Mondavi Center

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain takes the instrument in surprising musical directions.

Ukulele orchestra bring irreverent approach to Mondavi Center

Published: Friday, Apr. 5, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 4TICKET
Last Modified: Saturday, Apr. 6, 2013 - 9:06 am

When asked how the 27-year-old Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain has managed to stay together through many tours and other challenges, founding member George Hinchliffe likened it to how the Rolling Stones have kept it together so many years.

"They used to play music so that they could do drugs and sex, and now they take drugs so they can do music and have sex," said Hinchliffe.

That unexpected irreverence and dry wit define the charm of Hinchliffe and the eight-member ukulele orchestra.

The London-based orchestra will make a rare appearance at the Mondavi Center next Friday in a concert where the ukulele in many sizes and guises will be used to perform music ranging from rock to classical.

"We'll be doing arrangements of songs like 'Born to be Wild' and 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' as well as some old punk songs," said Hinchliffe, who has been playing the ukulele since age 6. Also on the program will be arrangements of classical works such as "Danse Macabre" by Saint-Saëns.

On stage the orchestra performs more like a string quartet – with players clad in black suits and bow ties. They will sit and play their instruments.

"We will let the music speak for itself," said Hinchliffe.

The Bee spoke with Hinchliffe about this unusual orchestra, which is riding the crest of the ukulele's renewed popularity.

What's the appeal of a uke orchestra?

It started with a handful of friends in London who had been in other bands or orchestras. I think we all felt like there was quite a lot of pretentiousness and insincerity to be found in rock 'n' roll and classical.

So you were searching for something different?

When we started it, people were choosing the ukulele because it had some sort of "outsider" status. It was off the radar. We liked that it was sort of this communally orientated instrument.

I understand the orchestra's first gig was a sell-out?

We put an advert in London's Time Out. People saw it and came along. There must have been something about the appeal of it. It seemed as though we touched a nerve because within a fortnight of the first gig we were on BBC. After that someone asked us to make an album, and then Sony records called from Japan wanting to license the album.

How many concerts does the orchestra play yearly?

Over a hundred.

Why do you think the orchestra idea resonated?

It must be that there is something really entertaining about it. When we talk to the press they latch on to the fact that it's a ukulele orchestra, and of course we get a sizable minority of ukulele enthusiasts. But I certainly don't think the appeal would have lasted to the extent it has if we had only been appealing to just people who were crazy about the ukulele.

What's the instrument lineup?

There is one bass and one baritone ukulele as well as a tenor uke, and several concert and soprano ukuleles. And we also have a couple of sopranino ukuleles that we bring out for certain pieces of music.

Are these like miniatures?

Yes. We have three different sizes of miniatures. One is a scaled-down form of a soprano ukulele. There is one a couple of inches shorter than that. Then there's one much smaller made by a guy in Germany. And then there is a pocket ukulele.

How do you play something that small?

It's not impossible. We even have a very small one made by a Hawaiian manufacturer that was made as an exercise to see if they could make a playable small instrument. It's nicely made and it is possible to get a certain amount of music from it. The limitations are that your fingers may be too big, but they're perfectly playable.

Why the focus on going small?

The ukulele is such a small instrument it seemed that we could exaggerate that. We do it as much for the entertainment possibilities as for the musical ones.

Do you see the ukulele as having a big musical influence on people?

I've met a lot of guitarists through playing the uke, and a lot of them relate that they have reached this state where they're jaded with the guitar and the pressures of playing beautiful music virtuosically all the time. Or maybe it's that the technique and repertoire they are playing has gotten a bit old. And then they find their interest in music revived by just having a bit of fun with the ukulele – to the point that they're able to go back to the guitar and rediscover the joy of music that started them off in the first place.


When: 8 p.m. April 12

Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center, UC Davis

Tickets: $25-$75

Information: (530) 754-2787;

Call The Bee's Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.

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