Even with Galway and CSO, new flute concerto mostly a bit of the blarney

Wed Jul 09, 2014 at 2:51 pm

By Tim Sawyier

James Galway performed with the CSO Tuesday night at Ravinia.
James Galway performed with the CSO Tuesday night at Ravinia.

Accompanied by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Miguel Harth-Bedoya, James Galway gave the U.S. premiere of Bill Whelan’s Flute Concerto Tuesday night at Ravinia.

Galway had asked Whelan, best known as the composer of the Irish-dance spectacle “Riverdance,” to write “the definitive Irish flute concerto.” Subtitled “Linen and Lace” Whelan could not have excelled more in that mission. The title of the work derives from themes for which the artist’s home towns are renowned: Belfast for its linen and Limerick for its lace.

Musically, however, the work itself fell short of offering a substantial addition to the repertory. Without the terpsichorean flamboyance of Michael Flatley backed up by a corps of Irish step-dancers, the music itself— monochromatic, formless and repetitive—is not strong enough to stand on its own.

Most of the second half of Tuesday’s program also belonged to Galway. The famed Irish flutist, 73, began by veering slightly from the printed program and presented three traditional Irish folk songs—“The Spinning Wheel,” “Lanigan’s Ball,” and “The Lamentation of Owen O’Neil,” all of which date from at least the mid-nineteenth century.  Galway played them with taste and restraint, not employing excessive vibrato or rubato, and presenting the charming, simple melodies without over-sophistication.

Galway was joined by his wife Lady Jeanne Galway for a performance of Belfast composer Philip Hammond’s Carolan Variations for Two Flutes and Piano, written in honor of the eighteen-century blind Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan. The work was certainly well played, yet with tepid dissonances that seemed to be there for their own sake and failing to evoke much of the ancient Celtic inspiration.

Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings Suite opened the second half, and was nothing more nor less than what one would have expected. Galway, performing on a heavily amplified tin-whistle, surveyed all of the expansive melodies from the popular films.

Following Whelan’s concerto, the evening ended with a crowd-pleasing if predictable set of encores: “Danny Boy,” Mozart’s “Turkish March” (for which Galway was rejoined by his wife), and Bach’s “Badinerie” played at breakneck speed.

Ravel’s orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition opened the evening. Throughout the piece, CSO principal trumpet Christopher Martin demonstrated the reason for his prominence as one of the great trumpet players in the world. He brought noble poise to the “Promenade” sections, and effortless yet appropriately irritating insistence to the solo line in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle.”

In the hands of conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the piece had a convincing and cohesive overarching structure, courtesy of brisker tempi than one often hears. This was particularly effective in the closing “Great Gate of Kiev,” which can be taken too slowly, but in Harth-Bedoya’s hands moved majestically to the work’s conclusion.

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