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Saturday, 06 April 2013 16:00

Concert review: St. Louis Symphony reloads 'The Matrix' at Powell Hall Friday and Saturday, April 5 and 6

Concert review: St. Louis Symphony reloads 'The Matrix' at Powell Hall Friday and Saturday, April 5 and 6 hark.com
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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A contemporary composer conducting the symphony in a program of his own music isn’t usually the sort of thing that generates long lines, either at the box office or at the rest rooms during intermission.

When the composer is Don Davis, though, and the music is the soundtrack for the 1999 science fiction action movie “The Matrix”—played to accompany a showing of the film on the screen at Powell Hall—it’s a different story. The place was packed Friday night, and even the men’s room had a line going back into the auditorium.

I hadn’t seen “The Matrix” since it first hit the theatres fourteen years ago. Its dystopic “everything you know is wrong” story holds up remarkably well, especially when compared to its increasingly incoherent sequels (if you can make any sense out of “The Matrix Revolutions”, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din). The use of deliberately archaic computer technology has had the paradoxical effect of making it seem timeless rather than just dated. And the use of Hong Kong–style “wire Fu” effects and the “bullet time” slow-mo visuals, while much imitated, still look pretty darned sharp.

The score also holds up well. I hadn’t heard it since I last saw the film and, in any case, hearing it live gives it a visceral punch you just can’t get in your local megaplex, especially in the big action scenes. Mr. Davis seems to have been heavily influenced by minimalists like John Adams, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich. Harmonically, he’s not afraid to make extended use of tone clusters and other “modernist” techniques. His orchestration is filled with innovative touches, including exotic percussion and a pair of boy sopranos providing eerie wordless vocals along with the small chorus. Like many contemporary film composers, he also uses a Mahler-sized orchestra with a massive brass section, resulting in near-rock concert volume levels at times.

Conducting the score for a live showing of a movie is, as I have noted before, a fairly specialized skill. It’s probably not part of the basic training of most classically educated conductors. Mr. Davis, happily, has spent most of his career in the TV and film industry and is obviously very comfortable with this sort of hybrid performance.

Like “Pirates of the Caribbean,” which the symphony did back in December, “The Matrix” is a long movie (official running time is 136 minutes) and the orchestra plays for nearly all of it. So not only do the musicians deserve applause for the quality of their playing (and, in the case of Amy Kaiser’s chorus, their singing), they also get extra points for sheer endurance.

As is always the case with the symphony’s movie events, popcorn and other snacks are available, as well as the usual drinks. There’s always a special themed concoction as well. This time around, there were two: the Red Pill and the Blue Pill (“Matrix” fans will recognize the reference). You can bring everything into the hall with you, so when you go, try to be neat and police your area when you leave.

“The Matrix” may not be great art or deep thought, but it is a compelling action film with just enough philosophical background to keep it above the level of its imitators. Seeing it on that big screen, with the symphony cranking out that score, makes for a fun evening at the movies. I recommend it highly, especially for my fellow science fiction fans. The final performance is Saturday, April 6, at 7 PM. For more information: stlsymphony.org

Next on the calendar: There’s a Family Concert on Sunday, April 7, at 3 PM, featuring readings from John Lithgow’s “The Remarkable Farkle McBride.” The regular season resumes April 12-14 with Rossini’s “l’Italiana in Algeri” overture, Paganini’s “Violin Concert No. 1”, and Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique”. Yan Pascal Tortelier conducts with violinist Augustin Hadelich. For ticket information: stlsymphony.org.

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