Asked how it feels to be one of the best flute players in the world, Sir James Galway laughed.
"Not 'one of,'" replied the living legend, who with his wife, Lady Jeanne Galway, also a virtuoso flautist, will perform with the Irish Chamber Orchestra on Thursday evening at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
"You can absolutely tell for sure it's me," he said. "That you can't tell with other people. You can't tell one from the other."
Joking aside, Galway said New York is home to some wonderful flute players, among them Denis Bouriakov, a principal flute for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra who's only 32.
"This guy has a technique way above everybody else, including me," Galway said. "He plays these sort of violin transcriptions of virtuoso things. ... He has no fear. He just rattles them right off."
Galway, though, is known as the Man with the Golden Flute — literally and figuratively. He plays a 20-karat gold "Galway" Nagahara flute and is considered the top interpreter of the classical flute repertoire and a consummate entertainer as well, with wide appeal.
Galway, 73, has appeared on more than 30 million albums, among them soundtracks including for Academy Award-winning Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
However, he related an anecdote from much earlier movie work, when he and others recorded Richard Rodney Bennett's score for "Far From the Madding Crowd," released in 1967.
Galway remembers a particular scene in which Terence Stamp was on a horse, charging down a hill with sword in hand.
"He threw it up in the air and caught it. A little arpeggio was supposed to end as he caught it. The conductor was very good, but you can't conduct that kind of thing."
So Galway told the conductor to just let him play it.
"If you see 'Far From the Madding Crowd,' there's that one scene. Terence Stamp, I think, was at his most aggressive best."
And so was Galway.
"The prominent flute passages were played by a young, uncredited James Galway, and this is some of the most substantial modern music that the legendary flautist ever recorded," Bruce Eder wrote for All Music.
Galway, who was never interested in recording film scores regularly — he said he'd rather play masterworks — has performed live before too many dignitaries to mention, among them Queen Elizabeth II, Pope John Paul II, President Bill Clinton, President George H.W. Bush, Prince Charles and more recently, Israeli President Shimon Peres.
His collaborations are equally impressive. Sir Galway has shared the stage with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Henry Mancini, John Denver, Elton John, Joni Mitchell and Jessye Norman. He performed in the famed Pink Floyd concert in 1990 at the Berlin Wall, eight months after it fell.
Galway, of course, has received a slew of awards. The two he said he's most proud of: his knighthood in 2001 by Queen Elizabeth for his services to music; and the lifetime achievement award he received last month from Ireland's National Concert Hall.
"There are only two people with that in the whole world — me and Paddy Moloney," Galway said of the composer and founding member and leader of The Chieftains, a traditional Irish band.
Galway once collaborated with The Chieftains, but he said that's all in the past.
"There's a time for everything," he said. "Do I need to quote from Corinthians on that?"
The Belfast-born Galway, who's known as a Christian and a great conversationalist, began playing flute when he was a child. His father, grandfather and uncle played the instrument; his uncle was semi-professional, playing at the opera house in Belfast.
As a teenager, James Galway moved to London to pursue his study of the instrument. He also studied at the Paris Conservatoire, where one of his teachers was Jean-Pierre Rampal.
He then embarked on his orchestral career, performing with England's most prestigious ensembles before becoming solo flautist with the Berlin Philharmonic.
In 1975, Galway left to launch his international solo career, becoming one of the best-known and most beloved flute players on the planet.
Besides performing classical masterworks, he promotes contemporary music. Many pieces have been commissioned by him and for him, written by composers such as Mark Adamo, David Amram, William Bolcom and John Corigliano.
A more recent commission is the double flute concerto written for the Galways by Irish composer Philip Hammond. Among Galway's upcoming commissioned projects is a concerto by Bill Whelan, to be premiered in summer 2014 in Ireland and America.
Galway always concertizes now with his wife, a native of Long Island. They live in Switzerland.
He first met her more than 30 years ago when he visited Julius Baker, who was principal flute with the New York Philharmonic. At the time, Baker was teaching a master class; Jeanne Cinnante was taking it.
"I saw her two years after that and invited her to lunch," Galway said. "We've been having lunch every day the last 30 years."
Besides performing together, the Galways teach master classes to and mentor flute players of all levels and during their 10-day Galway Flute Festival in Switzerland.
Last year, Galway launched First Flute, an online interactive series of lessons for beginning flute students of all ages.
He's also published articles, flute studies and books: His autobiography, "The Man with the Golden Flute, a Celtic Minstrel," was published in 2009 by John Wiley & Son.
The term "Celtic Minstrel" might lead some to believe Galway performs traditional Irish music. He does not — at least anymore.
"You know how busy I am? It takes a bit of time to get into that sort of thing," he said. "Ask yourself how many of those traditional musicians are into classical music.
"It's better to specialize in one area."
He has omnivorous tastes in classical music but said his favorite composer is Ludwig van Beethoven, even though he didn't write much for flute.
"He's definitely heads above the others: 32 brilliant piano sonatas, nine really great symphonies, five piano concertos," Galway said. "His Violin Concerto in D major is the standard and best violin concerto every written."
As for Galway's favorite concerto to perform, that would be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Flute Concerto No. 2 in D major. Galway began playing it as a kid.
It's on the Krannert concert program along with Hamilton Harty's "In Ireland"; Philip Hammond's Carolan Variations; and Felix Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56, aka the "Scottish." There likely will be some surprises as well.
Though his career has spanned five decades, Galway said he's never bored because he takes an investigative approach to everything.
"I think you have to be a student all your life," he said. "You have to study to do it better all the time. There are many classical musicians who just play. They just go around and play the notes and think that's OK.
"But that doesn't do it. This music requires certain treatments. Like it could be reflective, happy, sad, mournful. All these things applied to even one note makes all the difference."
If you go
What: The Irish Chamber Orchestra, featuring conductor JoAnn Falletta and flautists Sir James Galway and Lady Jeanne Galway
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Foellinger Great Hall, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U
Tickets: $55 for adults, $50 for senior citizens, $15 for students, $10 for University of Illinois students and youths (choral balcony seats are $15 for the public and $10 for UI students and youths)
Information: 333-6280, http://www.krannertcenter.com