On Saturday, March 17th, 2018, the Final Symphony concert series (read news) which toured Germany and Austria during the month of March with Final Fantasy’s music, ended with a special show performed by the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra at the Wiener Konzerthaus (read news).
Gorka Oteiza (SoundTrackFest) was invited to the rehearsals and to the concert, and has written this article to tell us about that evening. At the end of the article, you will find two interviews he had with conductor Eckehard Stier and pianist Mischa Cheung.
Saturday, March 17th. It’s just over 4:30 pm and I’m in Vienna (Austria), arriving at the Wiener Konzerthaus, a place I know quite well since it has been the venue for multiple editions of the Hollywood in Vienna festival. The weather is very cold, and in fact, the thermometer marks several degrees below zero and it’s snowing. David Hernando is waiting for me at the main door, who is the manager and also conductor of the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra that has been rehearsing the last two days Final Fantasy’s music for the Final Symphony concert that will take place tonight. But this time he won’t be in charge of the orchestra and will leave the baton to the German conductor Eckehard Stier.
The rehearsals have gone very well as David tells me. It would have been convenient to have a little more time, but the truth is that it is quite usual to go with a tight schedule, and not being able to rehearse as much as you would like.
At 5 pm sharp arrives the bus that comes with the whole orchestra from Bratislava. It stops in front of the entrance, the musicians come down with their instruments, and they enter through one of the side doors. David and I go with them and walk upstairs through the interior of the building to the artists’ dressing rooms, which are just to the sides and below the main hall and the stage.
While the musicians get ready and take care of their instruments, David makes the last calls and checks that everything is going fine. In this concert he’s not conducting the orchestra, but he has a task that is almost as important; manage and check that everything is ready. He will verify and validate that no instrument is missing (piano, celesta, percussion…), that the distribution and placement of them on stage is correct, and in general, that all the small details that have been prepared and approved previously with the Konzerthaus are being followed.
The Bratislava Symphony Orchestra and David Hernando invited SoundTrackFest a few weeks ago to be part of the pre-concert rehearsal and sound test, and later to enjoy the concert, and so I traveled to Vienna to witness the preparation and execution of the concert, first from inside and then from outside as public.
It’s already 5:30 pm and the musicians are placed on stage on their seats. The concert starts at 8 pm and there are almost 2 hours available for rehearsals and sound tests, in a big hall that is completely empty. David and I sit in the center, where the acoustics are supposed to be better. In fact, when the orchestra begins to rehearse the first bars, we see that the sound generated by the Great Hall of the Konzerthaus is quite impressive per-se. A surround effect of echo and natural reverberation is noted, which enhances and amplifies the sound but without saturating it, and achieving a good balance between the high and low tones. In addition, the fact that the room is completely empty without any audience, gives us a feeling of spaciousness as I had not seen on other occasions.
Eckehard Stier, the conductor, takes the stage and starts the rehearsals of the first half. All the sound will be natural, there is nothing amplified, because the acoustics of the hall don’t require it. The overture is rehearsed first, then they go on with the different suites of the first part, and the truth is that everything sounds great. Nevertheless, the conductor pauses briefly from time to time to give subtle indications to the orchestra: the percussion has to be more aggressive in this section … the strings have to enter a bit earlier … the metal section has to deliver softness… or sweetness, according to each passage, etc… Those are small nuances that often are not written in the score and that are difficult to express, but Eckehard Stier has a lot of experience with this music, since he is the official titular conductor of the Final Symphony tour, and has been performing the music with different orchestras for years. In fact, he was the conductor of the official recording of Final Symphony in 2014 with the London Symphony Orchestra on Abbey Road, so he knows the score by heart, with all its small details and ins and outs, and that is precisely what he tries to obtain from the orchestra with his subtle indications: a precise sound with the perfect balance.
We continue with the rehearsals and arriving at the end of the first part we meet the pianist Mischa Cheung, a young pianist with long hair and informal style, who appears on stage with a smile on his face greeting the orchestra and the director. He sits at the piano and plays the final piece of the first part, a suite dedicated to Final Fantasy X for piano and orchestra, where the young pianist shows off his skill and dedication. He does not have a score on the piano, and in fact, he does not need it, since with good skills and mental agility, he performs the almost 20 minutes of the piece by heart. The piano he uses is a prestigious Steinway and Sons, a very elegant piano that is placed in the center of the stage, with a very majestic sound, and which obtains a fabulous balance with the orchestra thanks to the detailed indications of the conductor.
After a short break and a pause of 15 minutes, the second part of the rehearsal comes, one suite after another, until it is 7:00 pm, when rehearsals are finished after reviewing all the pieces, and the orchestra retires to rest a while and change clothes for the concert.
It is at this moment that I have the opportunity to conduct two interviews: one with Eckehard Stier and the other one with the pianist Mischa Cheung, interviews that you can read at the end of this article.
It’s almost 7:30 pm and the concert starts in half an hour. David and I go down to the entrance of the Konzerthaus and see that there are many people gathered in the hall leaving their coats in the cloakrooms and drinking something before entering. After going up one floor and once inside the Great Hall (this time filled with people), I am struck by the difference that I can see compared to the Hollywood in Vienna galas. In those concerts the whole place has a special lighting, with a system prepared to make the place look magical. Tonight everything will be more natural, as if the Konzerthaus “was not wearing makeup” for once. There are no light or color effects, only the usual lights for the regular concerts.
To the contrary of what happens in other concerts, during the whole performance the lights are kept on, a bit dimmed while the music is playing and a bit brighter during the pauses or in the intermission. As we have already seen in the sound tests, the concert will take advantage of the acoustics of the place and will not use any kind of amplification. Also, there will be no images or video clips projected on a screen over the orchestra in sync with the music, as it is usual in other types of concerts, although it is something that is not going to be missed.
The hall has the sides of the ground floor empty, and although the central area and the terraces are almost complete, you could say that in total there is an occupation of 70% or something less. There is not a program of the themes that will be played during the concert, even if it is just a simple sheet, but it is true that the program is the same in all the Final Symphony tour and it is also the same as the official recording, so with a little bit of googling around, it’s easy to get it.
The music of Final Symphony comes from the video games of the Final Fantasy saga, adapted and arranged for orchestra, and perhaps sometimes it is a bit simpler than orchestral music specifically composed to be played in a concert hall, but we don’t have to forget that it is music created for video games released 20 years ago, which had technical limitations both at graphical level and at musical level. So, if the music would sound too big or too orchestral, that magic of the original music would be lost in part, that essence would be lost. But in spite of that, the orchestrations and the arrangements are very good and give a new dimension to the music, without getting too far from its origin.
The concert begins on time at 8 pm, with the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra coming on stage, followed by conductor Eckehard Stier who greets the audience before starting with the first theme Fantasy Overture – Circle within a Circle within a Circle by Jonne Valtonen. A piece that for about 4 minutes, makes an introduction to the concert with some orchestrations of classical tone, different from what we could expect for a video game concert, but very appropriate as an appetizer of what will come next.
After a brief pause, the host of the night, Nino Kerl, makes an introduction in German and gives way to the first great suite, FINAL FANTASY VI – Symphonic Poem (Born with the Gift of Magic) by Nobuo Uematsu, where strength and purity of the brass section is remarkable. The suite has a slow and lugubrious central part, in the style of a requiem, which leads to a martial development of the theme, to end with an abrupt passage with rhythm and pace changes and a lot of strength. A great applause from the audience, to a well-deserved interpretation of this suite of almost 18 minutes.
It is time for the piano and orchestra concerto and Mischa Cheung comes out to sit at the piano located in the center of the stage, in front of the director and the orchestra, and performs FINAL FANTASY X – Piano Concerto by Nobuo Uematsu and Masashi Hamauzu. The Steinway and Sons grand piano has a clear and powerful sound, and in the raised lid of the piano, which is completely shiny and polished as if it was a mirror, you can see both the hammers hitting the strings and the pianist’s hands moving around the keyboard (from the first rows). This is just a curiosity that adds a little more value to an excellent performance, equally committed and intense, which extends over 18 minutes.
At the end of the suite the audience gets up and gives a loud applause, followed by a reverence of the pianist and the first and only encore of the first half, the sweet, delicious and delicate theme Suteki da ne of Final Fantasy X (Nobuo Uematsu), which offers an exquisite counterpoint to the previous piece, that takes us to the break just before 9 pm.
After 10:20 pm the second part of the concert starts, with the host of the evening Nino Kerl and the conductor Eckehard Stier dedicating a few words in German to the public, before starting with the next suite, a symphony divided into three well differentiated movements with brief pauses between them called FINAL FANTASY VII – Symphony in Three Movements by Nobuo Uematsu. The first block starts soft but takes strength shortly to evoke the beginning of the legendary Final Fantasy VII, then going with the second movement that alternates between melodic and dissonant parts with peculiar uses of string and wind instruments, to end with the third movement that starts in a similar way to Holst’s The Planets to gain strength and use the full range of instruments of the orchestra throughout its development.
In total almost 43 minutes of music with brief pauses, which are followed by a great standing ovation from an enthusiastic audience, corresponded with one last encore: the suite Fight, Fight, Fight, with the fighting music composed by Nobuo Uematsu for several games of the saga. A great concert, with a fabulous program, in an emblematic place!
The performance of the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra has been masterful and it is clear that Eckehard Stier knows the score by heart, because if we closed our eyes, sometimes it seemed that we were listening to the original CD, but with the acoustic and organic sound that brings a live interpretation in a concert hall.
Indicate that curiously the orchestra used for Vienna (Bratislava Symphony Orchestra) has been different from the one used for the rest of the concerts of the tour in Germany (Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsber), and I do not know how the German shows were, but I can assure you that the quality achieved in Vienna was very high.
You could sense that the perfectionist, meticulous and committed conducting of Eckehard Stier matched very well with the orchestra, achieving a uniform sound at a quality level, but unique in terms of the interpretation of the orchestra and the acoustics of the Konzerhaus. To this we must add the participation of the young pianist Mischa Cheung, who enjoyed during the performance, being this reflected in his work and intensity, offering a great concert for piano and orchestra.
In short, a highly recommended concert of great quality both in content and execution, in an emblematic and special place, demonstrating that the large concert halls are also appropriate places for video games music, provided that certain quality conditions are fulfilled.
Final Symphony has finished this March 2018 mini-tour, and there are no more dates announced at the moment, although it is possible that in 2018 we will have new options to enjoy its music in concert again. Without a doubt, it is a tour and a concert that I would recommend to anyone who likes orchestral music, whether they are fans of video games or not. Now, if you are a fan of Final Fantasy, you can’t miss it!
Article by Gorka Oteiza
Musicians usually want to play an instrument like piano, or violin, or flute, but not many musicians become orchestra conductors. How was your process to become an orchestra conductor?
I was fairly sure to become a pianist with age 8 or 9, but I think it was with 14 that I realized that I don’t practice enough. I was very immersed in school and I didn’t have that much time to practice the piano, so I decided to become a conductor because I was conducting the choir very early.
It was always a dream of mine to become a conductor. It was a natural feeling from the very first beginning of my childhood to get in contact with people and to lead groups, and then the dream became actually true.
Let’s talk about Final Symphony tour that has been around for many years, with concerts in Europe and also all over the world. How was your involvement in the project? Did you start from the beginning? What’s your role now?
It was more randomly. This whole project is Thomas Böcker’s idea who lives in the same city as I do, in Dresden (Germany). We got in contact I think in 2008 with the production of WDR broadcast station in Cologne, and when he came up with the idea and he asked if I wanted to become a member of this production crew for Final Symphony I said Yes!
It was very interesting because I listened to the music and I was quite impressed with the quality, so that was very interesting and exciting for me.
They choose of course what they will put in the whole production, and a lot of work was actually done when I incorporated to the project, but what we’ve done was change dynamics in the arrangements, change the tempo slightly, and it has become a very exciting project.
Was that your first contact with video game music?
Yes it was! I’ve conducted a lot of music for live theater productions and ballet and opera productions, but I’m not a gamer at all, I’ve played one or two games. I’m not involved in Final Fantasy. I just listened to the music and I was pretty convinced about the quality, so I got in.
People have praised the arrangements and the quality of Final Symphony, which also had a recording with the London Symphony Orchestra that you conducted in 2014. What can you tell us about that experience?
Those sessions were absolutely exciting because it was like driving a Ferrari. We spent almost three days in Abbey Road. It was not my first contact with the LSO but it was my first intense contact with them, where we got to spend more time together. It’s always fantastic to see how the people in the LSO are real professionals. They’re absolutely sharp from the first moment of the session so you can use the time of the session to make music, and you don’t spend time on rehearsing or something like that. And of course the whole venue of Abbey Road it’s just amazing. You can feel their history and you can see all the pictures hanging there and it’s absolutely exciting to be there. The whole post-production was also excellent. So even now I’m very proud about this product, because I always feel like I’m really never happy or convinced about something, but this recording is almost perfect, what’s very nice for me.
The original composer of the music, Nobuo Uematsu was there during the sessions with you. Did you get any feedback from him of how he wanted things to be?
He was absolutely moved and touched by the whole thing, he was very appreciative and he was very positive. He was not really controlling. He was more enjoying the whole show, because the LSO is just one of the world’s leading orchestras.
It was always nice to talk to Nobuo Uematsu because he is a genuine and very friendly and very warm-hearted human. His feedback was: thumbs up!
You’ve had 3 concerts in Germany and this one in Vienna for 2018’s Final Symphony Tour. Are there going to be more concerts this year? Will we have the music of Final Symphony on tour again?
This question is more to the producers than to me, but some plans are going on, so I think it’s possible.
You’re a professional pianist now but… when did you realize you wanted to be a pianist when you grew up and make your living out of it?
I grew up in a musical family. My father is a pianist and my older sister and my older brother are both pianists… so for me, it was just a family thing (*laughs*)
OK, so it wasn’t very difficult to make that decision! (*laughs*)
That’s it! When I was a baby we had three pianos at home and everyone was practicing all day, so that’s also why playing the piano is just something very natural for me. I couldn’t live without it, you know. When I was young I had other interests and I didn’t really decide as a child to become a pianist, but it was always a thought, it was a dream and a wish, but I had other options on my mind when I went to regular school.
I started playing the piano at the age of three, and then when I got older, I understood that without the piano I just couldn’t survive. So I went to university, studied piano professionally for eight years and now I’m here!
Which kind of concerts do you usually play? Because the concert we’re going to have tonight is not the usual concert for a classically trained pianist…
I’m totally classical trained and I’m a member of a quartet called ‘Gershwin Piano Quartet’ where we play four pianos. Then I give regular recitals, chamber music and well, I do a lot of different stuff, mostly in Switzerland. With the Gershwin Piano Quartet we play worldwide and now I’m also glad to be part of this project: Final Symphony.
How and when did you get involved in Final Symphony tour?
From 2011 to 2015 I was a member of the German ensemble called ‘Spark’. Thomas Böcker liked this group a lot and we did a project together with the music of ‘Legend of Zelda’ in Cologne and then is when we met. He was looking for a pianist for his solo concertos, because they’re like four piano concertos arranged from Final Fantasy and also Kingdom Hearts. I’ve performed all the four concertos. We’re two or three pianists in the team, but I play a lot of the concerts.
What can you tell us of the piece ‘Final Fantasy X – Orchestra and Piano concerto’ we’re going to listen tonight? What can you tell us from your point of view…
I didn’t play Final Fantasy in my life but I’m also a gamer, or at least I used to be a gamer. I played different kind of things like racing simulators, flight simulators or first-person shooters. When you’re playing a game, you’re playing many hours and the music gets into your head, so when you listen to the music in concert, it gets you back to those moments. Tonight’s piece is the game’s music but actually is really classical music mixed with pop grooves or jazzy grooves. For me it’s mainly classical. You can remember Rachmaninoff or impressionistic composers like Ravel or Debussy, you can find those feelings in the music. It’s also very interesting to play and it’s really very ‘virtuoso’.
If there are young people in the audience tonight that enjoy the concert very much, and decide they want to be pianists in the future, which advice would you give them?
I think there’re so many classical pianists, and everybody plays the same repertoire, which is kind of good because you come to learn the bases, but everybody should be more open-minded to look for new repertoire.
I was lucky I can play this kind of music, which not a lot of other pianists play, and I think this could be the future to get new audience into the concert halls. We’re having film, TV and video games getting into the concert halls right now, and that’s really fascinating, because so many young people come to this classical hall they would never come for a classical concert.
So I would tell them to learn the basics, but then be open-minded… maybe you end up playing Final Fantasy’s music in a concert hall!!
Interviews by Gorka Oteiza