If you were to go to a cinema in St Petersburg of the 1910s, the pianist playing the backing music to the silent movie might have been one of two Dimitris: a very young Shostakovich, or the slightly older Dimitri Tiomkin. While Shostakovich stayed to make his fame within classical music in Soviet Russia, Tiomkin went west and fetched up in Hollywood. By the time of his death some fifty years later, he had become Hollywood royalty, with well over a hundred movie and TV scores to his name, including some of the most iconic films in movie history. Tiomkin's music evokes his era: there's little like it to put you straight back into 1950s America.
With the composer's widow in the audience at the Barbican last night, Los Angelino conductor Richard Kaufman took us on a sort of retrospective exhibition of Tiomkin's music, which included overtures, suites and songs from eighteen of his movies. Kaufman is a veteran film and pops conductor, but he bounces like Tigger whether on the podium or at the microphone telling the stories behind the music, although, unlike Tigger, his enthusiasm is virulently infectious to anyone around him. In a particularly nice touch, he brought out Tiomkin's four Oscar statuettes - yes, the real ones - to "listen to their music".
Tiomkin is most remembered for his Western scores, and these were well represented. Many clichés of the style - the solitary trumpet line, the single toll of a bell or the gallop of horses in string figures - started off in his scores: the soundscapes he created came to define the genre. We heard snatches of his well-loved scores for High Noon and Giant, but my favourite by a stretch is the 1960 score to The Alamo: 50 years on, the mournful chorus of Green leaves of summer and the yearning brass lines still make my spine tingle.
Tiomkin was a crowd-pleaser rather than a great innovator. Although his range of styles and moods is broad, he tends to return to one of a number of characteristic orchestration features: soaring melodies go to the strings, impact moments and plaintive interludes go to the brass, humorous quotes to the woodwind or percussion (by the way, watching the LSO's percussion team last night was a floor show in itself: one sensed that the set of four percussionists at the back was one fewer than was needed, with frantic scurrying as they ran between different collections of instruments just in time to make their cues). But the music is effective and memorable: Tiomkin certainly had a gift for melody, the high impact brass stuff has plenty enough power, and he knew how to suit his music to the desired mood. The best examples last night were the procession from Land of the Pharaohs, absolutely your image of ancient grandeur, and the splendid John "Duke" Wayne March from Circus World, whose ponderous trombone glissandi put smiles on the faces of everyone in the audience.
Film music is written to be recorded in a studio where composer and producer can play all sorts of tricks with microphone placement to alter the natural balance of instrument volumes. When played in a concert hall, these techniques aren't available, and it can be difficult for the conductor to achieve the right balance. Kaufman did well for the most part, helped by the LSO on top form, but some of the instruments did get a bit lost, particularly guitar, harmonica and most of the woodwind. However, this was compensated for by a truly outstanding performance from London Voices.
Tiomkin also wrote some wonderful songs: my favourite is the much-covered Wild is the Wind (for a rare treat, check out the David Bowie version), which was sung creditably by Kaufman's daughter Whitney. The concert closed with a rousing audience-participation repeat of the main theme from the TV series Rawhide, once again showing Tiomkin's ability to do something totally different, totally appropriate to his material and totally memorable.