James Galway Lends His Pied Piper Magic to NSO

By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 6, 2006

There are several stellar flutists in the world, as anyone who has heard the articulate playing of Emmanuel Pahud or Mathieu Dufour, the respective principal flutes of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony, can attest. But none is more popular than James Galway, the genial musician from Northern Ireland with an unrivaled star quality.

Last night's National Symphony Orchestra concert at the Kennedy Center was a flute affair, not only in Galway's solo appearances in a couple of concertos but also in the wider program, which generally highlighted the instrument.

The concert underscored what makes Galway so well-liked. Here was an artist using a sovereign, spot-on technique to communicate passionately with listeners. Gorgeously arching and more vigorous melodies merged in a sonic picture of loveliness. A keen musical sense and substance stand behind this musical emoting, so it never sounded mawkish or cheap.

NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin warmed up the orchestra with a shapely account of the overture to Rossini's opera "Semiramide." Rossini overtures are wonderfully crafted gems that combine strength and sparkle, and the NSO performance more than illuminated the score's many facets. The flowing woodwind moments centered on the flute were especially attractive, along with some airy distant horn calls.

Galway formed a sinuous bond with the orchestra in the world premiere of Norwegian composer Fred Jonny Berg's "Flute Mystery," Concerto for Alto Flute and Orchestra. Berg writes music of a spare beauty. The 15-minute, one-movement piece merges cool restraint and rhythmic exactitude. Galway, to whom Berg dedicated the score, played his languid lines with sympathy and dark polish.

Yet it was the charming rendering of Mozart's Flute Concerto No. 2 in D, K. 314, that revealed Galway's secret. Because the flute cannot create rich textures like those of a violin or piano, the instrument sometimes struggles to match an orchestra. Galway created an agile, beaming sound that pierced the larger ensemble like a beautifully focused voice. The cadenzas in the outer movements, as well as a wonderfully eloquent encore of "Danny Boy," were highly expressive and detailed.

The flute receded into the larger musical fold in the finale, Richard Strauss's celestial tone poem "Thus Spake Zarathustra," Op. 30. Slatkin thoughtfully avoided making too much of the role of the woodwinds, which in this celestial music give color and definition. Instead, the NSO gave an account that captured the music's broader contours, its luxuriousness and its surging energy.

The guttural rumblings and the famous climbing, bursting theme that initially greet the ears gave way to music of alternately mysterious, touching and tempestuous moods. This music is well-known programmatic fare that provides a sonic rendering of the philosophy of Nietzsche. It was best to put aside images of humanity's beginnings and the rise of a lawgiving superman, as this was splendorous musicmaking that stood on its own.

This memorable concert repeats tonight and tomorrow evening.

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