One of the most unusual musical groups to grace the Irvine Barclay stage is the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (UOGB) performing unusual renditions of rock, folk classical and movie themes. They will spread their special magic at the Barclay on March 27.

UOGB Musical Director/Founder George Hinchiffe provided detailed, often humorous responses to questions, from his home in the UK: “The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is looking forward to bringing its magisterially depraved view of the culture of popular music to the Irvine Barclay Theatre,” he said. “Appearing in Southern California with crowd-pleasing, stomping, poignant, rocking, thought-provoking, swinging music; groovy plucking, heartfelt singing, virtuosic whistling, and an irreverent deflation of pomposity all served up in the Orchestra’s fine-tuned and integrated entertainment will surely be a complete hoot for performers and audiences whatever their ages or individual musical tastes. Can’t wait to be there!”

IRVINE WEEKLY: When was the Ukulele Orchestra first created?

George Hinchiffe (Photo by Graham Hardy)

Hinchiffe: The group first got together in 1985 shortly after the founders moved from Leeds to London. The Orchestra’s roots are in theatre, music, performance, rock, art, soul and punk scenes in Leeds in the 1970s.

Who created the group? 

The idea was George Hinchliffe’s though the initial founders (Kitty Lux, Andy Astle, Jo Brindley and George) spent some time debating whether they should be called the Ukulele Orchestra of Westminster, Bermondsey, London, South London, Kent, England, Britain, Europe, the world, the known universe. Great Britain seemed to strike the right balance between hubris and irony.

What is the concept behind unusual performances? 

The concept was intended as the antidote to existing conventions of popular music, celebrity, genre specialization and business practice. The ukulele was chosen because it was not widely used or easily obtainable in the UK. Early rehearsals established key elements of performance: quasi formal dress, specially designed music stands, and everyone had to sing. Humor or at least a light-hearted approach was preferred, though overt jokes were avoided. Critics have however often opined that the whole darned enterprise is a joke.

What musical groups inspired you? 

The Orchestra was influenced by The Mound City Blue Blowers, The Velvet Underground, Spike Jones, Flanders and Swan, The Portsmouth Sinfonia, Victor Borge, Los Lobos, The Quintette du Hot Club de France, Cornelius Cardew, Wild Man Fischer and Skiffle.

Where did your group first perform? 

Our first live appearance was at the Roebuck, Trinity Church Square, London. Within a year, we played several gigs, including in Belgium, were on national radio and TV in the UK. Our first album and concerts in USA and Canada followed quickly.

How was your first performance received?

The venue was crowded and well received, and it was decided that what might have been a “one off” performance should become an ongoing enterprise.

Photo by Dave Suich

Please list a few other venues you have performed in.

The Orchestra has played at major rock festivals, private parties for royal families and in the smallest pub in Britain. Venues include St David’s Cathedral, Windsor Castle, Glastonbury Festival, Carnegie Hall, Sidney Opera House, Buckingham Palace, Filthy McNasty’s Bar, Salisbury Cathedral, Sixpenny Handley Village Hall, The Quattro Club, Hiroshima, Vienna Opera House, Shanghai Symphony Hall and Althorp House. Theatres and rock festivals are some of the most congenial locations for performance, though we have performed at folk, literary, comedy, classical, pop, and beer festivals. All venues have their own magic and constraints. But the key element is engagement with the audience.

In your early years, what kind of music did you play? 

We played music from established genres on what were thought to be the wrong instruments. To take a cue from the title of our latest album, we only play ukuleles, and thus we give the audience “One Plucking Thing After Another.”

How do you choose the popular music, jazz, film tunes and classical music selections?

Musical merit has to be present in the composition, be it an interesting chord sequence, a lovely melody or a relentlessly boring and hypnotic tonal monotony, which can have an appeal all its own. The UOGB avoids comic, parody or kitsch songs; these can sound “over-egged” when given the band’s treatment. Some hit songs are already parodies of certain genres and thus are best avoided. A ukulele reworking could make them too rich, arch, camp, mannered, or knowing. Though sometimes going over the top has its merits.

To what do you attribute your stunning, ongoing success?

When the Orchestra first started performing, the style and choice of repertoire seemed unusual to most audiences. It was deemed thought-provoking, eccentric and surprising. Since then, a number of things have changed, including the fact that it is now something of a trend to play a range of genres, including rock music and classical music on ukuleles, a concept originated by the UOGB.

The more rigid notions of genre distinction and focus on “new” music, prevalent in the pre-Internet era, have given way to a more eclectic acceptance of music, from the history of pop music and a willingness to accept material from what were once more partisan genres. At first, the Orchestra seemed strange, ridiculous, and even noteworthy, and thus attracted some attention as well as criticism. As time went on, the Orchestra became more accepted and known in theatres all over the world. We hold our hands out to the audience and say: “Join us, meet us half-way, let’s have a good time together.”

Please list some of your favored compositions.

Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre,” Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” Elmer Bernstein’s “The Magnificent Seven,” Lou Reed’s ”I’m Waiting For My Man,” and Syd Barrett’s “Baby Lemonade.”

Audiences also like us playing “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” theme by Ennio Morricone, “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush, “Heroes” by David Bowie, “Gimme All Your Loving” by ZZ Top, and “Psycho Killer” by David Byrne.

We first prepared “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” years ago. The theme is well known, memorable and has interesting orchestrations, which are amusing with ukulele versions. The peculiar vocal noises and the whistling are challenges.

As musical culture is represented in our repertoire, we include cartoon music, film music, nursery rhymes, cliched rock songs, old country tunes, classical music and examples of “light music.” There is a rich vein of western themes such as the “Bonanza” theme. We also include the “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” Tchaikovsky’s Sugar Plum Fairy” and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”

Sometimes there is humor in delivering a successful version of a composition, as laughter comes from joy, not just from satire or slapstick. A good composition, a good melody or a good musical sequence can be revealed in fresh ways via a ukulele orchestration. The economy of instrumental resources and timbres of the instrument throws the quality of the composition into relief, revealing its integrity in ways that a symphonic interpretation might obscure with a richer palette of timbre and sonic color.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain will perform at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Sunday, March 27 at 3 PM. To order tickets for this and other upcoming performances, check out its Get Ready It’s Showtime brochure. Or go to: Contact the Box Office, 949-854-4646. 4242 Campus Dr, Irvine, CA 92612.  

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