring love of music than Nobuo Uematsu, the composer behind the "Final Fantasy" series. Since I first played FFVII at the age of eleven and heard the synthesized church bells of "Flowers Blooming In The Church" I've obsessively gorged on his soundtracks and the various arranged albums built around thhem. I've religiously attended every concert of his music put on in this country - the "Distant Worlds" series more purist and faithful to the original compositions, the "Symphonies" taking familiar melodies and leitmotifs and re-arranging them into exciting new forms. I've even met him in person, leading to the only time in my life where I've genuinely been star-struck.

 But I've always secretly hoped that I'd get to hear a concert showcasing from some of his lesser-known but similarly brilliant contemporaries, most notably Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross/Xenogears), Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts) and Hiroshi Sakimoto (FFXII/FF Tactics/Vagrant Story). I'm still waiting for that Sakimoto concert, but Symphonic Fantasies offered me the opportunity to witness Mitsuda and Shimomura performed by no less than the London Symphony Orchestra - and it was just as elatory an experience as I could have anticipated.

The first half comprised of two works, one based around Kingdom Hearts, the other around Hiroki Kikuta's "Secret of Mana" soundtrack. To my surprise, though the former symphony engaged the old nostalgia glands right from the start with the simple, beautiful piano line of "Dearly Beloved", it was latter that ultimately proved the stronger work, with its masterful use of choir and unexpected sound effects, including that of a tropical rain storm.

But it was inevitably the second half that truly shined, with a Mitsuda medley that wove together a smorgasbord of classic Chrono tracks- not least Scars Left By Time, Gale, Frog's Theme, Magus' Theme, To Far Away Times and Peaceful Days. What has always differentiated Mitsuda's work from most VGM composers is his passion for world music, and the effect that has on his melodies, his rhythms and his instrumentation - and thus giving a starring role to the effervescent red-coated darbouka virtuoso Rony Barrak and his percussive brilliance was a masterstroke. After that, a conservatively arranged work based around Uematsu's themes felt a little underwhelming, especially compared to what was showcased during the Final Symphony concerts (in fairness, this program predates those by several years), but there's no denying the hold those classic themes have over my psyche.

As is standard for these concerts, an "unannounced" encore wrapped up proceedings- and delightfully, it comprised a medley of final boss themes from the various games represented tonight. "One Winged Angel" and "Dancing Mad" are inevitably the focus of the piece, but hearing 80 or so primly-dressed choristers intone "LAVOS!" with appropriately apocalyptic volume may have been my personal highlight.

All in all, it probably didn't hit quite hit the heady heights of Final Symphony II - which was one of the best concerts I've ever attended in any medium - but just hearing the Chrono piece alone was well worth the price of admission. A superb performance, and one that makes me excited about what the organisers will come up with next.

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