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Agelessly irrepressible

The effervescent flutist James Galway makes his Disney Hall debut tonight playing Mozart with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

November 29, 2007|David Mermelstein | Special to The Times

For 30 years, flutist James Galway has been a widely admired, even venerated, classical soloist. Yet he is also cannily aware of popular taste and has no qualms about indulging it -- even when doing so elicits sneers from purists.

"Henry Mancini is a very good composer," the Northern Ireland-born Galway, who once made an entire CD of the late movie scorer's music, said recently in his lilting brogue. "But a lot of people don't realize that because of snobbery. Beethoven and those guys would have been happy to write 'Moon River.' "

Tonight, however, Galway will stay truer to his roots when he makes his Walt Disney Concert Hall debut, playing music by Mozart with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under conductor Nicholas McGegan. The concert will mark his first performance with the orchestra at a downtown venue since 1982 -- the only other time he has appeared with it in subscription concerts. But the flutist and the Philharmonic are far from strangers. Galway was last seen at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005, and he was an almost annual visitor to the amphitheater in the 1980s.

Galway will turn 68 next week, yet he insists he is in excellent shape and not slowing down. "People are still amazed that I play the Ibert Concerto note perfectly," he said, speaking by telephone from his home near Lucerne, Switzerland. "The critic in Chicago said that if you want to hear a flute that doesn't sound like a songbird, go hear Galway -- he's an opera singer. And I'm nowhere near bored. Are you kidding me?"

Musicians who have collaborated with him share that enthusiasm. Conductor Leonard Slatkin, with whom he's worked since the 1970s, points to Galway's tone. "It always starts with his sound," Slatkin wrote in an e-mail, "like some kind of magical voice. Perhaps it is the darker quality in the upper range that impresses me the most. There is an individuality which makes Jimmy always identifiable."

Erich Kunzel, the preeminent American pops conductor, has a similarly warm take: "He's probably the world's greatest flutist. He's got great personality, which comes through in both his playing and demeanor. He's also crazy. He's off the wall, and I love him for it. He's fun -- nuts and fun."

In recent years, Galway has increasingly devoted time to teaching master classes. While here, he'll spend Saturday morning dispensing musical wisdom at Pepperdine University's Smothers Theater in Malibu.

As about most things that mean something to him -- the relative properties of silver, gold and platinum instruments, or the attributes of certain younger colleagues -- Galway does not mince words when it comes to instruction.

He dismisses most flute teachers for their lack of performance experience, questioning their legitimacy to mentor the young. By contrast, he likens himself to a frontline soldier.

"I have to laugh when I hear the Nielsen Flute Concerto being taught," he said, "because I wonder, did they ever play it? They don't really know what the dangers are. But I played the Nielsen five times this year. I know how to point the gun, you know."

His pedagogic model is his own teacher, Geoffrey Gilbert, often credited as the most influential British flutist of the 20th century: "He was out and about doing it, and when it was demonstrated to me, that made all the difference," Galway said.

The Karajan era

Gilbert's inspiration clearly paid off, for in 1969, after stints with such major British ensembles as the London Symphony and Royal Philharmonic orchestras, Galway accepted the position of principal flute in the Berlin Philharmonic, the ne plus ultra of European bands.

That was the era when Herbert von Karajan, the orchestra's titanic and dictatorial conductor, was at the apex of his powers. And although Galway and Karajan parted company uneasily after the flutist decided to embark on a solo career in 1975, he remains devoted to the memory of his former maestro.

"The Berlin Philharmonic was the world's greatest orchestra, without question," he insisted. "And Herbert von Karajan was the word's greatest conductor. The difference between him and everyone else was that he had this charm -- and not just with women, but with everyone. When I played there, everyone in the orchestra played sitting on the front of their seats. Now everyone plays sitting back."

Those days still loom large for Galway. "I think it was the greatest time of my life," he said, later adding, "Karajan was a big influence on me."

So why leave, then?

"I really wanted to do my own thing," he said. "It had nothing to do with us fighting, though we did actually have a fight, because if you told Karajan you were leaving, he pressed 'delete' right away. He refused to let me go to the Salzburg Festival after that. So instead I made my first two albums."

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