x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Rhapsody in blue

Sir James Galway not only dressed like a star, he is one. But it's what comes out of his trademark golden flute that makes him one.

The Man with the Golden Flute... Sir James Galway relaxes  in style at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi before tonight's concert.
The Man with the Golden Flute... Sir James Galway relaxes in style at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi before tonight's concert.

Star quality is often a subtle, intangible thing: you're not sure how you recognise it, but there it is. On other occasions, however, it comes signposted by a powder blue suit, matching crocodile skin loafers and a trademark golden flute. In the donnish world of classical music, Sir James Galway is an unusual breath of, well, razzamatazz. "I think in some way dressing is a reflection of who you actually are," he explains. "When you see guys sitting around with filthy tennis shoes, dirty jeans and a shirt advertising some I-don't-know-what, you've got to wonder what's going on in their heads as they put this stuff on to come out and present themselves in a serious light. Don't you think?"

Sir James himself, as the honorific makes plain, has no trouble getting taken seriously. The Belfast-born flautist, who is in town to play at the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival along with the pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and cellist Nina Kotova tonight, is one of the world's biggest-selling classical musicians. He has been written for by composers such as David Amram and Joaquín Rodrigo. He has enjoyed crossover success playing with the jazz singer Cleo Laine, the Irish folk-rock outfit The Chieftains and Pink Floyd, among others. He's also a dedicated teacher, staging workshops at conservatoires around the globe and holding an annual class in Switzerland, where he lives with his third wife, Jeanne. She's also a flute player, and the pair frequently tour together. Rather a romantic way to live, I suggest.

He agrees. "I like it because you're with your wife 24 hours a day, and I think if you want to keep married that's the best way to do it. None of this wandering in and out and 'Where's my supper?' and 'I'm going to bed, I'm tired' stuff. It doesn't really work." Galway has been teacher almost as long as he has been a musician, and sees the two roles as natural companions. "When I was 11 the next-door kid asked me how to play the flute," he says, "so I showed him. That's how I got into it. I mean, it's something that people like me do. When you think about the regular teachers who teach in universities, they have no battlefront experience. Whereas me, I'm on the stage all the time... When I go to teach, I'm not teaching from an intellectual point of view. I'm telling them how it is."

A comparison occurs to him. "If you were studying at university with a regular teacher, just English lit, and suddenly Dylan Thomas walked into the room and gave you a lesson - it'd be another world, wouldn't it?" It's telling that the storied Galway should choose such a mythic figure as his stand-in. A key part of his own legend is that he almost wasn't a flautist. He started out on violin, "but then it fell to pieces because it was home sweet home for several thousand Irish woodworm". So he gave it up. In the violin's absence, the flute was a natural choice: his father, grandfather and uncle all played. "You know my granddad was a semi-professional flute player?" he asks. "He taught my uncle Joe, who taughtme, because I was nine years old at the time and wasn't really talking to my dad." So far from being a fortuitous discovery, then, he seems to have been inexorably drawn to the instrument - compelled, as he says, by "la forza del destino". Does he ever consider how his life might have followed a different path? He's adamant. "Never wonder. Never wonder. No. I'm quite happy just playing the flute."

His first serious teacher was the English player Geoffrey Gilbert, under whom he studied at the Guildhall School of Music in the 1950s. "He was the first one who really showed me what flute playing was about," Galway recalls. "I turned up to do my first lesson with him and I decided to do Prokofiev's Sonata, Hindemith and Bach's G Minor. He played the piano for all three pieces and then he said at the end: 'Galway' - he always called me Galway - he said: 'Do you always play so loud?' I said 'Only when the piano player's loud like that!'" He chuckles. "I was 20 years old, I had no idea who I was even talking to."

In fact, Gilbert was perhaps the most influential British flautist of his day and a daunting role model. "He said: 'Did you practise your study?'" Galway remembers. "So I started to play this thing, and I start on a high note, going dee da dee da dee da dee da... So he said: 'Wait a minute.' And he just got the flute out of the box dead cold and went didadidadidadida... and I turned the pages for him and he played the whole thing. This really redefined for the first time what flute playing was supposed to be."

Another early influence was Jean-Pierre Rampal, who over a series of celebrated performances and recordings gave the flute a similar makeover for the world at large, rescuing it from the obscurity it had fallen into throughout the early part of the century. As a young man Galway went to learn from him. "He was starting out his career just when I was a kid, and he was very impressive for me to hear this sort of flute playing from Rampal, because it was really very beautiful. Very talented, gifted flute player." I mention that the French player is sometimes credited as something of a saviour for the instrument, and Galway bristles. "He may be, but - ahem - I think with the sale of 30 million CDs, I think I did it a bit more than he did." Later he recalls a late interview that Rampal gave on PBS's Charlie Rose show. "Charlie Rose said: 'You're one of the best flute players.' Jean-Pierre said, 'I'm just a flute player. There are millions of flute players. But there's only one Jimmy Galway.'"

There may only be one Jimmy Galway, but he has many facets. The esteem of his peers and predecessors is matched by tremendous commercial clout, for example. He claims credit for being the first soloist to record albums with an orchestral backing, starting with the iconic The Man With the Golden Flute, a disc of Bach, Chopin and Gluck released on RCA in the 1970s. "Nobody had done that before," he says. "Even [the violin virtuoso Jascha] Heifetz hadn't recorded his little showpieces with an orchestra. He always used the piano. So I thought, you know, people are a bit more advanced nowadays... it's the age of stereo. And it gives your room a nice feeling, you know, if you have an orchestra playing in there, in your little bedsit. Makes it sound great. So we went in for that. And then, when they saw how well these records sold..." He signed a 10-album contract with the label, alternating light classical material with jazz and crossover releases.

This cheerful populism has still permitted him to champion contemporary composers. The Pulitzer-winning John Corigliano wrote Promenade Overture for him. He also commissioned pieces by the New York composer Lowell Liebermann - apparently on a whim. "I was walking along the street talking to my friend Charlie Hamblin," he explains, "and I said, 'Charlie, we ought to ask Lowell Liebermann to write a flute concerto,' and Charlie stopped dead and he said, 'Jimmy, this is Lowell Liebermann.' Lowell was walking exactly opposite us. So I said, 'Lowell, hi, would you like to write a flute concerto?' He said: 'Sure, why not?' So I commissioned him myself, paid the commission myself, and we did it."

Galway wouldn't approach the business of patronage so lightly now, however. Even once the piece has been paid for, "you have to find a gig", he sighs. "And here's how it goes. You get on the phone to the local orchestra and they'll say, 'Well what can you play?' I say: 'Well, I can play you this Joe Bloggs flute concerto he just wrote yesterday, or I can play Mozart,: 'Play Mozart and Henry Mancini.' They don't want to be bothered with all that stuff."

Still, he has little truck with the idea of the unjustly neglected modern composer, announcing: "The other day I heard a first performance of a piece that was written in 1980, and I thought, well, that's why the first performance was now. If it had been a real hot cookie it would have been done right there and then." I ask if he thinks that music finds the audience it deserves. "Yes I do," he says. "I do." The trouble with many modern composers, he thinks, is that "the general public can't make head nor tail of it".

"I played one piece and I couldn't make head nor tail of it myself," he says. "I'm standing there playing this piece and I thought: I don't get this. What am I even doing here? And when it finished there was one guy who walked past the front of the orchestra and he said to me, 'You should be ashamed, playing music like that.' And I thought, man, you're right." Accordingly, the pieces for his show at the Emirates Palace this evening have been chosen very carefully. "It's so complex to put a programme like this together," he says. "You've no idea how many emails go back and forth." Sir James will be playing in various configurations with the pianist Thibaudet and Kotova. "Now this is the reason why I came to Abu Dhabi," he says, "because I really want to play with these two people. They're outstanding musicians." Galway will be playing Charles-Marie Widor's Suite for Flute and Piano and Paul Taffanel's Grand Fantasy on Themes from Mignon before joining with both his companions for Jean Michel Damase's Sonate en Concert. The canon itself compelled this last selection; as Galway says: "There's not very many really good pieces for flute, cello and piano." But he's pleased with it. "It's a fun piece. It's entertaining, actually." And entertaining is something that the flamboyant Galway knows all about.

Sir James Galway will perform tonight at Emirates Palace auditorium at 8.00pm.