Just once in a while a real zeitgeist-Prom comes our way; this unassuming late-night concert by the eight-strong Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain absolutely encapsulated the spirit of the age. Inviting the audience to join in during a sell-out performance at the Royal Albert Hall was a stroke of genius since about 1,000 ukulele players took up the challenge to set a new (if unofficial) world record and even those that just came to watch seemed to catch the bug.
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (UOGB) have been steadily plucking their way to the top since they were founded for a one-off gig at the back of a pub in 1985. Something about their combination of formal evening wear, reasonably dead-pan delivery and astonishingly developed musicianship wrong-footed the Prom audience, as the less knowing amongst them were initially unsure if they were allowed to laugh out loud or not. At about five-to-ten Verity Sharp appeared on stage with Hester, George, Will and Jonty from the UOGB to take ukulele-wielding fans through a quick tuning session and Beethoven's Ode To Joy. Over a thousand taut strings twanged at once and immediately the murmuring fell silent – we were, en masse, having a 'moment'. There was an oddly ethereal quality to Beethoven's first pluck which I attributed to the combination of so many like sounds; was there ever a more powerful illustration of solidarity?
The rehearsal over and the full UOGB appeared on stage to huge applause and immediately tapped into the collective subconscious by starting with a light-music classic, Edward White's Puffin’ Billy. Amusingly the three repeated notes that begin the opening motif sounded more like the Psycho theme when played on the high-tension Ukulele string. This was followed immediately with a sing-along 'Anarchy in the UK' by the Sex Pistols and then two songs that “celebrated travel,” Ride of the Valkyries and 'Silver Machine'. Brilliant stuff. The next item was what I consider to be the quintessential UOGB experience, a medley. In other concerts of theirs this has been staged as an argument between the players over which song to sing next resulting in them all singing their own choices at once, but this evening, utterly dead-pan of course, Jonty decided to sing a song about 'plagiarism, that wasn't our own idea' and launched in to 'Life on Mars'. Is pop music really so formulaic or are these arrangements more than usually expert? Whichever it is, when George joined in with 'My Way' his melody overlapped so convincingly that I almost didn't notice Peter creep into the texture with 'For Once in My Life,' and my jaw was on the floor in amazement when Hester burst on the scene with 'Born Free' to be followed by Dave's 'Substitute'. It's that sort of cleverness, presented so unassumingly that takes the UOGB way beyond mere novelty.
Other highlights of the evening were Peter's rendition of 'Thunderball' with his West-End quality high notes and Hester's angelic voice in 'Teenage Dirtbag'. She bought unexpected pathos to this contemporary classic and despite a barely suppressed middle-class giggle at the line 'her boyfriend's a dick…' the audience were drinking it in. 'Serious' classical music (Danse macabre and Jerusalem) rubbed shoulders with Will's pent-up 'Psycho Killer' until the moment we had all been waiting for – the massed Ode to Joy was upon us. It sounded beautiful, even with the lack of sustain on the ukulele, as players dotted throughout the audience plucked away unabashed as they were gawped at by the uninitiated or photographed by total strangers. Who said classical music was dead? The concert ended with a folksy a cappella 'Pinball Wizard' (think Steeleye Span) and the March from Dambusters.
No one in the audience bothered with the usual scrabble for the tube station. Instead they all stayed to give a heartfelt standing ovation and stamped with all their might until they got what they wanted, an encore. Well, two actually – one of which was another inspired medley including 'Hey Jude', 'Angels' and 'You Sexy Thing'. Genius.
Will the ukulele orchestra do for classical music what Sting did for Dowland? Actually they've been doing it for a while and my guess is they are more than a fad, I think they have an enduring appeal that will play itself out across the boundaries of classical, folk and pop music for many years to come. Of course, I'd love it if they did a Dowland album too; it's all the rage. Will someone suggest it to them?
By Ed Breen
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