Galway brings his inimitable charm to light program

March 25, 2013 at 8:59 am

By Keith Powers

Sir James Galway performed Sunday at Symphony Hall as part of his “Legacy” tour, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.

Sir James Galway brought his “Legacy” tour to Boston Sunday afternoon, in a Celebrity Series presentation at Symphony Hall. The program had some nostalgia, some musical friends and relatives, and plenty of banter.

Musical challenges were checked at the door. But although it would be easy to be cynical about a program like this—tuneful opera arrangements, some student pieces, easy-listening Mozart, and popular favorites—it’s best to remember that you can’t have a “Legacy” tour without first having a legacy.

The Irish flutist brought a loving audience to Symphony Hall, not because of music like this, but for having recorded nearly all the repertory for his instrument, and for having premiered some of the most notable composers of his generation—like his transcendent playing in William Bolcom’s Flute Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in this very room in 2006. And he was Herbert von Karajan’s principal flute at the Berlin Philharmonic back in the day, after all. Most importantly, Galway has succeeded in making his instrument, not blessed with the greatest repertory, fashionable.

Of course Galway has also strayed into collaborations with the likes of John Denver—Annie’s Song, anyone?—but this program avoided that sort of bathos. Joined by a sextet of young players, and for a couple numbers by his flutist wife Lady Jeanne Galway, Sir James opened with the Mozart Flute Quartet, K. 285. The playing was alert and vigorous—the pizzicato slow movement had life, and the attack to the Rondo finale was spirited, with violinist Arianna Warsaw-Fan making the most of a brief but elegant duet with the show’s star.

Pianist Michael McHale joined Galway for Debussy’s Clair de lune. Rhythmically, this chestnut was uneven at best, and there was some spotty vibrato from his lordship. McHale, who returns to Boston in April to solo with the Discovery Ensemble, later showed some major chops with a solo moment, Schubert’s second Impromptu.

Two opera pastiches followed: an arrangement for two flutes and piano from Rigoletto, and Galway’s own arrangement of François Borne’s Carmen Fantasy. The Rigoletto medley was largely unison selections from the highlights, nicely played by Sir and Lady, but with little harmonic variation. The Carmen Fantasy, played solo, had more substance.

After intermission Galway offered series of short works, student exercises from Gossec and Marais, an interesting fantasy for flute and piano by Belfast composer Hamilton Harty, some sentimental Irish tunes, a jazzy Claude Bolling suite (with McHale livening up the proceedings) and a set of Henry Mancini penny-whistle tunes. The obligatory Danny Boy had some rough notes, but brought a little Irish out of everyone.

Galway may not be the musical lion he once was, but he has not lost all of his great gifts, not by any measure. Should the reigning prince of the world’s flute royalty be allowed an indulgent program for his fans? You bet.

The next classical music presentation of Celebrity Series of Boston will be the Elias String Quartet, with pianist Jonathan Biss, 8 p.m., Friday, April 12 at Jordan Hall.; 617-482-6661.

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