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Sir James Galway: He’s now silvery, but the flute’s golden

Mar 20, 2015


The famed Irish flutist comes to Charlotte Tuesday for a one-night gig with his wife, Lady Jeanne, and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.


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Jimmy Galway's father played the flute. So did his grandfather. His uncle Julius made money playing one at Belfast's Grand Opera House. Protestant flute bands marched past his home in Northern Ireland after World War II, projecting their bold anthems.

So he took up the fiddle.

"A lady on our street gave me a violin that was suffering from a great infestation of woodworm," he recalls. "Gradually, the woodworm won the race, and I gave up the violin. My uncle gave me my first lessons on the flute, and I never stopped."

Nearly 70 years later, he's the best-known many people would still say the best flutist on the planet. (He also plays penny-whistle, which he first tootled at 2.)

Sir James (who was knighted in 2001) once worked on a repertoire as wide and deep as the Irish bay that shares his name: classics written or adapted for flute, Celtic music, adaptations of pop songs, international tunes, film scores. (He did the solos on the Oscar-winning soundtrack to "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.")

Nowadays, he focuses on pieces such as Mozart's Flute Concerto No. 2, which he once called his favorite concerto for that instrument. That's his solo spot in Tuesday's gala concert with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra; afterward, he and Lady Jeanne Galway, his wife and a virtuoso herself, will play Domenico Cimarosa's Concerto for Two Flutes in G Major.

"When Mozart went to England (in the late 18th century), one person in 10 played the flute," Galway says. "It was so popular that Mozart's publisher prevailed on him to arrange six violin sonatas for flute, and he made arrangements for amateurs. He always said he hated the flute, though the last three symphonies have great flute parts in them.

"The flute Mozart knew was a baroque flute that came in three pieces: head joint, middle joint and foot joint. That construction played havoc with the natural scale. If he'd lived until 1840, he could have heard the flute I play. Maybe he'd have liked it better."

Making his own way

Galway had the second-best job in his world 40 years ago: principal flutist at the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan. He quit to take the best job, striking out on his own.

"I wanted progress," he says. "Doing the same thing over and over is no progression. Swimming in uncharted waters breeds progression. I knew I could match my Berlin Philharmonic salary by freelancing, so I didn't second-guess it at all. I told Karajan a year before I left that I was going."

Reports say the maestro was irritated at a defection from the world's most famous orchestra. Galway refutes that: "He said, 'If you don't try, you'll never know if you could do it or not.'"

He was married at the time to Annie Renggli, and he moved to her native Switzerland. (He also recorded a hit instrumental version of John Denver's "Annie's Song" for her.) After they divorced, he moved near Lucerne with Jeanne, whom he married in 1984. They often play joint concerts now.

"I think I've changed her playing," he says. "I think my wife sounds like me, and very few flute players sound like me. You get that by listening every day.

"My teacher at the Royal College of Music gave me a recording of (French flutist) Marcel Moyse playing a Hungarian Fantasy by Doppler. I used to listen several times a day, and I would try to play the piece the way he did. People said, 'Jimmy, you sound like Moyse!' I thought, 'That's better than sounding like a no-goer.'
"Then one day, I studied with Moyse. He told me he tried every day of his life to sound like HIS teacher."

A life of instruction

Galway now teaches one-on-one, in master classes or through his onlineFirst Flute course. He gives people rules so those can be mastered, then set aside.

"A copy of me is better than no copy at all," he says, laughing. "A copy of me will one day bloom like a flower into something that's not a copy of me. ...

"But there's nothing worse than playing music following rules. Baroque (traditionalists) have a lot of rules by which they must abide, and it suits a lot of instrumentalists down to the ground. They don't have any freedom in their playing anyway, so they'd like to be put in a structure."

Galway doesn't. At 75, after a lifetime of playing, musicology, the creation of international flute festivals (including one in Athens, Ga., this May) and even a bit of conducting which he says doesn't entice him he looks ahead.

"There are quite a few things I'd like to do. I would like to record Handel's flute sonatas, but I don't know of a record company that would sell them. Just making a record for yourself is like having a visiting card printed and handing it out.

"There's another thing: the works of Carolan, the blind Irish harp player. That would require a tremendous amount of digging and arranging. So maybe I'd just rather sit around, play chess and smoke Havana cigars."