On Tuesday, 18 August 2009, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain was a headline act at the BBC Proms, an annual festival more formally known as the Henry Wood Promenade. The BBC Proms goes on for about ten weeks and includes dozens of concerts in London’s Royal Albert Hall, as well as chamber music performances in nearby Cadogan Hall and a variety of lectures, films, and other fringe events devoted to music. The UOGB’s performance at this year’s Proms was a big hit; here’s a high-resolution picture of the audience (beware, it can hypnotize you; I just spent three solid minutes trying to follow people’s lines of sight and figure out who was looking at whom,) and an article from The New York Times (the NYT piece is the same one I linked to in my review of the UOGB’s album Live in London #2, if it looks familiar to you that may be why.)
A DVD of the performance went to press on the 3rd of this month, and today a copy of that DVD arrived at the Acilius household.
The UOGB has already released audio tracks of ten of the fifteen songs from this set. Performances of “Anarchy in the UK,” “Life on Mars,” “Teenage Dirtbag,” “Pinball Wizard,” “The Dambusters March,” “Melange,” and “Wuthering Heights” can be found on Live in London #1; “Silver Machine” and “Thunderball” are on Live in London #2; “Psycho Killer” is on Precious Little. Two songs, “Anarchy in the UK” and “Life on Mars,” are already available on their previous DVD, Anarchy in the Ukulele. The five numbers that are new to disc are “Puffin’ Billy,” ”The Ride of the Valkyries,” “Danse Macabre,” a fragment of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “arranged for 1008 ukuleles”; and “Jerusalem.” Of those five, “Puffin’ Billy” is chiefly a setup for “Anarchy in the UK,” and “The Ride of the Valkyries,” while an astounding example of musicianship, turns out to be an extended intro for “Silver Machine.” Is it really worth paying £15.00 plus postage for so much old rope?
I say yes, emphatically yes. The disc records not only fifteen fine performances, but an extraordinary moment in the history of the ukulele. The most anticipated number was the Beethoven fragment, the UOGB leading 1000 audience members in the “Ode to Joy.” The camera pans through the audience, showing hundreds of ecstatic faces. A DVD extra shows the rehearsal the UOGB did with the uke-bearing members of the audience beforehand. The “Ode to Joy” is of course a setting of a poem about universal brotherhood; it’s a bit breath-taking to know that and see such a large and diverse crowd join in playing the piece. It’s almost a shame that UOGB does such a good job with the “Ode to Joy”; I wish it could become part of their regular repertoire, but where will they find 1000 sidemen to accompany every performance?
Emotions clearly ran high in the hall throughout the concert. Towards the beginning, Dave Suich recalls his last visit to the Royal Albert Hall, when he paid five shillings to sit in the gallery and listen to Black Sabbath. Peering up, apparently at the spot those five shillings had bought him, he seems amazed to be on stage. When Hester introduces ”Teenage Dirtbag,” she makes a joke that it’s a poignant song for her because she’d expected to be alone on Prom Night; as she mentions the 6000 people in the hall and tens of thousands more listening on BBC 3, she loses her comic timing and seems to choke up. High definition usually isn’t a friend to anyone over 30; Hester is an exception. She doesn’t look a tenth of her true age, and the flicker of emotion on her face in that moment is worth a great deal. When I talked about Hester’s “Teenage Dirtbag” in my review of Live in London #1, I summarized it as a “ballad of adolescent lesbian angst”; it’s sobering to see how many visitors still come to this site having googled “hester goodman lesbian.” At the risk of drawing more of that traffic, I’ll say that the human race would be the poorer if some among us did not go through adolescent lesbian angst. I’d go so far as to label adolescent sexual angst in all its forms as an indispensable part of the human experience. Hester has produced a powerful testament to that form of adolescent angst, and my hat’s off to her for it. Not only mine; Mrs Acilius turned to me as we were watching ”Teenage Dirtbag” and said the song filled her with pride every time she hears Hester sing it.
In a DVD extra showing the players getting ready, Kitty Lux confides to the camera that singing “Jerusalem” as a solo in the Royal Albert Hall is “a dream come true.” Introducing it on stage, she confesses that she isn’t sure she has the “temerity” to do it. She wasn’t feigning the nerves; she stumbles over the lines at one point, and at the end Richie and Will touch her shoulders to reassure her. With so much strong feeling, it’s only right that by the end of the evening hundreds in the audience are waving their ukuleles above their heads in time with the music.
I don’t want to give the impression that it’s all about weeping the tears of inspiration. “Puffin’ Billy,” a tune used as the theme song for a number of radio and TV programs for small children, leads into an especially hilarious rendition of “Anarchy in the UK.” ”Ride of the Valkyries” and “Silver Machine” are a humorous pairing, and would get laughs even if Dave hadn’t made a comment comparing the “European” Wagner piece with the “British” rock tune. Peter plays it cool singing “Thunderball,” letting the words get the laughs. The moment in “Pinball Wizard” when the other seven shout at George to “Shu-duppa-yo-face!” is hilarious as audio, even funnier with video.
I first heard Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” in school when I was a little boy. The recording our music teacher played for us featured pizzicato very prominently. I asked him what instrument that was; he said the violin, plucked rather than bowed. I wanted to sign up for violin lessons on the spot. What I really wanted, I now realize, was a ukulele. The UOGB’s version of the piece lets ukuleles sound like themselves, rather than trying to use violins to substitute for them. While George introduces the piece by warning us that the ukukele doesn’t have enough sustain to play the “Danse Macabre” quite the way Saint-Saens wrote it, the version they play is thoroughly excellent. Not least in its ability to get the listener up and dancing.
Most of the performances are the same musically as the versions on their albums, but the video adds a great deal nonetheless. For example, listening to ”Psycho Killer” on Precious Little, you hear a rousing song and suspect that it’s supposed to be funny somehow. Seeing Will play the role of a seriously disturbed person as he sings about being a “psycho killer,” you laugh at the absurdity of the song, even while you want to dance.
The obvious place to end the set was with the “Ode to Joy,” but since most of the audience had just attended a rehearsal of that one, it wouldn’t have been much of a climax. The regular program ends rousingly enough with the “Dambusters March”; the first encore, “Melange,” would also have been a suitable conclusion, amazing the audience as it does with the UOGB’s ability to keep a common thread while each member of the band is alternating between 3 or 4 songs, most of which are solos. The second encore, “Wuthering Heights,” gives the audience the satisfaction of shouting “Heathcliffe!” en masse, but otherwise seems to be an odd choice to wind the concert up. Still, it’s very strong overall, and I recommend it highly.