The Well Tempered Ukes bring a twist to the ukulele repertory by showcasing classical music. The trio of Robin Hoffman, Richard Perlmutter and Marlene Wong, based in Western MA, sings and plays ukuleles but specializes in early music and parlor and art songs.
The three members met at a community based ukulele group in Northampton called A-E-I-O-UKES, which plays mostly folk, pop and rock music. But they soon realized they shared musical interests that were outside the scope of the group.
All three have strong connections to classical music. Before her current career as a ukulele instructor and illustrator, Hoffman had been a professional ballet dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Perlmutter, a professional musician and producer, plays classical guitar, piano and mandolin, and is a 4x Grammy Nominee for his Beethoven’s Wig series of albums. Wong, a music, theatre and dance specialist librarian, is a classically trained church organist who has danced with the Stanford Baroque Dance Ensemble.
When the group started to explore music choices,Wong shared the idea of playing early music on ukuleles with some of her academic colleagues. One, a notable harpsichord player, called the idea, “Epic!”
“A lot of songs from the Renaissance were played on lutes and other portable instruments, which in spirit and sound share many characteristics with the ukulele. Likewise, intimate settings are the natural venue of parlor and art songs —and the uke is great for that,” said Perlmutter, who arranges most of the songs. “Our goal is to show off great old tunes and make them more accessible to a broader audience.”
They settled on their name because of the reference to Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier” a landmark composition in classical music.They also chose it because they all get along, and as Hoffman says, “actually are pretty ‘well tempered.’”
The group had no trouble lining up its first few gigs. With the trio’s connections in the Pioneer Valley and their impressive resumés, everyone they approached was eager to have them perform.They started by honing their repertoire at theatre events, retirement communities, libraries, bookstores and farmers’ markets. Now that they have several videos of their live performances on YouTube, they have been awarded a musical residency at Forbes Library (Northampton, MA), and have already booked 2016 performance dates outside of Massachusetts and in New York City.
In its concerts, the group does not limit itself to classical music. “We always throw in some songs that we played together in the community ukulele group‚” says Hoffman. “Not only because we like them, but because they highlight some things that the ukulele does so well like chord melodies, fancy strumming, and flashy solos.”
But the Well Tempered Ukes will continue to keep their core focus on the classics. “We don’t know how far we can take classical music on the ukulele, but there is no other group out there doing what we do, and the audiences seem to love our toe tappin’ dance roots approach combined with the mix of music and education,” says Wong.
“So as long as we are having fun, and stay ‘well tempered,’ we’ll keep on playing together and performing,” adds Perlmutter.