Friday, 28 October 2011

Dimitri Tiomkin Concert, LSO, Barbican

Commemorative stamp, issued 1999
Dimitri Tiomkin was one of the most accomplished, garlanded and best-loved film music composers ever to have worked in Hollywood. A drinking buddy of Sergei Prokofiev's who learnt his trade playing both for silent film and the live shows of comedian Max Linder in his native Russia, Tiomkin was a state composer in the early years of the Soviet revolution. Emigrating to America via Germany, he first worked in movies as a dance music supervisor, his ballet dancer wife choreographing dance sequences. His break as a composer came with his association with Frank Capra during the war, culminating in the score for It's A Wonderful Life. Tiomkin went on to write scores for a number of Westerns as well as significant films with Alfred Hitchcock.

This evening's concert given by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican was a project of visiting American Richard Kaufman, an accomplished commercial screen conductor. During the nicely mixed programme he produced all four of the composer's AMPAS awards - or Oscars - to stand on the stage alongside the works that won them.

This was by no means the only touch of glitter in a really superb concert. With its relatively recent but nonetheless well-established familiarity with film score recording and performance, the orchestra's sheen, punch and general ebullience rendered Tiomkin's works fresh and alive, whether the music was familiar or obscure. Take, for example, the second piece, a suite from John Wayne's story of The Alamo. The sweeping romance of the first movement and relentless chaos of the final battle contain the very DNA of postwar film music, propagated in spirit by every successful composer since. On top of this there was a Morricone prefacing, Iberian-inflected trumpet solo, sung (the only word) on the trumpet by the LSO's fine principal Philip Cobb. The LSO is an ensemble of such top individuals and tombonist Katy Jones brought this same singing tone to the subsequent suite from The Old Man And The Sea. There was more fine playing from the leader Carmine Lauri and from assorted members of the percussion department - if the six of them had a system for their frenzied rotation around a number of instruments, not least the pitched percussion, I couldn't work it out.

Like the judiciously sprinkled glockenspiel notes so enamoured of Tiomkin, so these unshowy moments of finesse were gilt on a fine fabric of music. Yes, I liked the bombast and romance of The Alamo, Egyptianitised in the Land Of The Pharaohs Procession music or moderated in its drama for the broad vistas of Giant. The Guns Of Navarone and Hitchcock suites seemed to protest too much by comparison. In retrospect it seems no surprise that the sure-footed, folkish melody of Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling (from High Noon) and the famous theme to the TV show Rawhide sat so easily in this programme. Perhaps the most unusual item on the programme was hearing from Tiomkin himself. Kaufman played a short showreel, in which the composer plays up to the camera, revealing the wit that's so clear in his music.

Though, ultimately, my favourite piece of the evening was the winningly Cuban Old Man And The Sea suite, Kaufman could not have picked a better piece to finish than the Search For Paradise theme, an ecstatic MGM-sized happy-ending choral construct which also has a toe or two in the European late-romantic oratorio follies of Mahler or Schoenberg. I say finished... it turned out there was just time for a singalonga-Rawhide before we all went home, making a note of the Westerns that we really ought to have seen.

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