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Tell George Hinchliffe that he and his ensemble are to the ukulele what Victor Borge was to the piano, and he will be very pleased indeed.
Borge, as you may know, was the undisputed clown prince of concert keyboardists — a comedic virtuoso whose laugh-inducing sight gags and stage patter almost belied his immense skill on the ivories.
In a similar vein, Hinchliffe’s talented and typically eight-member Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain has made a global name for itself by deftly performing unique and comically infused arrangements of everything from classical classics to rock anthems on an instrument that’s made a comeback of late but rarely is considered a counterpart to Borge’s Bösendorfer. Because, let’s be honest, it isn’t. But it’s far more than a jokey prop that accompanies disconcerting renditions of and (RIP, Herbert Buckingham Khaury).
In the beginning, nearly 35 years ago, Hinchliffe and his mates began strumming together just for grins. They converged from disparate realms — theater, folk, rock, orchestral — and were all, Hinchliffe says, “a bit fed up with the egomania of the music business and getting ripped off and being the artists at the bottom of the list.”
As long as they weren’t losing money, they figured, there was only an up side. Before long, audiences caught on despite the fact that ukulele music wasn’t exactly booming in mid-1980s Britain. As remains the case, patrons were attracted as much by the musicians as the music. This group was obviously having a good time — or doing a great job pretending.
“One of the reasons to choose the ukulele was that there was no sort of pedigree for it,” said Hinchliffe, ahead of his group’s performance March 20 in a Symphony Center Presents Special Concert. “The thought was that if we were playing the electric guitar, people would say, ‘It’s not like Hendrix or Waters or Page. And if we were playing the violin, they’d say, ‘It’s not like [Jascha] Heifetz or Yehudi Menuhin or Stephane Grappelli. And so it kind of leveled the playing field for doing something different.”
Serious musicians who don’t take themselves seriously, at least not onstage, Hinchliffe and crew reinvent and reinvigorate lots of well-known hits ranging from Ennio Morricone’s theme to and Otis Redding’s swaggering to The Who’s mega-hit (as a sea shanty) and a rollicking interpretation of the Talking Heads tune That’s not to say they’ll do all or any of those in Chicago, but it’s sure to be a pleasing and varied program in any case.
“We had a bit of correspondence with David Bowie and have done a few of his songs, and he said he liked it,” Hinchliffe said of the late rock legend. Collaborators Brian Eno and Cat Stevens have been gracious as well.
In choosing material, Hinchliffe reports, the key is identifying pieces that are musically interesting from a composition and harmony standpoint. Those that rely primarily on the original singer’s unique voice or on production effects work less well. Some pieces are chosen purely for purposes of comedic cognitive dissonance. Say, for instance, AC/DC’s hard-rocking “Back in Black,” or a selection from the Black Sabbath songbook.
Whatever the song, this is the ukulele as many have never head it — and it’s heard plenty these days. Almost four decades after The Ukulele Orchestra’s inauspicious birth, its once-dismissed instrument of choice continues to enjoy a resurgence in the hands of soloists and ensembles alike.
“And if people want to blame us,” said Hinchliffe, “we’re happy to take it.”
Mike Thomas, a Chicago-based writer, is the author of the books You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman and Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater.