If the name Ladies Auxiliary Ukulele Orchestra seems a bit tongue in cheek, that’s fine with Bernice Lewis, the singer/songwriter who leads the group. Yes, it’s an all-female ensemble, though the complement of musicians is usually more of a trio or quartet rather than a full scale orchestra. And Lewis has no shame at all in jamming away on the modest four-string ukulele. After all, her musical credentials are secure, having been a faculty member and artist associate in songwriting at Williams College for about 25 years.
The Ukelele Orchestra is giving a free outdoor concert Sunday afternoon at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. The event is the first of a three-part series titled Hyper Local, part of an expanding performing arts series for the museum.
“I’ve been living in Williamstown over 30 years, so I’m a known entity here,” says Lewis. “I also go further afield, mostly to Texas and California. Music allows me to go out into the world.” As a guitarist and singer, she’s appeared alongside Dar Williams, the Dixie Chicks and Odettta. Her ballad “Bridges That Hold” was in the repertoire of Peter, Paul and Mary.
Lewis isn’t the founder of the Ukulele Orchestra but she’s been leading it for about 25 years. Her most consistent and reliable sidekick in recent years has been her daughter, Mariah Colorado, 19.
“Historically the ukulele has been about silliness, for lack of a better word. But you can make beautiful songs on it as well,” says Lewis. “We started out as some good musicians in on the joke. As things progressed, we became more serious at playing with greater facility.”
A typical set for the orchestra will include plenty of covers. Lewis says some of their latest favorites include Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” Radiohead’s “Creep,” Irving Berlin’s “You’re Just in Love,” and The Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian.” Original material is also part of the mix. Lewis composed most of her large body of songs on the guitar and she’ll adapt selections for the uke. Her daughter writes directly with the smaller instrument.
Long associated with its Hawaiian roots, the ukulele had a post-World War II boom in the U.S. and another rise in interest in the late ’60s thanks to Tiny Tin and his one hit, “Tiptoe Through The Tulips.” Lewis has been with the ukulele long enough to see further ebbing and waning in popularity.
“We had a ukulele renaissance but maybe we’re on the other side of that hill now,” she says. “Ten or 15 years ago people were constantly coming up to me. They’d gotten one for Christmas or maybe their grandkids did. There were walls of them at music stores, inexpensive and made of plastic or plywood.”
Like the uke, Lewis is petite. “Five-two on a good day,” she says. That means wrapping her hand around the neck of the guitar takes constant effort while the weight of the instrument requires some upper body strength. By comparison, the uke is portable and affordable.
“The ukulele has been a tremendous gateway to making music for many,” says Lewis. “Something is gained by sitting with an instrument and learning to make sound rather than sitting in front of the best speakers in the world. Anything that gets people involved with making their own music is great.”
Sunday’s concert with the Ukulele Orchestra will take place outdoors at the Lunder Center at Stone Hill, an easy hike from the main Clark buildings. Shuttle service will also be available.
“Experiencing the Clark is more than just visiting our art galleries,” says director of education Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer. “We have an amazing campus with hiking trails, terraces by the reflecting pool, and great places to picnic or just hang out. It’s a destination where you can focus on things that really matter.”
Recent and upcoming performing arts events at the Clark include a series of works-in-progress presented by the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and the return of the American Modern Opera Company, which will perform across the campus on Sunday, Aug. 25. From the fall through spring, the Clark presents the Metropolitan Opera’s live in HD series, plus various theatrical broadcasts.
After the Ukulele Orchestra performs on Sunday, the Hyper Local series continues on Sunday, Aug. 4, with an open drum circle led by Otha Day (bring your instruments). After that comes an Aug. 11 concert with GrayLoch 4, a group of Williams College alums playing acoustic versions of folk, rock and Irish songs.
“Our Hyper Local series was intended to focus on artists within a 15-mile radius,” says Ostheimer, “but we could fairly say it’s within 10 miles.”
If you go
Ladies Auxiliary Ukulele Orchestra
When: 12:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, Mass.
The Clark’s Hyper Local community concert series continues on Aug. 4 with drummer Otha Day, and on Aug. 11 with the combo GrayLoch 4.
Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.