Friday, March 29, 2013

The entertainer

Sir James works the crowd. Photo: Robert Torres.

The classical audience loves its institutions - and flautist Sir James Galway (above) is beyond all doubt an institution. "The Man with the Golden Flute" (by his own approbation), Galway parlayed first chair in the Berlin Philharmonic into a solo career that has now spanned decades, and brought him into alignment with much of the pop firmament.

Such success stories are becoming rare (how many flautists have become superstars of late?), which speaks to a sea-change, I'd say, in the relationship between classical and pop.  Still - all the more reason to see Sir James while you can; even though at 73, he shows little sign of slowing down.  Indeed, he can still fill Symphony Hall, as was apparent at his Celebrity Series concert (dubbed the "Legacy Tour") last weekend.  

Galway's program was a bit short on serious music, it's true, and a little long on patter; but then Sir James long ago transitioned into the role of entertainer rather than interpreter.  His indomitable persona - and elfin sense of humor - still make his stage presence a warm, easy sell, and if the intonation isn't quite as secure as it once was, well - all the more reason to favor Mancini over Mozart.

Indeed, the concert's opening salvo, Mozart's Flute Quartet in D Major, never quite caught fire (despite a strong supporting ensemble); then came a dreadfully saccharine Clair de lune (accompanied by pianist Michael McHale), in an arrangement which I'm sure if Claude Debussy had ever heard, he would have burnt.

Things began to look up immediately, however, with a duet with Lady Jeanne Galway (the missus), on themes from Rigoletto, and the following Fantasie brilliante drawn from Carmen was clean and spirited (although it mysteriously lacked Bizet's loveliest melody for flute, from the Entr'acte of that opera). Here Sir James acknowledged his position as the inspiration for a thousand young flautists when he absent-mindedly asked the crowd, "How many of you are working on Carmen right now?"  (Unfortunately, I couldn't answer in the affirmative, but plenty of kids around me did.)

The second half of the concert tilted further toward light repertoire, with even more pleasing results. Pieces by François-Joseph Gossec and Marin Marais both charmed ("They're in F major, so they're easy," Galway quipped.  "That's why I'm playing them!"), and we got a solid serving of Irish nostalgia, of course, via poignant arrangements of such Gaelic favorites as “Spinning Wheel,” “She Moved Through the Fair,” and “The Star of the County Down.”  One nice surprise was the "Irlandaise" section of Claude Bolling's durable Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano, one of the major "crossover hits" of the 70's (and a signature of Galway's former rival, Jean-Pierre Rampal).  Here pianist McHale largely redeemed himself for his sins in Clair de lune, and impressed even further in an unexpected solo turn with Schubert's Impromptu in E-Flat Major.

Finally came a suite dedicated to the under-rated Henry Mancini, who, like so many figures on the scene in the 50's and 60's, cut his pop profile with hints of deeper musicality.  Galway offered the infectious "Pennywhistle Jig," as well as "Baby Elephant Walk," which he cajoled the crowd into interrupting with syncopated shouts of "HENRY!"  But Galway may have saved his best for last - the encore was a magnificently wistful orchestration of "Shenandoah" (with bits borrowed from Dvorák) that left more than a few in Symphony Hall a little misty-eyed.  Including yours truly, who admits there's nothing like nostalgia - as long as it's your own.

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