A knight to remember

Master flautist Sir James Galway talks about his beloved instrument and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, ahead of his performance at the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Festival

By Adam Zacharias

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Published: Tue 31 Mar 2009, 10:30 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:43 PM

SIR JAMES GALWAY was bombarded with music from an early age. Growing up in a small street in the centre of Belfast, Northern Ireland, young ‘Jimmy’ witnessed his neighbours play everything from the accordion to the bagpipes.

He was introduced to classical movies via his weekly trips to the cinema every Saturday, where he would hear the themes from shows such as The Lone Ranger and Tom & Jerry, and then there was the pop music of the 1940s and 50s, although this remained something of a mystery to the lad.

“Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra were popular but I can’t really say, because I wasn’t into what they were doing. I was a loner, and I was into my own thing,” the flautist tells City Times from his home in Switzerland.

However, the most influential figures in Sir James’ musical development were his own family.

“My mum and dad played in a little band – and they were quite good, I have to say,” he says. “It was music to dance to, and of course babysitters didn’t come into the question, so we went along to everything they did.”

Although his father played the flute, the boisterous youngster decided to learn from his Uncle Joe instead. “I wasn’t talking to my dad because I thought I knew it all,” he admits, before admitting the error of his youthful ways.

After honing his craft in London’s Royal College of Music and the Paris Conservatoire, the Ulsterman began his decade-spanning career on stage.

Today, the 69-year-old is a veteran of the classical music scene, one of the most respected flute players in the world and an inductee into the Hollywood Bowl Walk of Fame.

‘The Man With the Golden Flute’, as he is affectionately known, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of England in 2001 for his services to music.

Over the years, Sir James has performed with the world’s top orchestras, such as the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra, and musical legends such as Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. He has also played to the likes of Pope John Paul II, Princess Diana and George W. Bush.

Although he remains largely uninterested in pop music, Sir James admits he has a soft spot for progressive rockers Pink Floyd, whom he played with during their seminal 1990 concert in Berlin to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“It’s rock but with a different slant and original ideas,” he says of their music. “Plus you can really show off your hi-fi with it!” He also hopes to collaborate with Elton John in the future, calling the flamboyant star “a great singer and a fantastic entertainer”.

Despite the fact he will turn 70 in December, Sir James’ schedule is more packed than ever. His engagements have multiplied in the years since becoming a Sir. “I used to be working-class, now I’m in the super hard-working class,” he jokes. Although Sir James adds that he is “very pleased” with his knighthood. “It’s a great honour,” he says, “and when I get asked to do things I’m representing the British people and the Queen.”

A longtime philanthropist, Sir James continues to support a wealth of good causes, including children’s charities UNICEF and FARA.

“You do change children’s lives,” he says of his good work, “and I think it’s important to offer an education to people who are underprivileged, because some of them are very bright.”

Every summer, Sir James and his wife Lady Jeanne – herself a renowned flautist – offer masterclasses to players of all levels. In between, he has a ‘flute chat’ section on his website (www.jamesgalway.com) in which aspiring flautists and old pros can share advice and opinions.

So, does Sir James’ beloved instrument ever come between him and Lady Jeanne, whom he has played alongside numerous times over the years?

“We’re okay – we’ve been doing this long enough,” he says. “We don’t argue about many things. But we do argue about what sort of movies we want to watch – she likes romantic comedies and I like Arnold Schwarzenegger!”


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