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Ukulele Wizard at the BPO

Ukulele Wizard at the BPO
Superstar Jake Shimabukuro brings the ukulele to center stage

Music director JoAnn Falletta returns to the podium for this weekend’s Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s concerts on Saturday (11/7) at 8pm and Sunday (11/8) at 2:30pm. The concerts will feature the BPO debut of ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro as the soloist in Byron Yasui’s Ukulele Concerto, a new work commissioned by the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra which was composed especially for him. JoAnn Falletta is also the music director of that orchestra, and she was on the podium for the very well-received premiere of the concerto this past June. Shimabukuro’s career skyrocketed after someone posted a virtuosic youtube video of him playing George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in 2006, making him an international sensation, and he soon found himself touring with artists like Jimmy Buffett, Béla Fleck and Yo-Yo Ma.

The BPO has a very rich tradition of programming concertos which were composed for solo instruments that fall far outside of the more usual parameters represented by the instruments found within the traditional makeup of the symphony orchestra. Dating as far back as 1970, Lukas Foss led the BPO in a memorable concert which featured Ali Akbar Khan, the leading virtuoso on the sarod, an Indian stringed instrument, in Ragas for the Sarod with “Geod” that was then followed by Khan giving probably the lengthiest encore ever heard on a BPO program, lasting over a half an hour. Much more recently, Ge Xu was the soloist on the erhu, a Chinese two-stringed instrument in Chen Yi’s Anthiphony, while in 2013 Béla Fleck was the soloist in his own Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra.

Given this remarkable willingness to program concertos for instruments that fall well outside the mainstream, one might reasonably ask: why did it take so long to program a concerto that featured the ukulele in the solo spotlight? One of the main reasons is that works for ukulele and orchestra are rarer than hen’s teeth. Part of the reason for that has to be the fact that the ukulele is a quiet instrument with a very soft sound. While it is notoriously difficult to compose a well-balanced concerted work for the guitar and symphony orchestra, it has to be far more problematic to compose the same kind of work featuring the ukulele in a solo role. So it is perhaps understandable that the BPO is billing Yasui’s work as “the world’s first Ukulele Concerto.” Yet somewhat surprisingly, it turns out that Yasui’s concerto for ukulele is not the first for the instrument. Back in 1999 the Wallingford Connecticut Symphony Orchestra commissioned Jim Beloff to write a ukulele concerto, and they have since programmed his Uke Can’t Be Serious: A Concerto for Ukulele and Symphony Orchestra several times.

Yet, as a reviewer of the premiere of the new concerto noted “Yasui has brought the ukulele fully into the classical music realm, not as a novelty, but on equal footing with orchestral instruments. It’s probably safe to venture that no other concerto has so fully explored the ukulele’s potential, techniques and range of expression. Yasui was able to balance the softer ukulele timbre with the large orchestra by amplifying the ukulele and through careful scoring. Most impressively, Yasui was able to achieve that balance without constraining the orchestra’s power.”

“Because I was aware of the balance problem, whenever the ukulele is playing, just a few instruments are accompanying it,” Yasui said in an interview. “But then the full orchestra comes in without the ukulele…There are very few times when the full orchestra is playing along with the ukulele. It’s not traditional classical music. It’s contemporary symphonic music with meter changes, complex rhythms, and almost atonal melodies and harmonies.”

The program has a definite exotic flavor, as it also includes the Symphony No. 1: A Night in the Tropics, by the Civil War era, American Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Two works by 20th century French composers add more spice to the mix: Albert Roussel’s Suite No. 2 from his mythologically themed ballet Bacchus et Ariane which describes the abduction of Ariadne by the god Dionysus and Jacques Ibert’s Escales (Ports of Call), which was inspired by his experiences of Mediterranean ports while he was serving in the French navy during World War I.

Jake Shimabukuro will also offer an hour-long ukulele workshop at Kleinhans on Saturday at 3pm. Tickets to the free event can be reserved on the BPO webpage.

Information: 885-5000 or

Mozart Requiem

On Friday November 6 at 7:30pm the Choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral in downtown Buffalo will present a performance of Mozart’s Requiem, one of the most beloved sacred works in the classical music repertory. But, the Requiem will not be performed as you might expect at St. Paul’s Cathedral, but rather at St. Louis’s Roman Catholic Church, located at the corner of Main and Goodell streets in the Theater District. The soloists for the performance are mezzo-soprano Ann Louise Glasser, tenor Jeffery Thompson and bass James Wright. Jonathan Scarozza, director of music and organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral will conduct the orchestra made up of the musicians of the Buffalo Chamber Players, many of whom are also members of the BPO.

Tickets: $20, Students: $10.

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