Students Fulfill a Final Fantasy at Symphony Hall

Jennifer Roe
November 18, 2013
The Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra violin section
The Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra performs at Symphony Hall.
The Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra string section
The Berklee Concert Choir and conductor Arnie Roth at Symphony Hall
Kelly Davidson
Kelly Davidson
Kelly Davidson
Kelly Davidson

7:35 p.m., backstage, Symphony Hall. The audience is buzzing with anticipation. The orchestra is tuned and ready. The maestro is waiting at the stage door, baton in hand. Upon first glimpse, it seems like any other night at the symphony. 

Until you hear orchestra manager Julia Cuellar ask conductor Arnie Roth a question before he strides onstage. She wants to know if he'll be introducing the composer to the audience. “Are you kidding?” he says. “Watch this.” 

Roth knows his audience. As if on cue, the hall erupts in an electrifying outburst of whooping, cheering, and applause when the composer—a gracious, smiling, and somewhat abashed Nobuo Uematsu—emerges from the wings. He might as well have been David Ortiz stepping up to the dish with a World Series game on the line at Fenway Park. In this moment you realize that you are half a world away from what normally transpires within the venerable walls of Symphony Hall.

Appropriate, for this is a show called Distant Worlds, a concert of music drawn from the video game series Final Fantasy, all composed by Uematsu, who's been widely lauded as the John Williams of the video game world. There to bring Uematsu's music to life are the members of the Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra and the Berklee Concert Choir. As the orchestra plays, iconic images and cinematic clips from the Final Fantasy series unfold on a large screen above the stage.

If no orchestra in the world plays a waltz quite like the Vienna Philharmonic, you could also argue that there are no musicians better equipped to play video game scores than Berklee students. Melissa Howe, String Department chair and the orchestra’s artistic advisor, says it's because there are "no barriers and no prejudice" in the way. “They perform it with the spirit intended. They know and love every moment of this music in a way that a typical, non-video game playing classical musician would not.” 

Howe sees the world of orchestral music in a state of accelerated change, with Berklee’s Contemporary Symphony Orchestra (BCSO) leading the way. "Our players are multi-stylistic. They play the music they love, on the instruments they love. If they love rap and they play the violin, no problem. They take the orchestra where it is and move it forward in new ways.”

That broad-minded, interpretive, improvisational spirit is fueled by Berklee Concert Choir director Ned Rosenblatt, and BCSO conductor Francisco Noya. From his seat in the audience, Noya was quick to point out that Berklee musicians' ability to take on new forms was through their embrace of the timeless values of dedication, practice, and discipline.

"They looked and sounded very well prepared," says Rosenblatt. "I was proud of them, proud to be able to contribute, and proud to be part of this institution.”

On the same stage where his countryman Seiji Ozawa held sway for so many years, Uematsu joined Berklee’s students for the concert’s finale, singing tenor. The audience reveled in it, as did choir member Rendra Zawawi.

“It was the equivalent of singing "Bohemian Rhapsody" on stage with Freddie Mercury next to you. It was that epic,” says Zawawi.


A few unofficial videos from the concert, held on October 6, posted by fans have appeared on YouTube. Watch one to get a sense of the evening's program.