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Strange Celebration of Sir James Galway’s 70th Birthday at Tanglewood


What is a celebration like for a man like Sir James Galway, a celebration coming from Tanglewood and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under conductor Leonard Slatkin? For starters, this giant of the flute world admitted that his birthday did not fall on Saturday, August 1, but in fact the 25th anniversary of his marriage did, and that he was happier to be celebrating that occasion.

There were “musical surprises” and a newly commissioned composition for Galway, all coming after intermission. Totally at ease on stage and always ready to bring on a smile, he introduced his special guests, pianist Michael McHale and Irish tenor Anthony Kearns,    saying that both come “from my part of the world, which would be Belfast.”

“I never play with a band,” he went on to say, drawing chuckles from a welcoming crowd filling both the hardly changed Koussevitzky Music Shed that dates back to the 1940s and the expansive lush green lawn beyond, peppered with picnic paraphernalia, lit candles, and wine.  “But this band showed up with the music all memorized,” referring to Tiempo Libre, a group of young conservatory-trained Cuban musicians, four of whom were on hand to perform with the master flutist. Certainly not a flautist per se, this Irishman has covered all kinds of ground in our vast world of music.

Galway indulged himself. It was his birthday celebration, after all. Doing a stand-up routine about the origin of the next piece we were to hear, he continued to entertain -some in the audience, but not all. That piece would be an arrangement of Mozart’s well-known rondo with Turkish march from Piano Sonata in A Major. Enter Lady Jeanne Galway for a flute duet.

I guess I should have been more in a celebratory mood. It was past 11 pm, though, and I had had enough of having fun with music – Bach Latinized in a hyper tense mode, Danny Boy given a pseudo jazz incarnation on the piano. This was vaudeville that became more tiring, more predictable, and more indulgent – save for the Irish flavor of Kearns’s voice (his diction making clear maybe half of the lyrics of two favorite Irish melodies).

If it had not been for Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” which opened the program, I might have been in an entirely different state of mind for what was to come. For some nine minutes it seemed as though I had not taken a single breath as I watched Leonard Slatkin’s magician-like hands waving over a smaller sized orchestra. Solo flutist Elizabeth Rowe began it all with her own breathtakingly beautiful sound. The horns spoke scored notes, but never heard like this before. It was the expressive oboe appearing and disappearing in this most magical soundscape that would reach through the “haze” of this dream to tug ever so eloquently at the subconscious ear.

Unimaginably, even the seams of this orchestral masterpiece’s gossamer weave became vividly apparent and made unspeakably expressive through Slatkin and players. This performance was itself a masterpiece, illusion beyond belief.

The complete version of Appalachian Spring, Copland’s emblematic oeuvre, had its moments but was quite the opposite experience of the Debussy. Not a note from the piano could be heard. Diversity showed up, not the kind, however, that would secure any energizing continuum. The piece’s mechanics have shown their wear over time. This plodding, overly long version of the original ballet music does not carry sufficient credibility some 60 years after its creation.

Derek Bermel’s new work Swing Song for solo flute and flute ensemble promised a lot and delivered very little. Galway whizzed through showy passagework and his virtuosity astonished. A sight to behold, the Tanglewood Festival Flute Ensemble, a swarm of young to very young flute students, unisoned through a folksy melody but then stood silently by as a small section of flutists behind them stirred up nondescript flute mush.

Sir Galway rescued the downward swing for a time with Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 2 in D, K314. In his hands the flute transformed itself over and again becoming the human voice, echoing the Irish tin whistle, bubbling like small rapids over rocks, caressing like the night’s shifting yet gentle breezes. Sounding on the thick side, the orchestra, while upbeat, kept Mozart from taking off into that wonderfully transparent world of his.

I felt honored to witness this internationally renowned artist in this celebration. But it was a strange evening.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and Chairman of the Department at U. Mass Boston for the past 15 years, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award in Teaching and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. Also a composer, he lives in Watertown.

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