James Galway's legacy: Crossover isn't a four-letter word

James Galway's new box set
James Galway's new box set (Jay Gabler/MPR)

I was raised to think of James Galway as being the pure embodiment of class. I wasn't familiar with his Mozart concertos, though, or his Telemann suites. The only James Galway recording I knew was the one my dad put on the stereo every time we were expecting guests from out of town, or having his boss over for dinner: The Wayward Wind, Galway's 1982 album featuring the great flute soloist's interpretations of "Duelin' Banjos" and "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue."

Celebrating his 75th birthday this month, James Galway sits in a unique position in popular and musical culture. He's not only the most famous living flutist, he may be the best-known flutist to have ever lived. Jean-Pierre Rampal yields 500,000 Google hits, and Emmanuel Pahud has a few hundred thousand — but Galway has 18 million. To celebrate his birthday, Galway's longtime label has just reissued the flutist's entire RCA catalog: 70 albums, plus a disc of bonus tracks, with two DVDs to boot.

It's a massive body of work, and RCA has underlined its scope by arranging the discs in chronological — rather than thematic — order, reproducing the original cover art for the sleeve of each disc. The collection will be welcomed by fans who've been waiting for readily accessible digital versions of some of Galway's out-of-print releases (The Wayward Wind included), and with many retailers selling the collection for under $150, it's a bargain even if you throw out half of the discs as soon as you open the box.

Now, which half would those be? Depends on who's making the cull. Galway didn't earn those 18 million mentions purely through his stellar classical career: his recordings of popular music have sold like hotcakes to the millions of fans who love the dulcet tones of "the Man with the Golden Flute." (That moniker, the title of Galway's new box set, both describes Galway's famously rich tone and literally refers to his honey-hued instrument.)

Galway can be credited with helping to define the idea of a career in "classical crossover." Though the idea of a career straddling classical and popular music is as old as classical music itself, Galway blazed the trail for crossover artists in the album-based, media-saturated music industry of the late 20th century. His career is — so to speak — the gold standard for contemporary artists who aspire to play both soul-rending classical repertory and toe-tapping pop tunes, and to sell records to both audiences.

More so than most "crossover" artists, Galway has genuinely crossed over — and over, and over, and over. Listening to his entire catalog in sequence, as it's presented in the new anthology, is a fascinating experience (even if not one that everybody would wish to have).

It starts with Galway's first RCA release, establishing his personal brand like a flag — or a flute, rather — stuck in the sand. The Man with the Golden Flute (1976) had Galway, in his mid-30s a Berlin Philharmonic veteran who was firmly established as one of the world's top classical flutists, taking on light classics like Flight of the Bumblebee and Chopin's Minute Waltz.

That release could have set the template for an easy four decades, cruising as flutist to the masses. Instead, though, Galway whipped back around and released three albums of challenging classical repertory from Prokofiev, Franck, Mozart, and Vivaldi — the latter with a Four Seasons arrangement that demonstrated Galway's persistent willingness to boldly go where other flutists feared (or judged it best not) to tread.

The difference between light classics and pure pop might seem almost academic, but it proved to have real meaning to a lot of people in the classical music world when Galway released his album Annie's Song in 1979. His rendition of the title track, a John Denver song, became a top ten hit in the UK, earning Galway both a place in the crossover history books and lasting derision from members of the classical-music establishment who saw him as a sellout. Even today, almost four decades later, mention the name James Galway to many classical-music buffs and you won't be surprised to get an eye-roll and a dismissal along the lines of, "Oh, him. 'Annie's Song.'"

If that was a point of no return for certain listeners, the RCA set demonstrates how Galway has roved across the musical map ever since — never settling into any corner for very long, he's carried his golden flute around the world and across genres.

Consider discs 10-13 of the set, for example: Galway goes from a Telemann album to a collection of Japanese melodies to a shag-carpet makeout album (Sometimes When We Touch, featuring jazz vocalist Cleo Laine) to a collection of French flute concertos. Fast-forward to discs 45-48, and you get an album of pop covers (The Wind Beneath My Wings) followed by Giuliani's Gran Duetto, then a collection of Bach orchestral suites and then it's immediately on to Beauty and the Beast: Galway at the Movies.

It's not strictly his choice of repertoire that's made Galway a polarizing figure in the classical-music world: he's also been criticized for an unnecessarily bright style, hitting his notes just a little sharp to make them pop. If there's been something of the diva to Galway's style, he's been aided and abetted by his RCA producers. It's hard to question the decision to put Galway's face on the cover of all his albums — you've got to sell the product, and anyway, God knows we have enough generic seascapes and composer portraits on the covers of classical recordings — but it's fair to ask whether the flute needed to be quite so far forward in the mix on some of Galway's records. On Beethoven's Sonata for Piano and Flute in B-flat major, for example, pianist Phillip Moll might as well have been stuffed in the closet.

Still, Galway's musicality and technique have been unflagging, and when he's in his zone, the power of his playing is undeniable. Galway's Mozart, for example, will put you in orbit; and his infectious delight at playing with fellow Irishmen the Chieftains enlivens their several collaborations, which have helped to fuel the surging popularity of traditional Irish music.

Galway's also helped to introduce classical music to many new ears — mine included. When I first started listening in earnest to classical music, I'd buy any CD with Galway's name on it. That familiar flute, a "voice" from my childhood, carried me from "Duelin' Banjos" to Dvorak like a jolly uncle. Further, Galway's helped to elevate the entire flute repertoire: how many people would have heard, say, Quantz's flute concertos if those works hadn't been recorded with a woodwind of gold?

The holiday season is a time for inclusiveness and warmth, which means it's the perfect occasion for those of you who have been begrudging Galway to welcome him back into your hearts — and your CD collections. Treat your favorite flute-lover to the RCA set, then as the lights on the tree twinkle, pull out one of Galway's Christmas CDs (there are three of them) and introduce those kids, playing with their new toys, to a friendly flutist. Take my word for it, they'll feel pretty classy.

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