London’s austere Financial Times gushed: “See the Great Galway perform death-defying leaps of facile brilliance.” The staid Guardian marveled over his “extraordinary technique and scarcely credible breath control.” British Vogue called him “one of the greatest popularizers of music” in this generation. The unusual accolades are for Europe’s latest superstar export, whose reputation does not, for a change, depend as much on his kinkiness as on his music. He is, of all things, a flutist. With fitted velvet jackets and a collection of $4,500 solid-gold instruments, Belfast-born James Galway has mesmerized the classical world while tootling to No. 3 on England’s pop charts with his version of Annie’s Song by John Denver.
In Great Britain a top classical record sells 5,000 copies; for Galway, it’s close to 75,000. London fans wear Galway T-shirts and he’s a TV regular on talk, pop and prime-time shows.
An irrepressible pied piper, he made his North American debut early this month at the Hollywood Bowl and next week will appear at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. The popularity of his concerts is welcome proof to Galway that his repertory “swings.” He adds, “My aim is to tune as many people as possible into the flute. One has to be a painter of all sorts of pictures.”
Like most flutists, he seemed destined for anonymity in an orchestra, even though he soloed for six years with Herbert von Karajan’s prestigious Berlin Philharmonic. But with the shoulder-length hair and pink see-through shirts he favored back then, the 5’6″ musician became impossible to overlook. His years with von Karajan were crucial, Galway acknowledges—”I learned the importance of elegance and intensity from him.” But in 1975 Galway quit and in 12 months made an international name by playing in 120 concerts on four continents.
An eager self-promoter, his aim was (and still is) to convince orchestra conductors and managers to hire him for the occasional solo rather than limit such opportunities to their own flute section. “I’m in a different bag,” he proclaims. “I can play better than the rest of them. If Heifetz offered to play a violin concerto, a conductor wouldn’t tell him, ‘We already have 16 first violins.’ ”
Galway has recorded eight albums, four of which are available in the U.S. He will return to this country next November for a three-week tour with the New Irish Chamber Orchestra, and in January for five more weeks of concerts. Meanwhile he continues to expand his repertory by adapting pieces written for other instruments. “I don’t want to play things the public is not interested in hearing,” he notes. (He was once called back for nine encores.)
Galway was born 38 years ago to musical parents—a shipyard riveter who played the flute and a linen mill winder who was a pianist. After lessons from his father began at age 9, young Jim joined his uncle’s fife and drum band and when he was 11, in a single day won the junior, senior and open Belfast flute championships. Leaving school at 14, he was apprenticed to a piano repairman. A scholarship soon took him to London and Paris for study, including occasional lessons from the master, Jean-Pierre Rampal. “Other players were too serious,” Galway says. “Rampal got out there and socked it to ’em. He paved the way for the rest of us.”
A first marriage to a Frenchwoman produced a son, now 13, but ended in divorce. Galway met second wife Anna Christina, a teacher specializing in the retarded, while working in Berlin. Wearing brown hotpants and lace-up sandals, she caught his roving eye and the smitten Galway was talking marriage within hours. For her part, Annie, 29 and the daughter of a Swiss architect, “fell for him like crazy”—to the dismay of her conservative, Catholic family. “They had to get used to someone who looked like a hippie,” she recalls, “not to mention being a musician, divorced and Irish.” The couple were married in 1972, and now live with their 3-year-old twin daughters, Charlotte and Jennifer, and son Patrick, 5, in an apartment in a converted Lucerne hotel. It is owned by Annie’s family.
Last August Galway was run down by a speeding motorcycle outside Lucerne, breaking his left arm and both legs. He was hospitalized four months and still must use crutches to maneuver steps. But the brush with death had its blessings, James Galway believes: “Now I have a good relationship with God and an even better one with people.”