I cut musicians, performing live, a lot of slack. But James Galway committed two cardinal sins tonite, and a lot of minor ones I'll leave to the likes of Alex Ross, Mark Swed, Jim Sveda, and the ghost of Alan Rich to address fully.
At the Hollywood Bowl tonite, in concert with the LA Phil under Leonard Slatkin, Galway, the 71-year-old flute virtuoso, insulted amateur musicians, and then screwed up a song you're not supposed to ever screw up ... which is, in fact, difficult to screw up because playing it well doesn't require great musicianship, just a little heart.
Galway said, introducing Danny Boy, "We're going to play it better than some kid in church on a guitar that hasn't been tuned in a couple years."
As the kids say, WTF? How much are you making for a performance at the Bowl? $5k? $10k? $15k? And you need to take a swipe at kids playing an Irish folk song in church? Did you also steal the money from the sax player's hat in the tunnel on your way in, and swipe the singing evangelizer's dog puppet on the way out?
So that was bad enough. The problem was, Galway didn't play it better that the kids did. I suppose he got the notes right, but -- as Clarence McDonald's teacher Alma Hightower said years ago -- there's a lot more to playing music than getting the notes right.
Danny Boy, also known as Londonderry Air, is one of those songs that, when somebody says they're going to play or sing it, you think, "Oh my God; not again." But then, listening to it, you're touched once again by its beauty and meaning. Sick, and with a broken voice, Johnny Cash sang it on one of his last albums, and I cry every time I hear it. Somebody's gone away from someone who loves them; that's sad.
Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer's gone, and all the leaves are falling
T'is you, T'is you must go and I must bide.
But come ye back when summer's in the meadow
Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow
t'is I'll be there in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.
And when ye come, and all the flow'rs are dying
If I am dead, as dead I well may be
ye'll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me.
And I shall hear, tho' soft you tread above me
And oh, my grave shall warmer, sweeter be
For ye will bend and tell me that you love me
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.
It's haunting and beautiful, that is, IF some jerk with a golden flute doesn't rush through it like he's trying to beat the Bowl traffic back to Henry Mancini's daughter's house. (This is where announced he was staying in LA, adjacent to a really lame edition of The Pink Panther theme.)
You can't play Danny Boy slowly enough. You can't linger long enough over the imagery, or the lovely melody. And let me break it to you, James, if you think it's schmaltz, after all these years, and you're tired of playing it, then don't play it. But something is seriously the matter if you can't make me cry with Danny Boy ... me, who cries at National Guard commercials and LeRoy Anderson's Forgotten Dreams. But then, you played it in about 36-seconds and were out the door ... only after acting like an utter ass.
To my ears, Galway was pretty good in Mozart's 2d flute concerto (Kringle Rating 3.14), but went downhill from there, with a messy and interminable duet with his wife Lady Jane in the Doppler Brothers' Rigoletto fantasy, and a sloppy Bach standard, the Badinerie from the 2d Orchestral Suite. A friend at the Bowl said when he saw Galway do this difficult piece thirty years ago in Geneva, his precision was remarkable. So either he's not up to par anymore, or this wasn't a good night.
Did maestro Leonard Slatkin know this would happen? I wonder. I wonder because the first half of the program, which didn't feature Galway, did feature flute-centric pieces, and they were great ... from The Magic Flute overture; to Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun; to a revelatory suite from Walter Piston, The Incredible Flutist, which Slatkin said used to be a common part of the orchestral repertoire, but has undeservedly been removed from it. The orchestra -- especially the flutists -- shined. When I arrived and saw the program, I guessed that no flutist would want to go against Galway; now maybe I think they were eager to show their stuff.