He's still blowing strong at 70
As he celebrates his birthday with a sell-out concert in Belfast this weekend, Sir James Galway tells Matthew McCreary about life as a grandfather and being addicted to internet chess
He may be speaking from hundreds of miles away from his adopted home in Switzerland, but Sir James Galway’s Belfast voice (with that characteristic hint of a mid-Atlantic twang) is as instantly recognisable as his playing style — at times quiet, and then suddenly commanding:
“OK, get rattling,” he semi-barks as I introduce myself over the phone with a list of questions.
The Pied Piper, The Man with the Golden Flute — call him what you will — is returning to Belfast this weekend with his wife and fellow-flautist Lady Jeanne to perform to a sell-out crowd for his 70th Birthday Concert at the Waterfront Hall.
He cannot quite believe that he will be marking such an important moment in his life, yet it is perhaps inevitable that a personal milestone should be marked by a professional appearance in his home town.
“It feels great to be back, I'm looking forward to it tremendously,” he says of his return visit.
“When I was small boy I used to wonder will I be alive when it gets to the year 2000? But it's an achievement.”
Music would certainly seem to be inextricably linked with his daily vernacular, as I am treated to an impromptu run-down of his programme for this Saturday's concert.
“I'm doing I Saw Three Ships — that's the one that goes ‘da-da-da-da-da-DAA-da-da....’ Then there's the Gossec Tambourin — that's what they used to play on the BBC up to the hour. It went like this ‘da-da-da-DAA-daa...’
“En Bateau by Debussy I like to play for foreign audiences — I tell them how the place I came from built the Titanic and it was perfect when it left the shipyard.
“Then there is the Pennywhistle Jig by Henry Mancini, who was a very good friend of mine. Henry used to play it on the flute until I showed him how to play it on the tin whistle.”
His enthusiasm for the programme is clear, but he is more reticent when he learns that the concert was practically sold out within days. Is this something he ever takes for granted?
“No, because there's a lot of work in the background that goes into making a concert a success,” he counters.
Surely his name on the billing must be a draw, though?
“Well maybe, but sometimes people think that if they just put James Galway on a piece of paper it sells. This is not true, you really need to work at it — nothing sells itself, except Coca Cola!”
The concert will bring an additional honour as he has been appointed the Ulster Orchestra’s first ever Artist Laureate in honour of his outstanding achievement and dedication to music.
Although now officially a septuagenarian, he feels no need to take his foot off the pedal and take time to reflect.
“I'm still playing very well and don't feel I am ready to reflect on anything,” he says.
“The only thing I reflect on is the last bad move I made in a game of chess with somebody.”
Internet chess — the maestro's latest hobby — is yet another outlet for his still razor-sharp mind, and a chance to keep up with his fellow musicians.
“My game's terrible,” he admits. “But there are a lot of terrible players around, so we all enjoy being terrible together. I play with a lot of flute players too. It's a good way of keeping in touch with people, because you can have a conversation at the same time.”
And settle personal rivalries?, I venture. “Oh sure!” he laughs.
Life in the Swiss town of Lucerne, where he relocated a number of years ago, also seems to agree with Galway, who grew up in Belfast.
“The lifestyle is good, but expensive,” he says.
“But I have very good friends here — my kids live here and my nine-year-old grandson Sammy lives round the corner.”
Adds the doting grandfather: “He's ready to move in with me, he thinks I'm the bee's knees. He comes round with his mate Olly who has an IQ of about 3000. Sometimes they look at me like I just got off the bus. They're into all these technical things, and when I can't do something they look at me strangely.
“I was doing a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle once with Sammy, but he got bored. After about six months of struggling I got it down to about 400 pieces and he said to me: ‘Jimmy, you ought to get organised on this thing!'“
Are there any inklings of a musical career for this new generation of Galway?
“No I don't think so — he's going to do something that requires a lot of intelligence,” says Galway.
“He speaks Swiss-German, Czech and English. He learned the clarinet, but I don't think he'll be a musician, because it's not his big love.”
Surprisingly — or then again perhaps not, given the pressures — this is something Galway is not so sad about.
“I wouldn't advise anybody to go into the music profession as it is at the minute,” he says.
“It's a very tough profession to enter into, and you have to be extremely good.
“Getting to a point technically where you can compete means giving up your life to practise, and I would not advise many kids to do that unless they are really talented.”
This is very much the voice of experience talking, as his own dedication and devotion to his craft were not without their personal costs.
“It took a toll (on my family life), there's no doubt about that, but that's all water under the bridge,” he says.
“It is hard on the family life. Some musicians manage to do it because they bring their nannies with them, but they're in a different financial bracket from me.
“One friend of mine once hired out two apartments beside me in London for his wife and kids and father.
“When I helped him to leave he told me he was waiting for a bus — and I mean a real bus, like a tour coach. When I was starting out I took the Number 7 tram or walked!”
Little has changed over the years, as musicians in orchestras around the UK and Ireland still struggle to survive on meagre wages. Yet Galway is fairly defiant about the cost of doing what you love.
“It doesn't make me feel too good (to see musicians struggling),” he says.
“But these kids who are starting out have to ask themselves ‘How much am I going to earn if I'm a member of this orchestra — can I afford to pay for things I need?'
“The answer is no, but they want to do it because there is a passion. So they go for it, but the next thing to do is strike for more money!”
And there is little sense of solidarity from the maestro for those who take the route of industrial action.
“They know what they are getting into,” he says. “When you know how much money you are getting, you cut your cloth. I don't feel sorry for them at all, not in a ruthless way. But before anyone goes on strike they should think about what they are doing. I was engaged to play a concert once in America with a very famous orchestra, the opening concert of the season where all the donors come. And they went on strike — the most important concert of their entire season cancelled, because of greed.
“The music should come first every time, if that's what you're in it for. But if you're in the music business for money, get out of it and join some other profession.”
He is still not tempted to move back to Northern Ireland (“I might move sometime, but I'm not sure where”), but he does enjoy one or two guilty pleasures when he returns.
“The Ulster fry comes very high up on the list,” he chuckles.
“But I'm married to the food police — she doesn't approve. I had a heart operation in 2000, so Ulster fries are not what you should be having in my condition.”
Neither are sudden surprises, not that that stopped his friends and family from organising a secret bash for his 70th birthday last week.
“People were asking me what I wanted to do, and I said ‘Not much, just sit around with a bowl of soup and watch a movie',” he says.
“Jeanne said she was taking me out with some friends, but we went to this place I would never go to for lunch. As I opened the door — it was dead silent — there were about 100 of my best friends from all over the place. I was delighted.”
It wouldn't be a proper birthday celebration, of course, without a musical arrangement, for which his friend and composer David Overton did the honours.
“He arranged a piece for ten flutes, based on Mendelssohn's Scherzo,” says Galway, adding quickly: “You know the one that goes ‘da-da-da-da-da....”
Sir James Galway will be performing with the Ulster Orchestra on Saturday at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall. The concert is sponsored by HSBC