Conductor Arnie Roth has seen eyebrows raise when talk of his career — he is a member of the Grammy-winning music ensemble Mannheim Steamroller, and has performed with Diana Ross and Jewel — turns to the most-recent blip on his resume: conducting symphonic music from video games.
The classically trained violinist is quick to defend the legitimacy of video games in symphonic settings, as he has done since 2004, when he led the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra to present what he calls "the first public concert" of music from the 26-year-old Final Fantasy franchise. Roth will do the same when he conducts a 100-piece orchestra during "Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy" on Saturday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
"Japan has been way ahead of the world in terms of accepting video games as mainstream entertainment. There is a huge population of fans here in America, but nobody had taken the lead of a concert series. Nobody was taking risks, so I decided to," says Roth, who has performed "Distant Worlds" since 2007 for the London Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and other symphonies. "I think this music is rather ingenious. It's a perfect holiday alternative."
The concert offers a greatest-hits overview of the Japanese-born franchise's brooding, cinematic soundtrack, scored by video game composer Nobuo Uematsu. Roth credits Uematsu for inserting the first symphonic music into role-playing games, and for wrapping melodic structures and themes around characters and RPG battle sequences.
"He's the John Williams of video game compositions," Roth says of Uematsu, who will appear at the "Distant Worlds" concert as keyboard soloist. "When you see 'Star Wars,' you know from music cues when a battle is happening. Same with 'Final Fantasy.' Big, sweeping scores, and every character has their own musical motif, Wagnerian or 'Peter and the Wolf'-style. Each song will be a faithful re-creation of the soundtrack when the games were released, even the 8-bit music."
The Arsht Center, no stranger to video game concerts ("The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses" took place last December), will mount a projection screen above the orchestra, cycling through scenes from Final Fantasy IV, for the Super Nintendo, through Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, for PlayStation 3. The concert's highlights include "Eyes on Me," the Japanese Gold Disc Award-winning theme song to Final Fantasy VIII, sung by guest soloist Susan Calloway and the popular "Aerith's Theme," from Final Fantasy VII.
"Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy" will take place 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. Tickets are sold out, but may be had through a third-party retailer. Call 305-949-6722 or go to ArshtCenter.org.