‘The Man with the Golden Flute” is what Sir James Galway dubbed himself on one of his early albums, and over a career that’s spanned more than half a century, he’s spun everything he’s played into gold. He was principal flute for the Berlin Philharmonic for six years before leaving to start a solo career. He’s performed with everyone from the Chieftains to Henry Mancini, Cleo Laine, and Cuba’s Tiempo Libre. His sense of humor is evident in album titles like “My Magic Flute” and “Ich war ein Berliner.”
Sunday afternoon, in a Celebrity Series concert, he brought his Legacy Tour to Symphony Hall, accompanied by his flutist wife, Lady Jeanne Galway, pianist Michael McHale, and a quintet of strings. He also brought that sense of humor, holding up his flute at the outset, asking, “What is this?,” and then answering, “An airline ticket to visit all the great places in the world.” Later, addressing the students in the audience, he observed that the two works he was about to play, by François-Joseph Gossec and Marin Marais, were good pieces to try because “they’re in F major, which is real easy. That’s why I’m playing them now!” And he thanked the sponsors, pointing out that it was attending sponsored concerts in his native Belfast that prompted him to take up the flute.
The program was lighthearted and varied, ranging all over Europe. He opened with
Mozart’s D-major Flute Quartet, blending thoughtfully with the violin, viola, and cello in the Allegro, giving a haunted-woodland feel to the 35-measure Adagio, and chirping brightly in the Rondo. Opera themes dominated the first half: “La donna è
mobile” and “Caro nome” in Franz and Karl Doppler’s “Fantasy on Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’ ” (on which he duetted with his wife); the Habanera, Gypsy Dance, and Toreador Song in François Borne’s “Fantaisie brillante sur ‘Carmen.’ ”
The second half paid tribute to Ireland: Belfast native Hamilton Harty’s “In Ireland”; arrangements of “Spinning Wheel,” “She Moved Through the Fair,” and “The Star of the County Down”; and the “Irlandaise” movement from Claude Bolling’s Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano. Switching to pennywhistle, Galway did Mancini’s “Pennywhistle Jig” and, encouraging the audience to yell “Henry!” at the appropriate moments, “Baby Elephant Walk.”
The one hiccup was the arrangement of Debussy’s “Clair de lune” for flute and piano, which sounded uncomfortably like a pop song. I wish Galway had instead performed Debussy’s “Syrinx” and allowed McHale (yet another Belfast native) to solo in “Clair de lune” rather than on Schubert’s E-flat-major Impromptu, which seemed out of place on the program. The highlights were “She Moved Through the Fair” and the closing “Shenandoah,” where Galway showed off not just his superb breath control and flying fingers but a heartrendingly poetic soul. He ended the afternoon with a twinkle, piping on the pennywhistle and cueing the audience for one last “Henry!”