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An unlikely ensemble: The Philadelphia Ukulele Orchestra

Musician Chris MalCarney always thought he’d break into music through rock ‘n’ roll. But then he founded a 12-piece ukulele ensemble.

The Trocadero, one of Philadelphia's oldest and most reputable concert venues, has hosted some of the biggest names in rock 'n' roll. A lawyer by trade, Chris MalCarney has been in several rock bands in the past and thought that if he were ever to take the stage of the Troc, it would be with one of the greats. But that was before the ukulele entered his life.

MalCarney was given a Ukulele as a Christmas gift six years ago, and didn't think much of it at first. But soon he got some friends together and started playing some of his favorite standards. They worked up a repertoire, and soon began playing gigs. Before their first performance MalCarney humorously admits, "I thought I had talked 11 other people into doing something really stupid." But, on the contrary, the Orchestra was quickly embraced, and what started as a simple amusement for MalCarney has spawned into the Philadelphia Ukulele Orchestra, a 12-piece ensemble, who have since played at the Trocadero, the Kimmel Center, WXPN, and whose next venture will bring them to University City for the 40th Street Summer Series this Saturday, June 29th.

The group itself is composed of musicians of many different backgrounds and skills, the most recent addition being a bass player, who joined in January of this year. Having a bass player "has added a whole new dimension" says MalCarney. But perhaps one of the most notable members of the group is Larry Zerone, or Mr. Zee, as the other members call him, who, at 83 years of age, has been playing the compact instrument for over 60 years. Zerone Graduated from Villanova University in 1951 with a degree in Chemical Engineering, but the ukulele has always played a prominent role in his life, especially since joining the Orchestra. He now proclaims it is his life's duty to "ukelize" people (a term he has coined and hopes will catch on in popular American vernacular). He does so by teaching lessons in his son Tim's (also a member of the Orchestra) music store, The Music Place in West Berlin, New Jersey, while contributing his expertise and library of knowledge of the instrument to the Orchestra. He brought many of the group's trademark tunes to the table. As MalCarney states, "He's like an encyclopedia of Tin Pan Alley songs," referring to those compositions that were churned out in the '20s and '30s by "song factories" whose primary goal was to sell sheet music. He and rest of the orchestra breathe new life to these old ditties by playing them with lively theatrics and the implementation of other less appreciated instruments such as the accordion and the theremin.

As to how it came about that they would be playing the 40th Street Summer Series, Malcarney says, "seems like [the University City District is] interested in having acts that are left of center, not like your conventional rock band." A statement by event curator and communications manager for the University City District confirmed this sentiment. Mark Christman described the Orchestra as "peculiar but acceptable." Acceptable, that is, to the diverse group of people who make up the "global neighborhood" in which the event will take place. In this way, the Philadelphia Ukulele orchestra will continue the tradition of bringing the community together, as the University City District has been known to do, whether through music, food, or building "parklets."

Since being introduced in the United States by Hawaiians at the 1915 World's Fair, the ukulele has gone through phases of popularity, and has sometimes been passed off as a novelty or toy instrument. "I think the uke gets taken for granted," said MalCarney, but the Philadelphia Ukulele Orchestra intends to shed light on the true power and versatility of the diminutive music-maker, one concert at a time.