March 25 2013 12:00 AM

‘Galvanizing’ James Galway brings ‘Legacy Tour’ to Wharton Center

World-renowned flutist Sir James Galway plays Wharton Center on Thursday. Courtesy photo.

Monday, March 25 — If intergalactic aliens ever demand to hear one of our “musicians” before deciding whether to blow us up or not, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon could do a lot worse than send Sir James Galway.

Galway, who’s equally comfortable on a cheap pennywhistle or a gold flute, has played with seemingly everybody, from the Berlin Philharmonic to Ray Charles to Pink Floyd. Millions heard his flute tootling over the hills of Middle-earth in “The Lord of the Rings” films.

Whether the aliens are working-class types, intellectuals or pure spirit beings, the world’s top flutist could probably win them over. Galway’s “Legacy Tour” stop at the Wharton Center Thursday will reveal some of his range, mixing sublime stuff from Mozart and Debussy with bumptious Irish reels and folk songs, splashy Italian opera transcriptions and lots of other tidbits.

In a phone interview last week, Galway, 72, said not to pay too much attention to the “Legacy” label.

“My management dug that up,” he said. “It’s really me playing pieces that are part of my legacy to the flute players. Nothing to do with retiring.”

Galway’s career has taken him on a wild ride from his youth in working-class Belfast. In 2008, he had a career high moment at the Hollywood Bowl, where he was inducted into its Hall of Fame, along with Liza Minnelli and B.B. King. Galway stood in the wings, next to King, when the blues guitar legend was called to the stage.

“He got up from his wheelchair, stood up and put his hand on my arm and said, ‘Do you mind, young man?’ Young man! Heh-heh! I haven’t washed that jacket since.”

For all his laurels, peaking with a knighthood in 2001, Galway retains a can-you-believe-this awe at his own story.

“The first school I went to, it was so poor they didn’t have any musical instruments at all,” he recalled. “Mrs. McCaffey, who was supposed to teach us music, had a tuning fork and that was it. She would bang a tuning fork on the desk and we’d all sing in A.”

The flute has a range of charms, from earthy to ethereal, but for Galway, the instrument’s draw was simple: it was already in the house.

“My granddad played it and taught my dad and my Uncle Joe how,” he said. “I learned from my Uncle Joe.”

Not from his dad?

“I was going through my teenage bout with my dad,” he said, laughing. “We weren’t talking. We got over that.”

Growing up, Galway played march tunes, opera arias and popular songs ( like, of course, “Galway Bay”) with equal relish. At 13, he played Gilbert & Sullivan operettas in a local ensemble. Such sampling set him up well for a career that has produced hundreds of varied recordings, many of them “crossover” projects.

But first, Galway hustled to build up his classical chops. Recently, he estimated that he practiced 10,900 hours before his first orchestral job in the Philharmonia Orchestra.

“You know how people play golf?” he asked. “They don’t want to play better than Tiger Woods — they just want to get the thing better for themselves. That’s what I was doing. I was trying to get it better for me.”

Job satisfaction isn’t always high in the symphonic rank and file, but Galway enjoyed his journeyman period.

“I played in some crack orchestras,” he said. “The London Symphony — there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Galway reached the top in 1969 as principal flutist of the Berlin Philharmonic under its legendary maestro, Herbert von Karajan. “When you hear these guys play, it’s another deal,” he said.

But his expansive tastes and broader ambitions made a breakaway inevitable.

Galway wanted to do solo concerts, but Karajan kept the reins tight in Berlin. “Even if you weren’t playing, you had to be on standby in case somebody dropped their flute or something,” Galway said. “I decided, ‘I’m outta here.’”

Now Galway has things pretty much his own way. He tours with his wife, Lady Jeanne Galway, who is also a flutist, along with a string quintet.

“I’m really blessed that I have my wife with me every day of my life,” he said.

Richard Sherman, Lansing Symphony principal flutist — and no mean soloist in his own right — was in junior high school when his father bought him Galway’s hit album, “Man With the Golden Flute.” Sherman will introduce Galway at a master class at the MSU College of Music Thursday morning.

“It was a startling departure from any kind of flute playing I’d ever heard,” Sherman said. “His sound was galvanizing for the whole flute world. It was powerful and vibrant. He could cover the register of the instrument like no other.”

Poppish stuff like “Flight of the Bumblebee” endeared Galway to a larger audience, but that didn’t detract from his classical cred. The next time Sherman heard Galway was in college, at the Eastman School of Music, where Galway was briefly a professor. This time the fare was meatier — all six Bach flute sonatas in one evening. “It was flawless the whole night,” Sherman said. “There was an ease to his playing that was unprecedented.”

Sherman said Galway rocked the flute world.

“Before him, you had Jean-Pierre Rampal, with this refined, elegant and very French thing, and then this high-energy, down-to-Earth Irishman came on the scene and turned it on its head,” he said.

The flute’s low range, in particular, had never been plumbed so deeply. “He covered the whole instrument technically,” Sherman said. “He showed people what was possible.”

Galway has sold over 30 million records, in part because he takes his “crossover” projects seriously. “People think crossover is easy, but believe me, it’s not,” he said. “You play with the same care and affection as you would play a Mozart concerto. It’s exactly the same.”

In 1990, he performed with Pink Floyd at “The Wall — Live in Berlin” concert at the site of the recently toppled Berlin Wall. Galway said he had a ball with Joni Mitchell and the band on “Goodbye Blue Sky.”

“I was a big fan of Pink Floyd and collected most of their recordings,” he said. “When they asked me to come and play in Berlin, I gathered up my kids and my god-children and everybody, and they all got backstage to meet everybody. It was amazing.”

Sir James Galway: Legacy Tour
7:30 p.m.
March 28
Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall