James Galway concluded his satisfying appearance Thursday at the Folly Theater with a sentimental rendition of "Danny Boy." As with much of what preceded it, the encore threatened to lapse into cloying pandering. Yet Galway's technical brilliance and formidable showmanship remained unimpeachable.
One of the most recognizable performers in classical music, the Irish flutist has achieved substantial crossover success. Galway has enjoyed many of the trappings of stardom -- he's been knighted and has appeared on Sesame Street. He entertained a near-capacity audience of about 1,000 in a captivating concert interspersed with amusing anecdotes and lively insights. Galway was joined by his wife and fellow flutist Jeanne Galway and pianist Michael McHale in the Harriman-Jewell series presentation.
Galway freely imposed his outsized personality on each selection. The feathery opening piece, Gabriel Faure's Fantasie for Flute & Piano, Op. 79, served as a delectable appetizer topped by Galway's spirited vibrato. He joked about his abilities as he noted that the composition is often used as a test piece.
"I'm really not qualified," he said. "I just hope I get through it."
He may have a weakness for silly gags, but Galway, 71, remains a masterful flutist. He was particularly magnificent on Francesco Morlacchi's The Swiss Shepherd. In a technical tour de force, he unleashed a furious torrent of notes with seeming ease. His wife also impressed. She and her husband delicately weaved mesmerizing patterns during an amusingly delicate trifle by Franz and Karl Doppler.
A similar recital by lesser musicians might have succumbed to monotony. Galway maintained interest by revealing different aspects of his virtuosity on each selection. He elicited dark tones from his flute on a pastiche of the beloved melodies from Georges Bizet's Carmen and unfurled a decadently romantic banner on Claude Debussy's Clair de Lune. A set of Irish folk songs suffered from listless arrangements, but Galway's emotional rendering of the familiar melodies was riveting.
McHale played as inconspicuously as possible. Galway rewarded McHale's discrete accompaniment by allowing him to show off on a rigorous piece by Liszt. McHale's athletic exhibition on the florid showstopper was thrilling. Both men were born in Belfast, an fact that inspired Galway to tell another joke.
"They built the Titanic there," he said. "Of course, it was perfect when it left Belfast."
The concert was ideally suited to the Folly Theater. Performed entirely without amplification, the acoustics were exquisite.