March 27 2013 12:00 AM

'Galvanizing' James Galway brings 'Legacy Tour' to Wharton Center


If intergalactic aliens ever demand to hear one of our “musicians” before deciding whether to blow us up, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon could do a lot worse than send Sir James Galway.

Galway has played with seemingly everybody, from the Berlin Philharmonic to Pink Floyd. Whether you’re into classical music, there’s a good chance you’ve heard him, too. That’s his flute tootling over the hills of Middle-earth in “The Lord of the Rings” films. 

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, Galway, 72, said not to pay too much attention to the “Legacy” label.

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

Galway’s career has taken him on a wild ride from his youth in working-class Belfast. 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.”

Growing up, Galway played march tunes, opera arias and popular songs (including, 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.”

Galway reached the top in 1969 as principal flutist of the Berlin Philharmonic under its legendary maestro, Herbert von Karajan. 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.’”

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.”

“Sir James Galway: The Legacy Tour”
7:30 p.m. Thursday
Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall