By: Greggory Moore
Balboa Amusement Company Orchestra
Long Beach Arena Parking Structure
Silent films were never really silent, because right from the start they were presented to audiences with live music, whether a single piano player or an entire orchestra. The Balboa Amusement Company Orchestra, an ad hoc ensemble cobbled together to create/perform an original live score for a one-off screening of 2012 Best Picture winner The Artist, falls somewhere between the two extremes. But what they delivered Tuesday night on top of the Long Beach Arena parking structure falls a lot closer to the full-blown side of the spectrum, both in terms of ambition and realization.
Deriving their name from the Balboa Amusement Production Company, a silent-film studio active in Long Beach between 1913 and 1918, the 11 members of the Balboa Amusement Company Orchestra (piano, drums, upright bass, guitars, woodwind/horns, strings, voice, foley) pulled off the neat trick of evoking the film's period (The Artist takes place c. 1930) without simply rehashing Ludovic Bource's Oscar-winning original score, ultimately delivering something more dynamic and…yeah, I'm just gonna say it: fun.
It wasn't immediately obvious that things would work out so well. Early challenges included an out-of-tune violin and feedback problems. While those were overcome, there was no way to match one of the film's cleverest moments: a reveal that the opening portion of Bource's score is being played by an orchestra live scoring a silent film being screened within The Artist. In fact, the Balboa ensemble didn't do much with The Artist's best enmeshments of visuals and sound design (George's dream, the gorgeous shot of a drink being spilled on a mirrored table).
But those disappointments were the exceptions. As a rule, the Balboa peeps did a superb job keeping the audience dialed into the onscreen action, shifting gears so smoothly with the characters' experience that it was easy to forget that what you were hearing wasn't painstakingly produced by the filmmakers and enmeshed with the unspooling celluloid. Bandleader Ellen Warkentine (with Alyssandra Nighswonger, the score's co-composer) did yeoman's work reining in her cohort whenever they would get a little too loud for the moment–a frequent peril, considering how boldly the group moved from subtle harmonic coloring to raucous, even cacophonous dynamics.
You're not going to find many good scores without at least a couple of prominent motifs, and the Balboa crew's effort was no exception. A variation on “Hooray for Hollywood” was a nice touch. And while what we'll call “Peppy's Love Theme” might have benefited from more modal shifts as it repeated, the music always seemed properly calibrated.
The moments of greatest delight were completely original. A bizarre, chicken-like clucking during a series of in-film talkie screen tests was hilarious, as was the mouthpiece squawking that trombonist Matthew Proffitt employed to evoke one character's chatter (think Charlie Brown's teacher in those animated TV specials, except much funnier and with perfectly-timed live-action visuals).
The 500+ in attendance Tuesday clearly enjoyed The Artist itself, but some of what they responded to was generated by the Balboa Amusement Company Orchestra. And with the minute-long ovation the crowd gave the group as the credits began to roll, they acknowledged as much.