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My life: James Galway

The man with the golden flute talks to Richard Lord about touring, musical education and why he prefers performing alongside his wife

 

 

WOODWIND AND WORMS I first picked up the flute because my dad played it. He played at home when I was small, five or six years old, and I picked it up because it was what daddy did. My family was very poor - we didn't have anything. One of my cousins arranged for a piano to be delivered to our home, but it was a complete wreck. We also had a violin, but it was heavily infested by Irish woodworm, which would chomp away at it while I was playing it. The flute's a popular instrument in Northern Ireland and my uncle, dad and grandad played it. I learned properly from my uncle - I was going through a bit of a teenage thing at the time and wasn't talking to my dad. So I played the flute just because we had one. It was a natural tendency in the family. And so many people in the neighbourhood played; we had all these flute bands.

LONE PIPER For a few years it remained a hobby. Then, when I was about 15, the British government started giving grants to underprivileged children, allowing us to study for three years at the Royal College of Music (in London). So I thought: "Let's do this and see what happens." While I was at the college, I got all kinds of little jobs and eventually became second flute in the London Symphony Orchestra. My career began to form itself, but it was an orchestral career, not the solo career of today. It was very difficult to make a career as a soloist, and everyone said there was no money in the flute. Fortunately, when I did go solo, I knew what I was doing because I had planned things well in advance, whereas a lot of people leave an orchestra as soon as they decide to do so. I told (his then conductor at the Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von) Karajan a year before, but when it came time for me to leave, he couldn't handle it. During that year, I was booking concerts, and in a short space of time I played with all the London orchestras. Then I got a representative in America so I could establish a career there and that made a big difference. The first three concerts I played were at the Hollywood Bowl - I think I played everything ever written for the flute.

HIGH NOTES Musical education is so important. People who play instruments get higher marks (in academic subjects). It's not just about becoming a musician. I look at the (City of) Belfast Youth Orchestra, and hardly any of them are going to be professional musicians. In fact, it's composed mostly of university students. We (Galway and his wife, Jeanne, with whom he teaches and performs) try to do our bit. We've opened an internet chatroom for people who attend our masterclasses. At a masterclass, you're bathed in the luxury of information, and then you get on the bus and go home, and you have nothing. So kids can be members of the chatroom, and it allows them to get more out of their practice time.

POP ART It's fun working with pop musicians and, thank God, there are more people who aren't snobs than people who are. It started when I was living in London in the 1960s. I did a lot of little gigs and worked as a session musician for a lot of the most famous bands of the era, including The Beatles. We sat in on those sessions and got paid. When I came to play (his most famous recording) Annie's Song, it was very easy, because my main publicist was (the song's writer) John Denver. Out of everyone, I enjoyed working most with Henry Mancini: he wrote the background music to America - everyone in the United States knows some of Henry's work. And I like the fact that he was an old-fashioned composer who worked with pen and paper. We did a lot of touring together and made a lot of crossover recordings that helped to popularise the flute.

BLOWING MINDS I have the same sort of audience all over the world. I have people who have been following me their whole lives. I get letters every week saying I've helped someone get through a difficult time. It's great - politicians don't get letters like that. I still enjoy touring so much. I've been doing it so long that I have friends all over the place. I've just received an e-mail from a guy I know in Hong Kong - he's been doing tai chi for years and he wanted to discuss breathing with me. I look at everything that can help me to play better.

MARITAL ACCORD I don't get nervous, ever. I just try to practise until the last minute. There's a difference between me and other flute players regarding practice and preparation. When I go on tour next week, my time will be limited, so I have to practise in advance. (I did) the preparation in August for a concert that's happening in November. At the moment I'm having the luxury of a week of free time, and I can practise all day. When I go on tour, I prefer performing with my wife than with any other flute player, even when other players are better. We've had a relationship of 28 years, and something goes on when I play with her that doesn't happen with other players.

 

James Galway will open the City Chamber Orchestra's 2012-13 season with performances at City Hall on Friday and next Sunday. For more information, visit www.ccohk.com.

 

 

 

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