Review: Shimabukuro shines with HSO
REVIEW BY RUTH BINGHAM / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Saturday’s Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra premiere of Byron Yasui’s Concerto for Ukulele, composed for internationally known virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, might not be the first ever — you can Google that — but it’s likely the first you’ve had a chance to hear live.
Most concertos are written for standard orchestral instruments (violin, flute, trumpet, piano), but some stretch expectations (percussion, tuba, saxophone, the orchestra itself).
And then there are those that borrow from other traditions to try something entirely new: there are concertos for alphorn, harmonica, hurdy-gurdy, bagpipe, erhu, harmonica, accordion, balalaika, didgeridoo and so on.
Whatever the instrument, someone somewhere has probably composed a concerto for it.
Until now, showcasing the ukulele has consisted largely of standard ukulele repertoire accompanied by orchestra.
With this concerto, 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.
Adhering to concerto tradition, Yasui created three movements: the first arresting and compact; the second more meandering, exploratory and sensitive; and the third fiery, its expression and drive the most free-flowing. Each movement stretched the ukulele’s possibilities, from gently blurred plucking to climactic tutti strumming.
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.
Not surprisingly, many in the almost capacity audience were there to hear local celebrity Shimabukuro, who danced, swayed and conducted his way through an amazing ukulele performance.
The opening of the second movement was like raindrops on a quiet afternoon, and Shimabukuro’s duets with harpist Constance Uejio were entrancing, his final delicate chord with harp and bells a gentle goodbye kiss.
Shimabukuro’s cadenzas shone and his climaxes exploded, bringing the audience to a standing ovation.
When it was over, Shimabukuro was overcome with emotion and thanked Yasui, his teacher, friend and mentor, along with a host of others who have supported him along the way, as well as his family, which is celebrating the birth of the Shimabukuros’ second baby two weeks ago.
“It was such an honor to perform,” he said. “This was the most important concert of my life tonight. The Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra: They’re the best. Thank you.”
Applause kept rolling, and Shimabukuro finally offered an encore, “Pianoforte” (2010), one of his own compositions. It was a duet between ukulele and violin by concertmaster Ignace (“Iggy”) Jang in counterpoint, a piece so achingly sweet as to break hearts.
Conductor JoAnn Falletta proved an excellent choice for this world premiere, deftly navigating the challenges, keeping all parts balanced and working together smoothly, and delivering graceful interpretations of the music. A skillful conductor, she kept the focus on the music and musicians.
Under her guidance, the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra is once again developing the aural cohesion of a symphony orchestra, which is so much more than simply a group of musicians.
Despite occasional uneven entrances and phasing on Saturday night, the overall sound was symphonic, a promise of even better to come.
Falletta and the orchestra ended the evening with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, “The Titan,” which elicited a second standing ovation. The enthusiasm of the audience and its appreciation of the orchestra and its many soloists featured in “The Titan” were delightful.
Shimabukuro capped the evening by returning to the stage to give Falletta her lei, eliciting another round of enthusiastic applause.