BWW Interview: George Hinchliffe of UKULELE ORCHESTRA OF GREAT BRITAIN at Peace Center
They've played Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House, and even a private birthday party for the Queen. Now the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain arrives in Greenville, SC, to play the Peace Center on Tuesday, April 17.
We recently spoke to founding member George Hinchliffe about the group's origins, what audiences can expect to hear during a show, and even some tips for up and coming ukulele players. Speaking of which, ticket holders are invited to attend a masterclass with the Ukulele Orchestra on April 18.
BWW: How did the group begin?
It started off in 1985, in London, with the idea of being a bit of fun and it somehow captured people's imagination. And we're still doing it, strangely.
BWW: How long have you personally been playing
Oh crikey, the ukulele was my first instrument I played when I was a kid, when I was 8 years old or something like that. And then I went on to other instruments, learned all sorts of things, and then round about, oh, my late twenties, early thirties, I went back to playing the ukulele seemingly full time. It seems to have kept us all busy for quite a long time.
BWW: What kind of uke do you typically use?
I often play a tenor, and with the orchestra I often use one tuned up slightly eccentrically, like it's a violin or a mandolin, to get more range, because I'm often the one to play the tune. And then I've got normal ukulele tunings, sometimes low G, sometimes high G, and we commissioned some electric ukuleles from our friend - and my co-founder - who builds violins and instruments, and he made these electric ukuleles which you don't plug in, they've got built in electronics. Normally I just use one on tour, but at home I've got lots. I keep finding them down behind the couch - oh, look, there are ten more down there...
BWW: What can people expect from a show?
Well, when we come on stage the first impressions are that we are a very prim and proper, staid sort-of orchestra, with black suits and bow ties and dresses and stuff. And we sit behind music stands, and then it all starts to go a bit crazy as time goes on. And we usually take it very lighthearted and we try to bring all sorts of music across the genres into play, from classical music to punk and grunge and rock & roll and country and some oddities that don't quite fit anywhere.
BWW: How has the show evolved over the years?
We used to do more wacky stuff, obscure music, so people sometimes used to say, "It's a bit esoteric and far out, the stuff that you're playing." Whereas now, people tend to come up and say, "This is all a bit accessible and populist, isn't it," so we say, "Oh, how interesting to have criticism that the show is too popular." Maybe that's a good thing.
BWW: I think the first video I saw of your group was The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
The composer of that [Ennio Morricone] was the godfather of one of our founder members! She's not playing with us anymore. but that's why we started doing that one. But you know, film themes and TV themes are a rich vein that we've mined. So after that one, we did the theme from Bonanza and Beverly Hillbillies and that sort of stuff.
BWW: What are some of the numbers in your current show?
Let's see...we've got "Highway to Hell," AC/DC, it seems to work quite well. And then "Holiday for Strings," a David Rose instrumental thing, and "Montagues and Capulets" by Prokofiev, Blondie's "Picture This," a bit of Joni Mitchell -- we kind of get it across the board.
BWW: And you do the arranging?
Well, if there's going to be an overt arrangement that's written down, it usually starts off with me. Sometimes everybody chips in ideas and we evolve the thing together. Often, of course, whatever we come up with as an arrangement, everybody has to find their way of playing it. It's all very well to have the notes written down, but finding the idiomatic way of playing it on the ukulele so that it comes across sometimes takes a bit of finding. Playing the notes straight doesn't always work as effectively as finding the right combination of ukulele techniques. So instead of everybody playing the same thing, each instrument plays a different figuration, or a different part. Often they're quite simple things that when they fit together sound complementary. In order to make an orhcestral piece or a rock piece work, sometimes it's necessary to find different styles for each person.
When we're doing the music, we're trying to respect the text and bring out the musicality of the original piece. Sometimes we bend it quite a bit, but not just for effect. Usually we try to find something in it that brings out the hidden beauty of the thing or find an effective way to put the tune across.
BWW: Do you have any tips for people who might want to start playing ukulele?
Yeah, there's the old story, that the definition of a gentleman or a lady would be, you can play the ukulele and you might take it along to the party, but you're too polite to play it. [laughs] But the tips I would say, learn three pieces of music from start to finish that you can play all the way through at the same speed. Lots of people who begin can play a tune, but they play the hard bits slowly and the easy bits quickly and I think it's a good idea to play the whole thing slowly and then speed the whole thing up. So learn three tunes and play them to people, the most arresting one first, the thought-provoking one in the middle, and the one with the best finish at the end. Then you've got a little concert and people will say, well, they can do a show, let's book them. Then when you get a booking, you've got to learn, I don't know, eighteen other tunes...
THE UKULELE ORCHESTRA OF GREAT BRITAIN
Tuesday, April 17, 2018 • 7:30 PM
Peace Center, Greenville, SC
To reserve seats call the box office at 864-467-3000 or visit peacecenter.org.
Strings Master Class - April 18 at 10 AM
From the curious music-lover to the life-long classical enthusiast, the Peace Center makes classical music accessible to all with unforgettable performances, artist talk backs, and master classes.