Jim Self’s “Swan Song” Concert


 7:30 PM Monday, March 4

 University of Southern California, Ramo Hall

Concert Review by Beth Chouinard Mitchell

The “Swan Song” Concert

What kind of tuba player doesn’t know the name Jim Self?

50 years ago, Jim Self was rising to prominence as a Los Angeles free-lance musician.  Many years later, he is a veteran of thousands of motion pictures, television shows, records, and tuba soloist on many prominent movies. He is Principal Tubist with the Pasadena and Pacific Symphonies, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra. His compositions and arrangements include works for solo tuba, brass quintet, other brass and woodwind chamber music, symphony orchestra, and more.  It is not just the man, but also his teaching and compositions that have drawn a crowd this evening.

March 4th was a clear cool evening in Southern California, and some of the finest tuba players from around the Los Angeles area made their way by moonlight across the University of Southern California campus to Ramo Hall. Everyone was here for one reason, the Jim Self “Swan Song” Concert, to celebrate this man who has faithfully taught and served the tuba community at USC for 50 years.

Walking into Ramo Hall were some of the finest brass players around, a veritable “Who’s Who” representing the recording industry, orchestras, and Los Angeles freelancing. Perhaps the audience was slightly low brass heavy, but these were people who have been impacted by Jim’s career as a teacher and performer from the past and present. In the audience were heavyweights of the Los Angeles brass scene, colleagues, former students, and friends.  A few names: Doug Tornquist of course, Norm Pearson, Norm’s young successor to the LA Phil: Mason Soria; those famous trombonists and teachers: Bill Booth, and Terry Cravens; conductor Sharon Lavery, trumpet player Jennifer Marotta, low brass favorites Bob Sanders, Gary Hickman, Don Sawday, Mike Angelos, Bob Burstein, and John Van Houten; former students now making waves in LA: Joe Jackson, Beth Mitchell, Scott Sutherland, Kyle Richter, David Holben, India Anderson, Errol Rhoden, publisher and businessmen Bryan Doughty, Steve Ferguson and more. 

Excited energy filled the air as students, former students, colleagues, and friends greeted each other. With usually one tuba per gig, tuba players never get to see each other as much as they would like. Most of the attendees were no stranger to sitting in “Ramo” or “Booth 100” as the old timers called it, so many had sat in this room countless Monday nights for the famous USC tuba masterclasses led by Jim Self and Tommy Johnson.

The audience in attendance was familiar with many of the pieces on the program, many having had the privilege of playing Jim’s incredibly challenging works. Each quietly joked that they were glad to not be playing the first tuba part this night.

The concert consisted of pieces written by Jim himself, the masterful composer.  Clever with titles, the programed works had names like Mixed Nuts, Tail Spins, Winks and Jinks, Polka.com, Frivol I Tease, and more. The energetic rhythmical pieces were of great difficulty and starred the phenomenal talents of the current tuba studio at the University of Southern California.

As the lights dimmed, someone whispered in my ear, “Remember this?  Performing in these groups?  Nothing Jim writes is ever easy!”

The first piece played was Polarities for two antiphonal brass quintets – a la Gabrielli.  This was conducted by Dr. Self, and like the premier in 2005, it once again featured the talents of USC student brass quintets.  Amy Millesen, Ben Gunnarson, Jean Smith, Stephen Hannan, and Derek Zimmerman held their own in quintet A, while Jazzmine Van Veld, Jorge Feliz, Evelyn Webber, Terry Cowley, Patrick Zhang, challenged the establishment in quintet B. 

The four-minute piece did not disappoint.  The music began in lively fanfarish surround sound, slightly reminiscent of Dolby testing the muster of a theatre. Then began the syncopated rhythms, call and response bell tones and rapid running 16ths which played no favorites as instruments on both sides of the quintet chasm seamlessly traded lines.  Each of the instruments had difficult solo passages and each musician was pushed to a technical and musical limit testing sonic speed and dexterity.  The fabulous tuba parts delighted the low brass heavy audience, it was obvious that there were no obligatory parts here amidst the intricate and challenging lines. The sections were entitled: A la Fanfare, A la Scherzo and A la Waltz.  The piece built in intensity to the end.

The next piece, Tail Spins was for a Conical Bore Quartet and masterfully played by Benjamin Gunnarson on Cornet, Svend Lykkegaard on Flugel Horn, Arisa Makita on Euphonium, and Logan Westerviller on Tuba.  Originally commissioned in 2001 by Les Amis Musicalles, a Flute, Violin, and Viola trio, Jim added a tuba later to make it more interesting and later adapted it to this configuration.  This piece has also been arranged for Saxaphone Quartet and String Quartet.

 Tail Spins was a playful, rhythmic, one movement work in several sections blending commercial styles with classical. It starts with a flippant theme that recurs and is varied throughout. It is followed by a rolling jazzy waltz section and finally by a rather fast “funky” groove that technically challenges all the musicians-as the title Tail Spins suggests. As is common in Jim Self’s music, each player must be confident and at the top of their game, because every chamber player is also a soloist. 

Between pieces, Jim joked that his titles were better than his pieces.  It isn’t true, but he certainly has a gift for titles.  Poker Chips for four Tubas and Vibraphone was next.  This was played by the current USC Bass Tuba Quartet; Arisa Makita, Patrick Zhang, Neha Kudva, on F tubas, DerekZimmerman on C tuba, with Preston Spisak on Vibraphone, and Maestro Jim Self Conducting.

Poker Chips featured five short movements for bass tuba quartet adding vibraphone for variety. Each of the five movements was named after a poker term and had some rhythmic connection to it. The first movement, Anti-Up is discordant with vibraphone.  Movement two, Seven Card Stud is in 7/8 and 7/4 meters, and began like a cowboy waltz, complete with a fugue and a ringing of a bell which fades away. Movement three was a fanfare, using jazzy harmonies dovetailing and folding into unison.  It is here we really began to enjoy the strength of this year’s USC tuba class. The vibraphone provided wonderful contrast to the tubas.  In movement four, the marimba’s bell tones accompany the tuba duo leading into a hop-along section but returning to bell-tones.  In movement five, Trips to Win, some improvisation was required by tuba and vibes. First tubist, Arisa played a fabulous jazz solo using modal harmonies and flutter-tonguing. 

This piece is yet another example of the brilliant creation of combined sounds and rhythm by one who really knows how to write for tuba.

Mixed Nuts was an exciting piece which featured Alan Lu, Patrick Zhang, Logan Westerviller on tubas and Elizabeth Chou on piano.  Our master of ceremonies again doubled as conductor.   This lively piece featured the interplay between three tubas often punctuated by the piano.  At other times the piano was lyrical against driving tuba parts which included treacherous interval jumps and leaps and sometimes steady eighth notes as accompaniment. The simple ending was fitting somehow, for a bunch of mixed nuts. 

The final piece before the intermission was the whimsical Winks ‘n Jinks written by Jim Self in 1995 for Norm Pearson to play as a feature with the Los Angeles Philharmonic trombone section at Brassfest.  The title was taken from the abridged combination of “tiddlywinks” and “hi-jinks”, which portray the playful nature of this piece. 

Tonight, filling the roll of Norm Pearson was Neha Kudva, whose masterful soloing was accompanied by the trombone talents of Steve Hannon, Pablo Castro, Terry Cowley, Rocky Fox.

After the Intermission (which had no clever name), we were back to enjoying the gifted abilities of the tuba studio.  The next piece, Splitting Airs featured Arisa Makita on solo euphonium and Derek Zimmerman on solo tuba. They skillfully lead their piano accompanist and a string quartet through movements 1. Split Image, 2. Spit Second, and 3. Lickety Split.  It featured many quotes from the Ring Cycle, Die Gotterdammerung which Jim had been playing at the time of this composition. 

Movement one, Split Image repeats the different quoted ideas disguised in hemiola rhythms.  The euphonium and tuba enter from opposite ends, and the lines are thrown about in a call and response between the various instrument groups. Midway through, nice lyrical melodies suddenly turn into crazy tonalities.  In Split Second, the piano acts like a clock, and the strings enter fugally.  The piano line is taken over by the tuba and then returns to its job managing the seconds of the clock.  The mood of the strings becomes almost macabre and it gets a little spooky as the cello joins the left hand of the piano clock in an ostinato-ish manner.  Then the cello goes crazy with incredible intervals. The final movement, Lickety Split is a “seatbelts on” movement.  There are lots of time changes with quick, fun, rhythmical, unison parts for the soloists with their accompanying counterparts. At times, it seems Copland-esque.

Polka.com was originally written for brass quintet during the .com craze of the late 1990’s, but has since been boiled down to a busy, entertaining, challenging, romp for solo tuba.   Jim Self described this piece as “Frankie Yankevich meets Donna Summer meets Scott Joplin”. Patrick Zhang, a senior at the University of Southern California skillfully handled this demanding four octave piece with ease, all the while highlighting the humourous bits.

The cimbasso has been described as a weapon of 19th century opera, and so of course, it is appropriate at a concert such as this.  Tongue in Cheek was written for David Holban as a piece for cimbasso (or bass tuba) and piano and was premiered in 2014.  The piece is a short three and a half minutes, very fun with many fast changes and many fun quotes from Petroushka, to Pictures, to Woody Woodpecker.

Written for an advanced player, it explores the full range of modern cimbasso, from pedal Bb to F above middle C. Featuring tonal, modal, and bi-tonalities, the first section is a lively scherzo with rhythmic and melodic interplay between the cimbasso and piano.  The middle section of this piece contains a lovely lyrical slower waltz, and then it returns to the high energy scherzo recapitulation with a sudden ending. 

This evening it was excellently played by USC master’s student Logan Westerviller on cimbasso who completely memorized it to inspire the rest of us. 

Sometimes, in concerts there are special moments when magic happens, and Frivol I Tease played by Doug Tornquist and Elizabeth Chou, was one of these times.  Written for solo tuba and piano, this piece wonderfully complemented the musicianship, flexibility, and technical prowess of one of Los Angeles finest first-call tubists.  With movements entitled Modal I Tease and Complex I Tease, Jim wrote the opening of the piece with a beautiful gentle jazz waltz in five, with arpeggiated cord changes.  Although genial, the mood

changed as the piece became discordant yet remained affable jazz.  This was eloquently played by Doug as the demanding interval jumps flowed confidently and as easily as water. 

Like the title, Complex I Tease, this was complicated and intricate. The rhythmic octave plus interval jumps up and down were handled with ease by the soloist as he was daring in the high range, tiptoeing into the low through modal arpeggios, expertly dancing as if it were no challenge at all.  Bravo Doug!

The Shadow Knows is a good piece for Groundhogs Day, February 2nd, but the date was close enough.  Six tubas and drums tackled this final piece of the night. Recent USC grad Dr. Brad Moller joined Jim’s current studio:Patrick Zhang, Neha Kudva, Derek Zimmerman, Alan Lu, LoganWesterviller on tubas, Leigh Wilson on drums, and Jim Self as Conductor.

This piece was composed by Jim Self in 2010 as a class recording project. It was written for six tubas panned across a 180-degree spectrum with the tubas spread evenly and the drums with percussion toys placed in the rear center. The stage setup is important to achieve the desired musical effects and texture.

The piece began with each tubist playing octaves of G’s around the half-moon arc of tubas, which lead into a quick melody followed by cascading lines and special effects, emphasizing the spectral nature of the music. Rhythmic hemiolas gave the feeling of constant meter changes vacillating between the 3/4 and 6/8. The second section was a beautiful waltz over jazzy harmonies punctuated by various tuba solos. This is followed by three short duets, and a return to the initial groove and theme, slowing slightly before culminating in a fast coda-like section with intervallic changes.  The piece ends with the first tuba improvising a raindrop sounding solo over a bluesy chord.  Well done USC tubas, very nice!

In summary, this was indeed a night to remember filled with extraordinary performances of some Jim Self’s finest compositions.  It was a beautiful tribute to a man who’s accomplished career is a testament to exceptional music making, who has devotedly served Los Angeles and the University of Southern California with his tuba playing, his compositional, and pedagogical talents over the last 50 years.  Although it was the “Swan Song” concert, I have a feeling there is still more on the horizon for Jim Self.

A Concert of Brass Music

by Jim Self

“Swan Song” Concert

7:30 PM

Monday, March 4, 2024

University of Southern California

Ramo Hall

Polarities (2 Antiphonal Brass Quintets)

(A), Amy Millesen, Ben Gunnarson, Jean Smith, Stephen Hannan, Derek Zimmerman

(B) Jazzmine Van Veld, Jorge Feliz,, Evelyn Webber, Terry Cowley, Patrick Zhang,

Jim Self, Conductor

Tail Spins (Conical Bore Quartet)

Benjamin Gunnarson, Cornet, Svend Lykkegaard, Flugel Horn, Arisa Makita,

Euphonium, Logan Westerviller, Tuba

Poker Chips (4 Tubas and Vibraphone)

USC Bass Tuba Quartet (Arisa Makita, Patrick Zhang, Neha Kudva, Derek

Zimmerman), Preston Spisak, Vibraphone, Jim Self, Conductor

Mixed Nuts (3 Tubas and Piano)

Alan Lu, Patrick Zhang, Logan Westerviller, Tubas, Elizabeth Chou, Piano, Jim Self,


Winks ‘n Jinks (Solo Tuba and 4 Trombones)

Neha Kudva, Tuba, Steve Hannon, Pablo Castro, Terry Cowley, Rocky Fox, Trombones.

Jim Self, Conductor


Splitting Airs (Solo Tuba, Solo Euphonium, String Quartet and Piano)

Arisa Makita, Euphonium, Derek Zimmerman, Tuba, Elizabeth Chou, Piano, Sarah

Overcash, Violin , Beau Henson, Violin, Cecile McNeil, Viola, Maddy Bolin, Cello. Jim

Self, Conductor

Polka.com (Solo Tuba)

Patrick Zhang

Tongue in Cheek (Solo Cimbasso and Piano)

Logan Westerviller, Cimbasso), Elizabeth Chou, Piano

Frivol I Tease (Solo Tuba and Piano)

Doug Tornquist, Tuba, Elizabeth Chou, Piano

The Shadow Knows (6 Tubas and Drums)

Brad Moller, Patrick Zhang, Neha Kudva, Derek Zimmerman, Alan Lu, Logan

Westerviller, Tubas, Leigh Wilson, Drums, Jim Self, Conductor