Performance Wednesday, October 17, 2012 | 8 PM

Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Join this first-rate group of eight singing and strumming ukulele players for an evening of “sheer fun and outright daffiness” (The New York Times).


  • Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain


  • Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

    ... is a group of all-singing, all-strumming ukulele players who use instruments bought with loose change and share a firm belief that all genres of music are available for reinterpretation-as long as they are played on the ukulele.

    The Ukes are independent, anarchic, funny, and virtuosic. From the first concert in 1985 to the current international tour, they have been turning the world onto the ukulele instrument through online clips with millions of views, CD and DVD sales in the hundreds of thousands, and sold-out shows around the world.

    The orchestra is celebrated for its rapport with audiences and for eliciting a joyous feel-good reaction. The basis for the Ukes' concerts is astoundingly simple: eight performers, eight instruments, eight voices. (No gimmicks, no stage set, no fireworks, no special effects, no light show, no dancers, no laptops, no samples.) And yet, the orchestra brings the house down with catchy, emotive, and toe-tapping tunes, along with witty banter that draws the audience into a joyous world of varied musical genres, serious concert music, and comedy performance. Zooming from Tchaikovsky to Nirvana via Otis Redding, from current anthems with 1960s beat instrumentals and dueling banjo-style picking to film themes and Spaghetti Western soundtracks, everyone has a good time.

    Using instruments small and large in high and low registers-whether playing intricate melodies, simple tunes, or complex chords (up to 32 instrumental notes and eight vocal notes simultaneously)-the orchestra uses the limitations of the instrument to fuel unexpected musical creativity and insight. Both the beauty and vacuity of popular and highbrow music are highlighted, the pompous and the trivial, the moving and the amusing. Sometimes a foolish song can touch an audience more than high art; sometimes music that takes itself too seriously is revealed to be hilarious. The musicians have 16-handedly changed the face of the ukulele world.

    The individual performers have varied backgrounds, strong individual voices, and wide-ranging instrumental abilities, but their different perspectives and expertise complement each other as they engage with the audience through speech, song, and ukulele playing. It's an orchestra of eight refugees exiled from other diverse and completely contrasting musical groups, all paradoxically coexisting on the same stage: It's as if we are seeing Yogi Bear, Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, a street hustler, a noble lord, Peter Pan, Joan of Arc, and Popeye the Sailor Man on stage together-icons and archetypes, cartoons and timeless figures. Yet audiences overwhelmingly relate to the human scale of the Ukes' show, the sheer entertainment value, the enjoyment of music and performance, and the diverse range of material.

    Today, there are thousands of ukulele orchestras, but it all started here with the original and the best-the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

    Please note that the eighth member of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, Kitty Lux, is unable to perform at this evening's concert due to illness.

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Jeff Tamarkin on the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

Carnegie Hall has always been known for the diversity of artists who grace its storied stage, but even the co-founder of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain finds it somewhat amusing that his own collective has earned that honor. "It feels kind of funny for a bunch of ukuleles to be playing at Carnegie Hall," says George Hinchliffe with a hearty chuckle. He pauses, then adds with typical, self-deprecating British cheek, "It's ridiculous."

Nevertheless, when the octet returns to the venue on October 17, the house will undoubtedly be full once again and the applause will be thunderous. Simply put, no one else does with a song what these ukulele virtuosos do. Whether they reimagine the rock band Nirvana's classic "Smells Like Teen Spirit"—a live version by the orchestra has nearly two million hits on YouTube—or take on music by Mozart, the Sex Pistols, Ennio Morricone, Hank Williams, or Lady Gaga, the Ukes (as their devotees call them) leave slack-jawed, ecstatic audiences in their wake.

"What we tried to do with the Ukulele Orchestra from the beginning was to establish a territory free from pretention and the hoopla that goes with the worst aspects of the music business," says Hinchliffe. "We try to keep some flavor of what we like about music while avoiding some of the other stuff. Picking an instrument that is limited in terms of its pitch range seemed like a good thing for us. It's almost like doing pencil drawings instead of oil paintings."

But just how do they choose their eclectic material? "If you've got infinite possibilities, it's sometimes hard to think of what to do. But if you've only got a restrictive palette, sometimes that acts as a stimulus, trying to make something convincing with some limitations," Hinchliffe says. "One of the key things we do is to try to find a little bit of a twist on a well-known tune. So sometimes the really cheesy, corny tune or the hackneyed and clichéd tune is exactly the one that we should be playing."

The group formed in 1985 and the current lineup has been together since 1995. The Ukes have performed all around the world and have helped bring a new respectability to an instrument that, until recent years, was considered a toy by some. "There's now a uke scene," says Hinchliffe. "Tom Petty's got one and Springsteen is playing it. Paul McCartney is an enthusiast. And we now seem to represent something in the uke scene because we've been around such a long time."

Hinchliffe won't say if the group plans any surprises for its New York date—they may even toss a couple of original compositions into the mix. They like to change the repertoire around, and one of the Ukes' goals, he says, is to introduce fans to songs they might not know. Whatever they come up with, their concert will be a memorable experience. "We've got a reputation for an entertaining show that the audience will feel good about," Hinchliffe says. "In a way, we're victims of having stumbled across something that people have latched onto."

—Jeff Tamarkin is a veteran freelance music journalist.

Ticket holders: Download a PDF score of George Hinchliffe's Relentlessly In C, then bring your ukulele to the performance and play along.

Download explanatory notes for the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain Relentlessly In C participation piece.


The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain explains, "For participants at Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain concerts, who are intending to join in with "Relentlessly In C", this video gives a clue of how the music might sound. This recording was dashed off in the dressing room of the Royal Hall, Harrogate, England in September 2012 ten minutes before showtime, in response to requests for guidance on how the notation might be interpreted.

Get a flavor of what to expect by watching this video of the orchestra's appearance at London's Royal Albert Hall during the 2009 BBC Proms.

$10 student rush tickets available in the balcony, center balcony, dress circle, and dress circle partial view. 
This performance is part of Around the Globe.