An Exclusive Interview with Sir James Galway: Flutist Divine
Special to Education Update from Switzerland
Of course he’s the greatest flute player in the world (some wag having remarked that Jean Pierre Rampal, who died in 2000, now rules Flute Heaven), but Sir James Galway could also easily make it as a stand up comic. His sharp wit and irreverent charm accompany him along with his golden flute when he performs and conducts. At 66 he’s at the top of his form—and rising—taking on new endeavors. He’s particularly excited about a new feature on his website—www.thegalwaynetwork.com (up only since October 31 and with 9,000 hits so far)—where, as part of Flute Chat, a site for Q & A about flute-related experiences, he’ll be playing duets with those who dial in. He’s also no doubt getting ready for more accolades when “Ich War Ein Berliner” is released this February, a Deutsche Grammophon CD that will coincide with Sir James’ upcoming 22-city U.S. tour as performer and conductor with the Polish Chamber Orchestra, which Yehudi Menuhin called “the best in the world.” Mozart will be front and center. But Mozart wasn’t wild about the flute. “Well,” Sir James is quick to reply, “no one on his street is wild about the flute, either.”
The new CD pays homage to the Berlin Philharmonic, where Sir James was principal flute from 1969-1975 under the direction of Herbert von Karayan and where, as Sir James has often said, he had “the best time of my life.” He grows a bit wistful, recalling days with the “fantastic” orchestra where every concert was sold out and when conductors like von Karayan, a man of electrifying, consummate expertise and great charm, committed everything to memory. When the Maestro conducted the “Blue Danube,” for example, “you believed you could dance better than anyone else.” Governments then supported the arts then more than they do now, Sir James notes. And what’s gained by the funding cuts? The money couldn’t even build “a submarine!” The phrase “old-fashioned” comes up often. The Berlin Philharmonic and the Polish Chamber Orchestra both play in the “old-fashioned style”—meaning not slick. They know how to “dig in,” get the tone, not take their instruments, the music, the conductor for granted. Von Karajan was a man of the old school, highly disciplined, expecting his players to sit on the edge of their seats and deliver. Today? “Players sit with their legs crossed!”
He also speaks out against pushy parents and teachers who force youngsters to practice and perform too early and on too difficult pieces. How did he himself start? His mother played the piano, his father the flute, piano and accordion and though there were other instruments around—a violin with a severe case of wordworm and a piano last tuned when Beethoven sat on it—his nine-year old sensibilities directed him to the flute (the penny whistle) which was sized appropriately for a child, and he didn’t have to strain. Kids today would be better off practicing scales and perfecting simple music. Are women attracted to the flute more then men? Probably, because they look more “elegant” with a flute than with a tuba. And when and why did he take up conducting—he is Principal Guest Conductor of the London Mozart Players. Thirty years ago when he got fed up with conductors who knew nothing about the flute and who “couldn’t get [the speed] right.” How would he describe his playing today? “Better!” Just recently, he was in Italy, doing a “flute recital,” and there were nine professional flutists in the audience who came up to him later and said, “How do you do it, Jimmy?” He was thrilled.
He and his wife, Lady Jeanne Galway, herself a renowned flutist, who is also vice president of Flutewise, a volunteer nonprofit educational organization that puts on concerts and helps defray expenses for instruments, have been particularly busy lately with Flutewise concerts that, while originally focusing on youngsters, now include older folk as well—to Sir James’ delight. A recent Flutewise concert featured the Belfast Youth Orchestra, with 85 flute players and 150 kids, some as young as six, in a chorus. They were wonderful, but so were the 72 and 78-year old who sat in, the latter who had taken up the flute in his sixties and then disappeared for a few years. Sir James was delighted to see him back. Where had he been? “Having a heart attack.” No doubt he was up to Sir James and Lady Jeanne’s additional Flutewise activities—Irish folk group weekends, full of music and dancing. Meanwhile, stateside fans should mark their calendars for a fabulous all-Mozart program on March 12 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and then on March 15 at Avery Fisher Hall in New York.#