At 70, the versatile Sir James Galway finds his inner Latin

Tue Aug 04, 2009 at 12:22 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Sir James Galway will perform two concerts at Ravinia next week. Photo by Paul Cox

Sir James Galway has a restless artistic soul, something he shares with many of the world’s best-known classical musicians.

In recent years, Yo-Yo Ma has spent nearly as much time collaborating with musicians from countries along the ancient Silk Road as he has performing standard cello repertoire with orchestras in Europe and the U.S. This summer Lang Lang is sharing the stage with jazz pianist Herbie Hancock in summer festivals across the country, including Ravinia last month.

And when Sir James arrives at Ravinia later this week as part of a tour celebrating his 70th birthday,  the superstar flutist will bring more than his usual orchestral pieces and crowd-pleasing encores. His first concert, this Sunday with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ravinia music director James Conlon, will be comparatively traditional. His wife and fellow flutist, Lady Jeanne Galway, will share the spotlight in the program that includes arrangements for flute and orchestra of music from Carmen and Rigoletto as well as Mozart’s Serenade No. 10 in B-flat Major, K. 361 (Gran Partita).

Tuesday night, however, Galway will try something completely different. He will take the pavilion stage with the hot Cuban-trained, Miami-based ensemble Tiempo Libre in a program in which Latin jazz and Cuban son meet J. S. Bach. It will draw from a new CD featuring Sir James and Tiempo Libre titled O’Reilly Street.

The unusual pairing of classical flute and Latin band grew out of a set of pieces written in 1975 by French jazz pianist Claude Bolling for another fabled flutist, Jean-Pierre Rampal. Inspired by Bach’s dance pieces, Bolling’s Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano was a colossal hit. Their recording of the work occupied a spot on Billboard’s Top 40 list for nearly a decade.

“I wanted to record the Bolling Suite,” said Galway, speaking by phone last month from the music room of his home in Switzerland where, he reported with a sigh, it was “pouring down rain.”

“But,” he said, “I didn’t want to do it in the same version as Jean-Pierre. Even listening to it back then, I thought it was a bit naf, if you know what I mean; it was not exactly hip. It was very good for the time, but I wanted to get that really swinging.”

His manager suggested he work with composer/pianist Jorge Gomez and his four-member Tiempo Libre ensemble. Founded in 2001, Gomez and his band mates have built a flourishing career. Ravinia audiences might remember them as the opening act for Celia Cruz in 2002. That was their first high-profile gig, and Tiempo Libre was back at Ravinia in 2003 to open for Aretha Franklin. The group has played the festival regularly since then as headliners.

Sir James met with Gomez and Tiempo Libre in Miami, and they set a recording date for May 2008 in Toronto. Well aware of jazz musicians’ laid-back ways, the flutist set down strict ground rules for the recording sessions.

“I said, ‘Okay, guys, it’s like this: No smokin’, no drinkin’, no cussin’, no spittin’, 10 [a.m.] start.”

He needn’t have worried.

“I turn up at 10 o’clock and they rolled in, ready to go,” said Sir James, with a hint of wonder in his voice. “And you know what they did? They played the whole entire thing from memory. Talk about frightening. 

 “Gomez is a really fantastic piano player, and he’s a very good composer too. But it was really his piano playing [that struck me]. I thought, ‘This guy’s a genius.’ ”

 Sir James had recorded a tango album, Tango Del Fuego, in 1998, but he struggled at first to find his inner Latin.

“It took a little bit of time to adjust,” he said of the recording sessions with Tiempo Libre. “You know, this sort of stuff is off the beaten track for me. But the guys were very good. They really coached me on how to do it and get the style right. And I had already done Tango Del Fuego with a bunch of guys in England.”

His solo career began in 1975 when he left one of the most coveted jobs in the international music scene, solo flute with the Berlin Philharmonic. He had been playing in orchestras for 15 years and wanted to strike out on his own.

“Herbert von Karajan (music director in Berlin at the time) thought I was straight from Mars” said Sir James. “He couldn’t believe anybody would leave the Berlin Philharmonic to do what I wanted to do.

“I just wanted to do my own thing,” he continued. “It seemed risky at the time, but in my case it seemed to work. I always had a connection with the audience.” 

Sir James thrives on regular forays off the beaten path. He is on the road nine months of the year and performs classical repertoire with the world’s great orchestras. But his more than 60 recordings range from Bach and Mozart to Celtic folk songs and tunes by Elton John. He chats easily with the audience at his recitals, and encores usually include Londonderry Air (aka Danny Boy.)

“There are so many interesting things to do,” said Sir James. “Can you imagine a garden that consisted of just one lawn? You put one rose in it, and you think ‘Oh, look at that.’ And then you put a fir tree in, and you think, ‘Wow, look at that.’ It’s like building a garden.”

Sir James Galway and Lady Jeanne Galway perform with James Conlon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra 5 p.m. Sunday at the Ravinia Festival in music of Mozart, Borne and Doppler.  Sir James Galway also performs a program of Latin jazz and light classical with Tiempo Libre  8 p.m. Tuesday.; 847-266-5100

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