Swans Commentary » swans.com March 10, 2008  



Galway In Texas


by Isidor Saslav





March 10, 2008   Back in 1974, during the time I served as concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Dr. Robert Freeman, director of the Eastman School of Music, asked me to commute from Baltimore to Rochester once a week and teach a class of students. Just during that time Freeman had hired to lead his flute faculty none other than (the not yet Sir) James Galway. By most fortunate coincidence some of my time in Rochester coincided with the day that Galway gave a faculty recital, which I attended and enjoyed. Shortly after this recital Freeman graciously excused Galway from his Eastman contract so that Galway could take up his new career as an international solo flutist. I must have been neglectful of Galway and his worldwide celebrity during the intervening years, for only my second chance to hear (the now Sir) James Galway live took place a few weeks ago in 2008, some 34 years later, during one of the most remarkable musical events in the world, the annual convention of the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) in San Antonio.

Once George Bernard Shaw, who had spent a month in New Zealand in 1934, was asked what came to his mind when he heard the words "New Zealand." Instead of a reply evoking something misty, sentimental, and far away, which the questioner no doubt expected, Shaw replied simply, "New Zealand." Well, the reader is asked, what comes to his or her mind when the word "Texas" is pronounced? Sagebrush, desert, cows by the millions, oil wells, Friday night football, a big river? Yes these, no doubt. But perhaps not so immediately obvious is the word "music," and especially classical music. True, Austin City Limits, a program of rock and folk musicians on public television, might be in the consciousness of many around the country. But let me tell the following rather unexpected story:

I was once asked some years ago to be one of the judges at a classical music competition for young people, the Sorantin Competition in the city of San Angelo, Texas. Just to give you an idea of how far out in the middle of nowhere somewhere in western Texas lies San Angelo, I had been driving for 4 1/2 hours westward from my home town of Overton in the east Texas piney woods and had just barely passed Fort Worth when I came upon a sign saying, "El Paso 550 miles." A drive like this deserves a lunch break so, after many miles of passing through Texas's iconic desert flatland, I stopped in another of these very out of the way places, Abilene, a name redolent of many a filmic western cattle-driving and shootout saga. As I opened my copy of the local Abilene newspaper over lunch I turned to the letters to the editorial page. What was the main topic in this letters column that day? Why, when to applaud or not to applaud between movements at concerts of the Abilene Symphony Orchestra!

During the fall of every year each one of some 10,000 Texas high school musicians, singers, or performers on various orchestral instruments, stands or sits in front of a recording microphone and performs his or her version of a series of excerpts from the standard classical repertoire. This recording, after being listened to anonymously by a statewide panel of judges, will determine whether or not the young musician will be chosen to perform in a statewide group of ensembles at the annual TMEA convention in February. Eventually the groups are boiled down to somewhere under 1,000: bands, choruses, a Philharmonic Orchestra, a Symphony Orchestra, and a String Orchestra. In the orchestral field from some 3,000 applicants, some 300 are chosen. These young musicians meet each other for the first time in San Antonio on a Wednesday, and after three days of rehearsing under the batons of invited out-of-state guest conductors and making themselves into their new cohesive groups, present their concerts on Saturday.

And what kind of concerts are these? I have followed only the orchestral performances over the years but I'm sure the bands and choruses are getting equally impressive results. The concerts last for only one hour so that they can all be put into the Saturday schedule. That, and also the fact that only three days of rehearsing are available to the ensembles. Last year one of the orchestras performed brilliantly after those only three days the entire Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. This year one orchestra performed the entire Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, the other one the first, third, and fourth movements from the Mahler First Symphony, and the string orchestra Serenade by George W. Chadwick, plus other works by Bach and Vaughn Williams (Dives and Lazarus). As excellent as these performances were, the concert that stands out in my mind over the years took place about 10 years ago. The orchestra performed Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey from Wagner's Gõtterdämmerung followed by Francesca da Rimini of Tchaikovsky. These performances were so astonishingly excellent that I'm sure no professional orchestra in the world could have played those works any better.

Before each concert a presenter says a few words to the audience. The chief subject of his remarks is the average SAT score of the totality of the ensemble. This year the statistics were as follows: the national average, 1500, the Texas average 1480, each of the two symphony orchestras over 1900, and the string orchestra 2050. Being a string player myself I can only infer that we string players are smarter to begin with since we were clever enough to choose string instruments to study; or that the study of the string instruments has made us smarter. Probably a bit of both. It's probably all those other non-string instrumentalists dragging down the averages in the other ensembles. Texas music educators, like their colleagues around the country, are in the usual constant struggle to preserve music in the schools in the face of budgetary cutbacks and scheduling restrictions to their programs. It's statistics like these that provide the propaganda directed toward administrators and school boards showing the value of music study to the development of all-around intelligence. And boy, do all those tin-eared and undercultured school administrators and board members around the country need to get this message! It was gratifying to hear Barack Obama explicitly mentioning music and the arts as things he would like to see reintroduced into our school curricula. Good luck.

About the TMEA one could go on and on with descriptions of performances by local ensembles at every level chosen equally anonymously as the best from around the state; with various Texas universities bringing their orchestras to perform in spectacular showcases (such as the orchestras of Southern Methodist University, Dallas; the University of North Texas, Denton; Texas Tech University, Lubbock); with the usual tsunami of workshops and clinics on every conceivable musical/educational subject; with the gathering of hundreds of commercial and collegiate presenters from around the country enticing their high school clients and their teachers with articles of concert clothing, fundraising knickknacks, musical trips around the world for their ensembles, instruments of every description, music software, etc. Naturally much of this activity is to be found at other similar gatherings such as the conventions of the Music Educators National Conference (MENC), the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA), and the American String Teachers Association (ASTA). But what makes the TMEA so unique is its immense size (it's among the largest organizations, perhaps the largest, of its kind in the world) and that size representing the musical forces of but a single state; and not only its size but the competitive spirit among its member schools and their students which animates the whole year leading up to this annual frenzy of music attended by thousands. School football at every level, especially on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons, said to be the true pastime and focus of attention of every true-blue Texan, surely takes no pride of place ahead of the organized competitions in classical music and its performance in the hundreds of the schools in our second-largest state.

And so what did Sir James Galway contribute to this year's session of the TMEA? Sir James was featured in three events: a performance as soloist with the San Antonio Symphony, as keynote speaker to the opening collective session, and as question answerer to a ballroom full of fans, several dozen of whom were flute players themselves. Galway could be described as the flute players' answer to the late Victor Borge, with the proportion between comedy and performance reversed. Borge was first and foremost a comedian to whose routines he added generous servings of interspersed lovely performances of standard keyboard classics; whereas Galway is first and foremost a spectacular and revered performer who is fond of adding to his appearances speeches to his audiences filled with his irrepressible Irish wit. And if you think the Irish sense of humor is confined to natives of the Free State in the south, Galway is one native of Northern Ireland to prove you very mistakenly wrong.

Among the most amusing things Galway did during his San Antonio residency was to appear as soloist with the San Antonio Symphony, wearing not only the standard concert tails when he joined his wife, Lady Jeanne Galway, in an expert and brilliant performance of the Concerto for Two Flutes and Orchestra by Domenico Cimarosa (1747-1801), but by appearing in a sort of Merlin outfit, a kind of full-length overcloak alternating broad vertical floor-length stripes of bright red and yellow, topped off with a similarly bizarre jester's cap of equally not-to-be ignored coloration. The purpose of this extraordinarily incongruous concert getup? To perform the soloist's part in John Corigliano, Jr.'s seven-part fantasy, The Pied Piper of Hamelin for Flute and Orchestra. Sir James told me afterwards that he himself had premiered the work back in 1982 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic when it was known as The Pied Piper Fantasy. And I thought, how more appropriate could it be that he finally performed this work here in San Antonio itself, where the composer's father, John Corigliano, Sr., after retiring as concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, had come to this very San Antonio Symphony to become its concertmaster as well for a goodly number of years some decades ago, 1966-75.

The orchestra was directed by a spectacular conductor, Craig Kirchhoff, presently director of bands at the University of Minnesota, who besides directing the Galways' works with precision and enthusiasm, led the orchestra in Pacific Fanfare by Kricheli, and the Suite from Copland's The Tender Land with equally telling engagement and aplomb. He got the orchestra to sound warm, rich, and enthusiastic. For all I know they may always sound that way, but Kirchhoff's leadership certainly helped. While the Corigliano was in mid-performance, towards the end dozens of young San Antonio flute students strode down the aisles of the audience while performing on their instruments, ascended to the stage, and joined forces with the multi-colored soloist. Galway thereupon led them off the stage to march-like music symbolizing the final clearing the city of Hamelin of its pestiferous denizens. Earlier in the work composer Corigliano had chosen to portray those rats by means of aleatoric music, that style so fashionable in the 1960s, where each musician is assigned a scrap of some notes upon which to noodle away and improvise to his/her heart's content. The scurrying sound from all quarters of the orchestra certainly made those rats quite audibly palpable. Fortunately, the composer continued in his typically eclectic way so that other musical styles: brass chorales, marches, lengthy flute cadenzas, etc. could also make their appearance and lend variety to the proceedings. A highly successful and amusing work, especially in the Galway getup. Galway introduced the first two of his three encores with the orchestra as being by those two most famous composers, "Anonymous" and "Traditional." Sure enough, the Galway signature tune made its appearance, the Londonderry Air.

Galway started the next morning's activities at the Harry B. Gonzales Convention Center with a breakfast speech to the hundreds of assembled music teachers. What more appropriate subject than the teachers who had inspired him in the course of his growing up in Belfast and in his subsequent world-wide career? He described a Belfast culture of flute-playing in which his teachers and role models had been his father, his grandfather, and his uncles, all of whom performed upon the instrument which was to eventually lead him around the world to his present celebrity. He reminisced about his teachers not only in Belfast but in London and Paris as well.

He described the master classes at the Paris Conservatory in which he participated, during which student after student, with mind-numbing identicality, would trot out a never-changing selection of etudes and pieces. It followed uncannily the description that Berlioz gave us in his Evenings With The Orchestra of the final piano examination at the very same Paris Conservatory some 150 years before. During this exam each of 31 piano candidates was required to perform the identical work from beginning to end, the G Minor Concerto of Mendelssohn. The piano firm of Erard, just down the street, had built a new piano for the occasion. The first several of the examinees complained, as they left the stage after their performances, that the impossibly stiff action of the new keyboard had made a fine performance impossible. By the time the number of performances has mounted into the teens, and several of the judges have fainted with exhaustion and have had to be removed, the performers' comments are that the action of the keyboard, finally having been worked in, is by now just right. As the 30th performer leaves the stage he comments that the action was so easy that the piano was practically playing itself. And sure enough, before the 31st pianist can make his entrance, the piano, without benefit of performer, to everyone's astonishment, launches itself into the Mendelssohn concerto. The keys persist in their performance, despite everyone's attempts to make the instrument stop, of the work they had learned so well through the outrageous number of repetitions; much like the water-carrying broom in The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Finally, even after the piano is chopped into little pieces by the horrified auditors, the keys, now separated from their keyboard, continue to dance and flick on their own well into the night.

(This inevitably brings to mind the joke told to us by our dear friend, the 98-year-old musical monument and resident of Albuquerque, NM, Ralph Berkowitz. A customer walks into a music store and asks the clerk if they have any piano pieces. "No, I'm sorry; we only sell the entire instrument.")

The next day at the convention several hundred auditors assembled in a ballroom to attend a more informal session with Sir James. When Galway asked how many in the room were actual flute players, about a third of the hands shot up. Galway described his hand positions, his embouchure and intonation techniques, his methods of playing his scales, and still more anecdotes about his beloved teachers. My favorite of his stories was the following. His greatest role model and idol was the immortal Frenchman Marcel Moyse (1884-1984), who, among other things, had collaborated with Ravel and Ibert on some of the greatest flute repertoire. Galway described how he would listen to and imitate Moyse's recordings every morning for two years until his sound closely resembled that of his mentor-at-a-distance. Finally he got to meet the great man and the two became fast friends. Moyse illustrated to Galway the essence of musical interpretation with the following parable.

I had a friend who owned a parrot; a very talented bird. Besides the usual "Polly-wants-a-cracker" stuff that parrot could actually say the Lord's Prayer word for word from beginning to end! "Our Father, who art in Heaven..." right to the final "Amen." But you know what? That parrot could say the words but he certainly wasn't praying!

Thus the difference between musicians who just play the notes and those who really make music with their hearts and souls and communicate that to their audiences. And whether performing or amusingly speaking, communicate Galway does. The millions who have packed his halls and listened to his over 60 recordings down through the years have never yet been shortchanged by "parrot playing." May the TMEA and the state of Texas continue in their world-leading role in music education so that more Galways on every instrument can find their way to our concert stages.


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Isidor Saslav on Swans (with bio).



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Published March 10, 2008