‘Growing up I never thought I’d be a musician’

Sir James Galway. 
Pic Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker
Sir James Galway. Pic Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker
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Two years on and classical music superstar Sir James Galway, 77, is still smarting from the furore caused by contentious remarks he made on the BBC Nolan Show about unionism and the Presbyterian church.

It’s still a prickly subject and one he emphatically will not discuss, but the virtuoso flute player will happily converse about his love of music and history, his passion for music education and his all-consuming hobby - chess.

The celebrated flautist, who lives in Switzerland, was back on home turf recently for a performance with the Ulster Orchestra, as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations.

He was accompanied on the trip by his genial American wife, Lady Jeanne Galway, one of the leading female flute soloists of the decade, with whom he regularly duets and clearly adores.

‘‘Well, this is a blessing,’’ he says.

‘‘Most people have a relationship with their wife when they get home from the shipyard or the bank and they are absolutely wrecked from the whole day of worry and toll. We spend the whole day together, every day of every year.’’

This constant companionship means the Belfast man has picked up a smidgen of his wife’s US accent, although his soft Northern Irish brogue is still very much to the fore.

Sir James Galway’s rise to fame and fortune is the stuff of dreams. He is ranked as one of the top musicians of our time, with a dazzling career that has spanned five decades and many genres of music. But his beginnings were humble.

Brought up in ‘‘extreme poverty’’ in working-class east Belfast, his father James worked in Harland and Wolff shipyard until the end of World War II and spent night-shifts cleaning buses after the war, while his mother Ethel was a winder in a flax-spinning mill.

He has one younger brother George Galway, a jazz musician and teacher based in Manchester.

Reflecting on his early life, Sir James says: ‘‘Nobody had anything and everybody worked in the shipyard. We had meat maybe once or twice a week, otherwise it was just potatoes, but it wasn’t so bad - I mean, if you don’t know any better, it’s good.’’

Those lean times of his childhood are a far cry from today, with Sir James’s wealth estimated to be a staggering 20 million dollars.

We meet in a Belfast hotel where the pair are staying; time is short as they are on a tight schedule of rehearsals for the Ulster Orchestra performance in the Waterfront Hall.

The towering talent is diminutive in stature, about 5ft 4in, and slight of frame; both he and Lady Jeanne have been on a healthy, carb-free eating regime, and look very lean.

‘‘Yes, I lost a lot of weight, but I put it on again because when I went to America on the tour, we went through Boulder and they’ve got several very good breweries there so I started drinking beer again,’’ he says ruefully.

The flute maestro is dressed in a natty navy jacket, ‘‘I got it in a fire sale’’, he chuckles. He’s not a clothes horse, but always buys special clothes to do concerts.

‘‘Through my career you’ll see photographs of me in different things - I didn’t rent them, I owned all those clothes and I’ve still got them. I should throw them all away one of these days.’’

During the interview, his eyes flicker uncontrollably behind his glasses - he suffers from the eye condition nystagmus, which causes these erratic movements, but despite what many would regard as an impediment, he has not let the problem get in the way of his profession.

During his incredible career Sir James Galway has worked with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and spent six years with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra before embarking on a solo career in 1975.

Honoured with a knighthood in 2001, and having won a lifetime achievement prize at the Gramophone Awards in 2014, Sir James has been garlanded with dozens of top accolades throughout his career.

He has travelled the world many times over and made countless friends, including legends from the worlds of classical and popular music.

His repertoire spans the musical spectrum with collaborators as diverse as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Chieftains, John Denver, and Pink Floyd - and all this from the Belfast boy who was taught to play the flute aged nine by his uncle Joe and never really had any grand plans to make music his career.

‘‘It was just something that I did. There was nothing else to do - there was no television, there was no entertainment apart from what you did yourself, so I was quite happy to play the flute.’’

Nor did he have any great epiphany about the flute being ‘his instrument’.

‘‘I didn’t think this is for me. You just keep on doing the things that you do and you get better at it and you look at other avenues where you can apply your trade, so to speak.’’

But he did practise a lot and continues to do so - up to one and half hours a day.

‘‘You have to keep it up.’’

However, growing up the young James Galway was surrounded by music.

‘‘My grandfather taught my father and my uncle Joe the flute, but my mother was a pianist.’’

Did he ever veer towards the ivories?

‘‘It’s not that I had no interest, it’s just that the piano we had was so horribly out of tune and it didn’t stand a chance because it was in this little room with a fire right in front of it, ‘‘ he laughs.

Ironically when Sir James left school at 14 it was to work as an apprentice repairing pianos.

Was he any good at that?

‘‘Of course,’’ he laughs, although there was one time, when his boss may have quibbled with his capability.

He tells the story: ‘‘We were the agents for Steinway pianos, this was at the Tughan Piano Company. Mr Tughan worked in the shop overseeing the finances.

‘‘One day he said to me ‘Jim could you assemble the pedals in that new piano, so I did and then later on he came and said to me ‘listen, Jim I want to show you something - I want to show you the price of this piano’ - I had a used a nail that was too long and it went right through the side of the piano - it was a £900 piano in those days,’’ he says, almost apologetically.

Growing up he played in flute bands, something he really enjoyed.

‘‘It was a lot of fun. It was interesting because the flute band I was in didn’t just play marches; the first band was a sort of marching band with flutes and drums; in the second band, 39th Old Boys, they had different sorts of flutes like melody flutes - so this was a different sort of life because they played things like the Unfinished Symphony; when I went to London, I knew all these pieces and the other kids didn’t.’’

And still he says, it wasn’t his ambition to be a professional musician.

‘‘I don’t know what I wanted to be, but being a professional musician never came into the equation,’’ he admits.

His rise up the musical ranks, seems almost accidental, rather than intentional.

‘‘It was just practising and playing in a band, then playing on Children’s Hour, playing Gilbert and Sullivan with Grosvenor High School, and playing in the Studio Strings Orchestra, which was conducted by Havelock Nelson - Havelock was very good to all the kids and he really encouraged us all.

‘‘And then the Belfast Youth Orchestra started up and that was amazing because when I started off we were two violins and about 16 flutes...it was like a flute band with a couple of stringed instruments,’’ he laughs.

‘‘Then gradually the orchestra bloomed and became a real big professional orchestra like it is now - it gives some of the professional orchestras a run for their money.’’

Sir James subsequently went to London to study the flute at the Royal College of Music in London and then at the Guildhall School of Music. He then studied at the illustrious Paris Conservatoire.

Reflecting on his time in the French capital he says: ‘‘Paris was really an eye-opener to me. It had great museums and concerts every day. I had to learn the language and I got into the French class of the Conservatoire. You have to be under 21 to get in, then you have to be really good to get in, because they don’t just take anybody.’’

But he says it took his parents a while to realise the brilliance of their son.

‘‘I remember one letter that my mother wrote to me and she said ‘why don’t you stop running around all over the place and come home and get a good job with the BBC.’’ he laughs.

But he does remember his father travelling over to London to see him perform once.

‘‘It was a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic in which they played the Jupiter Symphony and the Right of Spring - my dad was such a handful to look after - he was worse than a kid. But he loved it.’’