Reflections on the Symphony


by Jim Self

Today I just finished a week of playing Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. It was the opening week of the Pacific Symphony’s 45th season. The conductor was Carl St. Clair and we did four performances. The 48 minute work, conducted from memory by Carl, has become a staple and signature piece of orchestra’s repertoire. In 2008 the orchestra did its 1st European Tour and we played it in 9 cities including Cologne, Munich and Vienna. We were all astounded by the standing ovations and great reviews we got everywhere. It’s a tough job for a young American orchestra to get those kudos in Germany and Austria playing THEIR masterpieces—but we did.

All this week the emotions of Ein Heldenleben had me waxing nostalgically about my inner feelings of being a symphony musician and decided it was time to write them down.

Ein Heldenleben is just about the peak of complexity, romanticism, energy, beauty and all with a 100 piece, huge orchestra. I don’t think there is any better example of human sharing and discipline than is reached in a symphonic orchestra. The organic nature of 100 minds all listening and playing off of each other is a deep and spiritual thing—especially in this overly Romantic work!

I turned 80 years old a month ago. Eighty is a landmark year in any life. One knows that the road ahead is short and the road behind is long. Never in my wildest imagination could I have expected a life as long and rich musically as I have had. To be playing strong enough for Strauss at 80 is very satisfying.

My relationship with Ein Heldenleben goes back to age 15. After my father died I lived with my grandmother and had my own little bedroom. Next to my bed was a turntable and, at night, I would listen to a lot of LPs. Among those were my first hearings of the great brass symphonic pieces recorded by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (with the greatest symphony tubist of all time, Arnold Jacobs). EH was one of those. I was astounded by its energy, beauty and its musical story of a hero’s life. In short, I was “moved” to tears. This was long before I had even thought about being a musician for a career. I had never heard a live symphony orchestra until I was a junior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania–when the Pittsburgh Symphony came. I had played a little bit in the college orchestra, but it was a minor ensemble compared to the bands at that school.

When I got to the US Army Band I became serious about a playing career, got my Master’s Degree at Catholic University and studied in New York City with Harvey Phillips. He taught me excerpts and I realized that the only way for a tuba player to make a professional living was in a major symphony. Chester Schmitz and Dan Perantoni, my two colleagues in the Army Band, moved on to orchestra jobs when their enlistment was up–Chester to the Boston Symphony and Dan to an orchestra in Holland. I admired them both and wanted to do that too. Jobs were few then but there were fewer good tuba players too. I felt I had a chance!

I spent 2 years in DC after the Army and got to sub with the Washington National Symphony a few times (I have a funny anecdote about my time with John Marcellus—for a later story). I also played several concerts with the Richmond, Virginia Symphony in 67/68. The in 1968 I took my one (and only) symphony audition—for the San Francisco Symphony. It was a good job, in a great city and it paid $15.000 a year. I did NOT win it (obviously) but I have a great story about my experience at the audition and in San Francisco (that I will share at another time).

In the summer of 1969, I got a call from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and was hired (over the phone) as Assistant Professor of Tuba and Euphonium–with a promise of tenure in 3 years. That job included the position of Principal Tuba in the Knoxville Symphony. It was during my 5 years there that I got my first in-depth experience with orchestra playing. We played a lot of the standard literature and I got to learn a lot “on the job”. A funny bass story: The UT orchestra was quite weak in strings so I would sit in the last (4th) chair string bass to help fatten up the section. My string bass playing was limited to pizzicato dance band playing and my bowing technique was almost non-existent. One day I went to rehearsal and none of the student bass players showed up. It was a reading rehearsal and the conductor called up the Mahler 1st Symphony—the Dm fugue movement begins with bass solo and becomes a trio with a with solo Bassoon and solo Tuba. The bass part is super high—I tried to play it and it was awfully out of tune. That was also my last time  to play in that student orchestra.

Moving on to Los Angeles in 1974 to finish my DMA at USC, I had hopes of breaking into the recording studios. It was my year of residency for the degree, and I was required to play in the Wind Ensemble or University Orchestra for credit. At age 31, a veteran of The US Army Band and 5 years as a college professor, the last thing I wanted to do was play in student ensembles—but I had to. The 1st week of school the orchestra conductor, Dan Lewis, asked me if I would play the first concert which included Petrushka. I said yes. Then the next day I got called for my 1st studio call—a TV show subbing for Tommy Johnson. It conflicted with the 1st rehearsal of the school orchestra. I went to Lewis and asked him if I could send a sub and he said NO. He was tough that way. So, I told him that was I not going to do his concert and he was pissed. I HAD to do that recording session! But I got a senior tuba major to do it for him. His name was Gene Pokorny. So, I tell Gene that I gave him his first big orchestra experience. I thought Lewis really hated me but one year later he hired me to be the Principal Tuba with the Pasadena Symphony which he conducted. It was an old, venerable L.A. area orchestra made up of top classical studio musicians and free-lancers. I am still in the Pasadena Symphony—my 49th year! Dan Lewis and I were USC Faculty colleagues and friends his whole life. He was a great musician and renowned conducting professor.

Shortly after moving to Los Angeles, I got to sub with the LA Philharmonic. Roger Bobo was the tuba player but Tommy Johnson was his sub. I forget my 1st time with them, but I believe it was playing 2nd tuba to Tommy on Symphony Fantastic at the Hollywood Bowl. But two times I had the pants scared off me! One Sunday about noon I got a call from Irving Bush, the personnel manager. Roger Bobo was sick and he asked if I could come in for a 2 PM matinee of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Of course, I said yes. It was the last of 4 performances and Tommy was playing 2nd tuba. He decided to stay on that part because the entire orchestra relied on him to “lay down” the tricky rhythms near the end. So, I played 1st tuba. Zubin Mehta was conducting. 10 minutes before the concert he asked Tommy and me to come to his dressing room. He briefly talked it through for my benefit. Understand that, while I had studied and taught the excerpts from Sacre for a long time, I had NEVER played it! We then did the matinee–and it went well. Zubin gave us tubas a solo bow. It was exciting! Later on, I had a similar sight-reading experience playing my 1st Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony concert with Zubin and the LAPO–on a two hour notice! Those early “sight reading” jobs helped cement my reputation around town. For a while I was kind of the “hot young tuba player in town”.

For all of my early years in Los Angeles I played most of the visiting ballet companies including the Bolshoi, Kirov, American Ballet and many more. I probably did 8-12 weeks of ballet each year. Fun tuba parts—often better than opera.

Then in 1986 my entire career took a big leap forward. That was the 1st year after the 1980 strike that my studio income returned to its pre-strike level. I became 1st call in the movies for James Horner and others soon after. It was also the year that the LA Opera began, and I was asked to be the Principal Tuba. Then the Pacific Symphony called and offered me Principal Tuba too. Before me they would not pay the tuba player principal pay. The job is 50 miles away from my home, so I insisted that I get 1 ½ scale. They said yes and that began a long and continuing position for me. It was also the year that they built a magnificent new 3000 concert hall in Orange County. I got very busy playing and teaching all over Southern California.

In 1991 the LA Phil decided to establish a 2nd orchestra to help the Phil at the summer bowl concerts. Thus began the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra under the baton of John Mauceri. I was asked to be the Principal Tuba here too. Our 1st gigs were recording a new CD at MGM Studios and a full Summer Concert schedule at the Bowl. Those early years we played a lot of Pops Concerts, 4th of July Concerts, an occasional classical weekend, a concert opera and a Tchaikovsky Spectacular each summer—they we filled with great soloists and were marvelously presented by Mauceri. In 1993, for the three 4th of July concerts, I was featured playing Tubby the Tuba. After 16 years of Mauceri and 12 CDs, the LA Phil got tired of the cost and decided to downsize the Bowl Orchestra. They replaced John with Thomas Wilkins. He is a fine conductor and is still there but the orchestra has gradually done fewer and fewer gigs. At its peak we did about 30 concerts a year. Now we a lucky to have 10.

In Orange County in 1986 a new opera company, Opera Pacific, was established and I was asked to be its tuba player too. It ran for about 20 years but folded due to lack of funds. For those years I was playing in five orchestras. Like everyone in those early days I did not have to audition for my position. Again, I guess I was the “hot” young tuba in town and my colleagues recommended me. Later we got tenure in all my orchestras. I still do four of them. Each orchestra has a liberal excused absence policy so (somehow) have been able to maintain my positions in all. I do keep several excellent subs working a lot for me. When I retire from these jobs all except the Pasadena Symphony will require auditions. The likelihood of anyone getting more than one of them is remote. I feel very fortunate to have been able to have a great career that included a lot of orchestra work.

I have several fond memories of playing with other orchestras. In late 2008 (in one month’s time) I got to play in three major ones. I did a week playing 2nd tuba with Norm Pearson (my former student) and the LA Phiharmonic playing Strauss’ Alpine Symphony–conducted by Gustave Dudamel. The next week I played Holtz’s The Planets with Carl St Clair and the Pacific Symphony, and finally playing 2nd tuba on Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastic with Gene Pokorny and the Chicago Symphony. An interesting thing happened. I got to compare the acoustics of three major concert halls. In my opinion our newly built Pacific Symphony Segerstrom Hall was easily the best–for the tuba and my ears. Chicago was 2nd — but somewhat dry and finally Disney Hall in Los Angeles. To me Disney is a difficult place to play a large instrument like the tuba. The hall gets great press because the LA Phil is great and it’s an architectural wonder but it’s not good acoustically. The BEST hall in Southern California is the Pacific Symphony Segersrtom hall in Orange County. My 2nd favorite concert hall in the area is Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena where I play with that orchestra.

About 2005 I got to play 2 performances of the Vaughn Williams Tuba Concerto in Mexico City with conductor Jorge Mester. About same time I was a featured soloist with the Glendale Symphony playing  A Christmas Jazz Suite for Tuba and Orchestra arranged by Marty Paich–at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I later played it with the Pacific Symphony Pops.

In 2011 the great Jazz Pianist Bill Cunliffe wrote a Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra

for me. We recorded it with an orchestra of top studio musicians and we also did a Tuba and Piano version with Bill on Piano. The recording engineer was John Williams’ engineer, Shawn Murphy. The premier was at the US Army Band Tuba/Euphonium Conference with the US Army Orchestra and me as Solo Tuba.

The last fond memory was In January 2018 when I got to play a wonderful week as 2nd tuba on Symphony Fantastic with Michael Moore and the Atlanta Symphony.

In the early 2000’s, when I was very busy in the studios and (after Tommy Johnson died in 2006), I looked around and realized that the studio business was always changing players. Getting old in that part of our business was unlikely—especially for a brass player. I knew I would be “aged” out at some point. Since I had these good tenured orchestra jobs, I decided to occasionally turn down recording jobs to do rehearsals and concerts with my orchestras–in order to maintain my minimums—and know that, when I got older and still played well, I would have lots of work. That is what happened and it was a wise decision. This of course, opened the door for younger players to get the studio calls. They were usually former students of mine and Tommy and had paid a lot of dues. Guys like Doug Tornquist, Fred Greeene and Gary Hickman got a lot of that work. They happened to be my main orchestra subs too. It was their turn. I did nearly 1600 movies in my career and didn’t need the money or the ego boost anymore.

Memorable conductors of my orchestras:

Knoxville Symphony: David Van Vactor, Arpad Joo

Pasadena Symphony: Dan Lewis, Jorge Mester, David Lockington

Pacific Symphony: Keith Clark, Carl St. Clair

Opera Pacific: John Mauceri, John DeMain

Los Angeles Opera: Kent Nagano, James Conlin

Hollywood Bowl Orchestra: John Mauceri, Thomas Wilkins

American Ballet: John Lanchberry, Jack Everly, Charles Barker

Others: Zubin Mehta, Esa Pekka Salonen, Michael Tilson Thomas,Fabio Luisi,John Williams, Robert Spano.

Favorite orchestral pieces:

Bartok, Concerto for Orchestra

Strauss: Ein Heldenleben

Mahler, Symphony #9

Stravinsky, Rite of Spring

Verdi, Requiem

Berloiz, Symphony Fantastic

Shostakovich, Symphony #7

Favorite operas:

Wagner,  Lohengtin

Wagner,  Ring Cycle

Strauss,  Salome

Verdi, Aida

Favorite ballets:

Tchaikovsky, Nutcracker

Delibes, Coppelia

Stravinsky, Rite of Spring

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet

Prokofiev, Cinderella

In 2010 I had a wonderful commission to compose a piece for Carl St. Clair and the Pacific Symphony. The result was a 14 minute virtuoso work titled Tour de Force, Episodes for Orchestra–featuring many of the of the principal players. It was premiered as the opening work on 4 concerts that included Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis and Hilary Hahn playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Thomas Wilkins also programmed it with his Omaha Symphony on two concerts that included Prokofiev’s Petroushka. I have a wonderful poster on my living room wall of a photo of the orchestra and the title of my piece surrounded by personal “Thank You” notes from the musicians—I cherish it!

This has been a long reflection on my career as an orchestra musician. More than ever, I am aware of the great talent, great conductors and great music I get to play and play with every day. A symphony orchestra is the epitome of what humans can to together. For a young boy who could not imagine playing symphony, opera, ballet or studio orchestras, I have been more than fortunate. My soul is continually enriched. Ein Heldenleben is the paragon of orchestral playing and this week’s experience has been the trigger for my writing these words.

Next month we do Prokofiev’s Symphony #5 (about the best tuba part in the repertoire) YIPPEE!

Jim Self

September 24, 2023