A typical concert by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain includes everything from rock, punk, folk and show tunes to classical music, jazz, country and film themes.
“There are also some left-field pieces, wacky stuff and a fair amount of wit,” says the orchestra’s founder George Hinchliffe by email. “And after a while, you’ll forget all about ukuleles and just enjoy the music.”
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain performs on March 24 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center.
Expect to hear the ukuleles play tunes such as AC/CD’s “Highway to Hell” and “America” from the musical “West Side Story.” Players are just as interested in pieces by Willie Nelson and Joni Mitchell as works by Beethoven.
The orchestra has recorded a double album of original music composed by all the ukulele players. From time to time, some of these pieces creep into programs.
“Our arrangements are the thing that make the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain so special,” says Hinchliffe. “The group has a palette of sounds and techniques which is used to bring out the musicality of the piece. We only use the ukulele, our voices and a bit of whistling.”
All the ukuleles in the orchestra are not exactly the same. Instruments are tuned in different registers (bass, baritone, tenor and soprano). Some of the instrumentalists play strings with their fingers, while others use picks. One of the challenges of playing the ukulele in concert is that it’s a quiet instrument which requires amplification.
“We have our own sound engineer who knows the repertoire and can bring out the correct balance between the parts,” Hinchlifee explains.
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain was founded in 1985 by Hinchlifee and Kitty Lux. “The idea was for the orchestra to be the antidote to pomposity, ego-mania, cults-of-personality, rip-offs, music-business-standard-operational-nonsense and prima-donnas,” says Hinchliffe. “We’re serious about the music, but we aim to provide light-hearted entertainment.”