What kind of musician would ever have dared to say “no” to the indomitable Herbert von Karajan?
In an interview for Ravinia’s magazine, acclaimed flutist Sir James Galway recalls how he scored an audition with the renowned German conductor Herbert von Karajan, and then in 1969, embarked upon six very productive years as the principal flute of the Berlin Philharmonic. In 1975, however, he decided to leave the orchestra to pursue a solo career — a move that was to prove gloriously successful in terms of his future artistic endeavors, and which markedly contributed to the development of the commercial classical music industry.
To say “no” to a dynamo like Karajan would be a thing of most musicians’ nightmares, but Galway handled it with characteristic aplomb, despite the formidable conductor’s understandably horrified reaction. “He wasn’t too cool!” recalls Galway, who will appear with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in its season-opening concert July 8 at Ravinia. (On the program: the U.S. premiere of Bill Whelan’s Flute Concerto. He also will perform a flute duet with Lady Jeanne Galway, his wife, on Philip Hammond’s Carolan Variations, based on Irish harp melodies.) “As a matter of fact, it got to him in the end, because he knew I was going to do it, and he couldn’t stand it. All his life he had had flute players who played out of tune, then suddenly he had me and he had Andreas Blau, and we managed to play in tune. He was ready to kill me, I think. But I knew it was going to work, and it took off like a house on fire.”
Given all that followed, the absence of the Berlin Phil on Galway’s current touring schedule seems a conspicuous omission, but “it doesn’t work like that,” he explained. “Once you leave the Berlin Philharmonic, you never get asked back. But that’s OK. You know,” he said with a smile, “I’m busy selling out houses [in] other places.”
That is an understatement if ever there was one. Galway has triumphed in virtually every major musical center in the world, in a repertory ranging from the most exacting compositions of Bach, Mozart and the Romantic school, through collaborations with such folk icons as the Chieftains and popular performers Pink Floyd, Henry Mancini, John Denver, Elton John and Ray Charles. He has also championed the work of contemporary composers, including Malcolm Arnold, John Corigliano and William Bolcom. Along the way he has sold over 30 million recordings and garnered a plethora of awards, including the Grammy President’s Merit Award, the Classic Brits Lifetime Achievement Award, the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame and the National Concert Hall Dublin Lifetime Achievement Award, not to mention the Order of the British Empire in 1979 and a knighthood for his services to music in 2001.
Galway initiated this trajectory with a bang, and after four decades its momentum has never flagged. “That’s right, it never has,” he said, with no trace of self-aggrandizement. It is a simple statement of fact.
The complete interview appears in the current issue of Ravinia magazine and can be accessed online at ravinia.org.
NOTE: Sir James Galway also will appear Aug. 8-10 at the National Flute Association Convention in Chicago, where he and Lady Jeanne Galway will conduct master classes. For details, including registration fees, click here.