A symphony of one

by Ryan Snyder

Though he’s surely accustomed to an omnipresent virtual audience marveling at his repertoire from afar, having two sets of physical spectators to play for is likely a treat reserved for Jake Shimabukuro only on his birthday. In front of him, there was a very nearly full Reynolds Auditorium. Behind him sat the full Winston-Salem Symphony, both audiences in clear awe of the man who singlehandedly (or more appropriately dual-handedly) transformed the ukulele from an instrument of novelty into a weapon of mass seduction.

The newly minted 36-year-old Shimabukuro hardly looked a day over 21 as he took the stage dressed in T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes, with the symphony behind him in buttoned-up concert garb on the opening night of its Plugged-in Pops series. His laid-back cheekiness wasn’t lost on conductor Bob Moody, who ultimately embraced the unusual nature of their guest performer when he returned for the second  set in cigar-lounge casual.

Shimabukuro was indeed a bold choice for this particular occasion, and not just because of his choice of attire, but because of the nature of his success. He’s not a conservatory product wildly famous in classical circles and unknown to the outside; he doesn’t play an instrument more famous than himself; and reason dictates he’s about two octaves short of qualifying for guitar duties in a rock band. He is, however, a one-man musical force of nature, so expert in his craft that he can stand tall in tennis shoes and be adored by his classical peers whether he’s playing a haunted Japanese folk tune like “Sakura Sakura,” his heated, flamenco-inspired showpiece “Let’s Dance” or an old millstone like his cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Saturday night’s program cast due attention on the unswerving soloist Shimabukuro, but some of the best moments came when he was lifted up by the 50-plus accompanists. The sleepy, yet sublimely elegant “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was rendered even more surreal by Moody’s Disneyish arrangements. There were moments in that piece when Shimabukuro and the Symphony did the equivalent of the hallway shuffle, when two people can’t seem to get out of each others’ way, as the lead man looked ready to take over the main melody just when the clarinets picked it up. Considering the logistics of this sort of construct — the rolling stone Shimabukuro pacing the well-oiled machine of the symphony — it’s a feat that such instances were rare.

The gorgeous depth created by the symphony notwithstanding, it was the long stretches of Shimabukuro’s solo program that elicited the most chill bumps. He effortlessly switched between brushed strokes and hard staccato picking, invoking a pedagogy that had first chair violinist Corine Brouwer peeking around to watch his right hand. He perfectly recreated the epic builds of Adele’s “Rolling In the Deep” with a limited sonic vocabulary through sheer patience, carefully tugging at her vocalizations before unleashing rapid-fire rolls. If Adele has mastered unrestrained emotion, he has perfected bottling it up to unleash on a whim.

But on the other hand, the opportunities for truly awe-inspiring collaboration were limited in favor of the closely vested. There was never a more perfect moment than Shimabukuro’s cover of Queen epic “Bohemian Rhapsody” to unleash something surprising on the audience — a duet with Brouwer during the ballad or thunderous drums to punctuate the operatic portion — but centuries of risk-averse symphonic tradition weren’t about to be broken. And not to mention, they’d have to miss the show.