Wearing My Composer’s Hat


I just finished another interesting and unusual week—this one in my role as a composer. My composition, “Tour de Force”

was performed by the River City Brass Band in Pittsburgh and the Omaha Symphony. It began on Sunday with a flight to Pittsburgh and a rental car to my hometown of Oil City, PA. There I spent two days visiting my “step mother”, Ethel “Dutch” Brink for Mother’s Day. She is 93 and nearly blind. I hope my visit cheered her up. She has the most wonderful children who get her meals and see to her needs. With this she is able to stay in her own home—and she does very well. I also saw my friend Doug Dinberg on this visit. He is a regional judge of the court and an avid musician.

Then on Wednesday I drove down to Pittsburgh and went to the home of James Gourlay and his wife Lea. James is the music director and CEO of the River City Brass Band.They graciously gave me a room for my time there. They live up on Mt. Washington. After a dinner with James and Lea we drove to the 1st concert in Upper St. Clair. The RCBB plays 6 concerts every month in various venues around Pittsburgh—so they have 6 distinct audiences. The band had just returned from a marathon tour of Italy the day before so I imagine they were pretty tired—but all I heard was great playing. They played a very eclectic program that mixes serious works with solo features, comic numbers and marches. It is a powerful sound and the full-­?house audience loved it. Tour de Force ended the 1st half. This was my first time to hear the brass band version of the piece and was anxious that it would “work”. Well, the musicians played the heck out of it and I was blown away!The tuba players: Sam Buccigrossi, James Stillwagon, John Urling and Brian Kiser were hot! Several of my Pittsburgh area friends attended including Zach Collins from IUP and my high school friend Judy Oliver Sampson.

The next morning James and I had a nice chat about our mutual careers as tuba players and the world of brass bands. He is a Scotsman with a DMA whose career covers many areasof the music business including conducting, arts administration and symphony, opera and band positions as a tuba player (much of it in England). I have known him mostly as a virtuoso tuba soloist and colleague in the International Tuba Euphonium Association. We then went a few blocks away to visit the new Mt. Washington home they are building. It is very tall and spacious. James and Lea are planning a long time in Pittsburgh.

Then we drove down into the city where James took me to the offices of the RCBB in an upper floor of a skyscraper—with panoramic views of Pittsburgh and the three rivers.They have a nice operation there to produce all of the band’s concerts and charitable projects. We had a nice outdoor meal in the city and returned to rest before that night’s concert. I took a couple of hours to visit my nephew Chip and his wifeLisa in their new home nearby. He is doing well in his mechanic business.

Thursday’s concert was held in the ornate and acoustically

wonderful Carnegie Hall (at the CarnegieMuseum). The band was even better this evening onTour de Force and the whole

concert was superb. James Stillwagon did a hilarious “opera” feature on the sousaphone. This night he stuck in the Close Encounters five notes as a “jab” at me. James Gourlay is a wonderful conductor and, with his droll Scottish humor, a real showman. It was great having the Flaths from Oil City attend-­?-­? and former high school class-­?mate Ann Harper and several other Pittsburgh friends too. The concert was followed by food and beer nearby.

EARLY Friday morning I left for the airport and a flight to Omaha, Nebraska for two concerts of Tour de Force with the

Omaha Symphony. My hosts were Craig Fuller, his wife, Judith and their son, Sam. Craig is the long-­?time principal tuba of the Omaha Symphony and Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at the University of Nebraska. They have restored and improved their 100 year-­?old home on a beautiful tree-­?lined street in Omaha. Craig studied with Harvey Phillips at IU in the 70’s and even attended my 1978 ITEC at USC as a student. We have lots of friends and experiences in the music world and enjoyed sharing many memories.

The Omaha Symphony asked me to be part of the pre-­?concert lectures with Principal Horn, Jason DeWater, before each of the two concerts. The Holland Arts center has a new, acoustically flattering symphony hall. To see my name sharing a program with Prokofiev and Stravinsky was very cool.The orchestra is a fine ensemble with many superb soloists—notably the concert master, flute, trumpet, horn and tuba. All were prominent in Tour de Force and Petrushka.

Their maestro, Thomas Wilkins, was the primary force in getting the Omaha Symphony to program my piece. For several years now Thomas has been the conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Mostly I have seen him in that role but thatis mainly a pops format and it was impressive to see him conduct classical concerts with such demanding pieces as mine and Stravinsky. He is solid and his orchestra responds accordingly.

For a few seasons at the Bowl I have gently encouraged him to program Tour de Force in Omaha and other venues where he conducts. He decided to do it this year and I am grateful. After the concert Thomas invited me (and others) to a private dinner in a tony place downtown.

The Fuller family is very close. They have two passions: bike riding and going to Univ. of Nebraska college baseball games. On Saturday they took me to one ofthe latter over in Lincoln. It was the first time for me and I enjoyed it. The Cornhuskers lost to Michigan 19 to 9—a pretty sad showing. After returning to Omaha we had a nice dinner together (so I can say I’ve had a real Omaha steak) and on to another symphony lecture and concert.

This was even more exciting than the night before. I was very flattered by the warm reception by the audience. Four nights in a row of standing ovations is almost too much to take (almost). It was the end of the concert season so the orchestra had a champagne toast in the Founders Room. There I met many of the musicians who told me how much they enjoyed my music.—very satisfying!

Later, at home, Craig and I were joined by 19 year old Sam for a nice chat about life, politics and the future. That Sam is a bright and impressive young man.

The next day we continued our reminiscences of Harvey Phillips and other stuff. I really enjoyed sharing so much with Craig Fuller. After a laid back lunch I went to the airport and back to reality in Los Angeles. My week under my composer’s hat had been an exciting and encouraging experience. The decision to attend these concerts was expensive. It cost me two whole opera runs at LA Opera, a week with the Pacific Symphony and a couple of studio calls. But I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

Jim Self

Los Angeles, CA

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