Back in the late 1950s, a hard-boiled detective show named "Peter Gunn" was the hottest thing on television. Even those who didn't care much for whodunits would tune in sometimes because of its gritty atmosphere, offbeat characters and occasional items of pretty good jazz woven (however implausibly) into the plot line. The hard-hitting theme music for the show (also pretty good jazz) went solid gold, back before platinum records were invented. And it brought its composer, a journeyman writer of sound-track music named Henry Mancini, a lot of attention and money.
Since then, Mancini has become a household word with such sound tracks to his credit as "The Pink Panther," "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Days of Wine and Roses," "Victor/Victoria" and "The Thorn Birds." Last night, he brought them all to Wolf Trap for an overflow audience evidently eager to hear in person what it usually hears on television or in movie houses. He also brought flutist James Galway for the second half of the program, which was devoted to items from their new album, "In the Pink."
As played by the Filene Center Orchestra and Mancini's own combo, the "Peter Gunn" theme still sounds pretty good (if not dazzling and new) after 26 years and countless imitations -- including "The Pink Panther," which opens with almost identical rhythmic contours. Galway was in his usual form, playing with dazzling technique at speeds that sometimes gusted up to 400 notes per minute and beyond. He does this partly, no doubt, just to show that he can. But he may also have wanted to get the evening over as quickly as possible; he was reluctant to talk to the audience between numbers and left abruptly after a single encore -- "76 Trombones," with Mancini playing second flute.
Galway's speed and accuracy are dazzling in such numbers as "Baby Elephant Walk," "Speedy Gonzales" and "Pennywhistle Jig," but he is even more effective in slow, moody music like "Moon River," "Days of Wine and Roses" and the folk-flavored theme of "The Molly Maguires."
Galway may be technically the best classical flutist alive, and using a talent of his stature for this kind of music is something like hiring a brain surgeon to slice sandwich meat. But he does it well, and the financial rewards for this relatively easy work are enormous. In a well-run universe, he would be paid more for performing such things as Debussy's "Syrinx" or Vare se's "Density 21.5," which are greater and more difficult. But Galway relates to the universe in which he lives -- and Mancini's sandwich meat is fairly palatable stuff, nicely varied in flavor and wholesomely packaged.
In the first half of the program, Mancini played some of his more attractive novelty numbers (the horse race music of "They're Off" and the country fiddle music of "Oklahoma Crude"), but the highlight came in extended, heartfelt tributes to two other composers of vintage pop music: Hoagy Carmichael and Victor Young.