A moderate-sized but enthusiastic crowd showed up at Symphony Hall this past Saturday night for a presentation of “The Matrix Live” with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Don Davis, composer of the film score, conducted the ASO in underscoring the Wachowski brothers’ wildly popular 1999 cyberpunk sci-fi film “The Matrix,” which starred Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Joe Pantoliano and Hugo Weaving.
Well, underscoring much of it, but far from all. There were significant sections where the orchestra was silent and the movie’s audio track bore the sounds of heavy rock and edgy popular genres. For example, in the early club scene where Neo (Reeves) meets Trinity (Moss), Rob Zombie’s industrial metal song “Dragula (Hot Rod Herman Remix)” played on the audio track.
Some of the rock songs from the film didn’t make it to the concert stage, such as “Wake Up” by (appropriately enough) Rage Against the Machine. “Wake Up” was used in the end credits of the movie, but not in this live performance.
When the orchestra did play, Davis effectively set moods and underscored action. But most of the orchestral music did little else. Except for some call-and-response brass chords, as in the opening music (which recalled slightly the noir feeling of the opening moments of Danny Elfman’s tamer intro music to “Batman: The Animated Series”), there was little that thematically fixed solidly in the mind as motif. Many of the numbers are simply dramatic orchestral crescendos that end suddenly, often with a gong, a kind of passage that Davis seems to love or at least thinks serves the moment.
Much of what musically engages memory is vested in the movie’s pop culture references, the edgy and rebellious songs attached to the visuals. But what the orchestral music — especially performed live — does do, it does well. As with many film scores, we got implied influences: a cross between late Bernard Herrmann and early Penderecki in places, and other bits that reminded of Shostakovich, John Adams or William Schuman. There was a nod to Japanese taiko drumming and, in the first half, a passage that sounded a lot like Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.”
The performance was rightly led by Davis, and the ASO responded with power and intensity of feeling well in step with the film. Young vocalist Ruben Roy, a member of the Georgia Boy Choir, did well in his small in-the-wings singing part.
As an orchestral special event, “The Matrix Live” — which one might call the “composer’s cut” of the film — has toured the United States since the Houston Symphony played the North American premiere last November. The most recent performances before Atlanta were two in Seattle in June. Upcoming tour stops include shows with orchestras in Minneapolis, Grand Rapids, Chattanooga and St. Louis.
Like many film-with-live-orchestra events, “The Matrix Live” proved a social phenomenon as much as a concert. There were no printed programs; none were needed. It was much more like the experience of a movie house than the strict “please turn off your cell phones” and beverage-less protocols of a typical subscription concert.
Many of those waiting in their seats for the concert to start came with smart phones blazing, the ratio of illuminated screens to people being quite high. A few brought bar drinks in hand from the lobby. And a lot of the audience came waddling in to find seats while music was being played and the movie was already running, both at the beginning and after intermission.
But perhaps that’s part of the point: there are occasions when orchestras and classical music need to let go of their own self-imposed matrix as a younger generation with different social expectations discovers the power and thrill of live orchestral music.