Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain fuses joy, musical expertise and a whole gang of ukes in unique performance style
The founders of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain had plenty of high-profile credits on their resumes when they started the ensemble in 1985.
Players had specialized in a wide array of instruments for internationally known artists like Martha Reeves and Mary Wells. They were musicians who could claim titles of expertise and professional achievements, and they were in-demand and qualified to play any kind of serious, high-profile gig one could imagine.
What was lacking was a sense of entertainment and fun. That’s where the ukulele came in.
“The premise of the orchestra was to avoid pomposity, cults of personality and any egomaniac prima-donna vanity,” says George Hinchliffe, director of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and one of its founding members. “My background was in piano, ukulele, viola and experimental instruments. I chose the ukulele because it was not commonly regarded in those days as a serious instrument. An ensemble, indeed an orchestra, composed entirely of ukuleles would subvert any expectations of conventionality.”
Nearly 40 years later, the orchestra has evolved far beyond a joyful experiment by musicians looking for a sense of adventure. Starting from early gigs in pubs, village halls and arts centers in and around London, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain has evolved into a worldwide sensation, appearing at venues ranging from Carnegie Halls (both in New York and on the Shetland Islands) to the Shanghai Symphony Hall, the Sydney Opera House and Buckingham Palace.
One of those destinations has been the University of Colorado Boulder where the orchestra easily won a reputation as an audience favorite. In the past, the ensemble has delivered unique renditions of musical styles ranging from ABBA to ZZ Top, and from “Tchaikovsky to the Beverly Hillbillies” for Boulder audiences. They’ve also offered mass audience participation, hosting a ukulele playalong for the crowds. Their flair for theatrics, audience engagement and pure joy is bound to repeat when the orchestra returns to Macky Auditorium on April 18.
This dynamic—a carefree approach combined with well-honed musical expertise—has remained consistent over the decades of the group’s existence, even as the ensemble has shifted in size and personnel. Each player performs on a uke in a different register (soprano, concert, baritone, bass, etc.)
Seven may seem like a humble number for the title of “orchestra,” but Hinchliffe insists that they earn the status through their dedication to their instruments and the sheer range of their repertoire.
“The idea of an orchestra playing only ukuleles would have seemed amusing in itself in the early days,” he says. “Currently this is less remarkable, though the orchestra is known as the first group of ‘ukuleleators’ calling itself an orchestra in history.
“We often perform music that plays with the conventions, such as combining several songs simultaneously or changing the genre of the music.
“When the music is played more faithfully to the original styles, the works range from Wagner to Heavy Rock, from Lady Gaga to Otis Redding and from Jug Bands to Billy Eilish,” he adds.