Oregon Cultural Trust

There is a common thread: umama womama at CMNW

The composer-performer flute-viola-harp trio premiered their own music alongside R. Murray Schafer’s similarly Debussy-influenced trio.

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Performer-composer trio umama womama (L to R: Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Han Lash, Valerie Coleman) at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Performer-composer trio umama womama (L to R: Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Han Lash, Valerie Coleman) at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.

The arrival of Chamber Music Northwest’s Summer Festival is always portentous, a herald of the season. The faces of the performers who return year after year feel like old friends–even though I have never spoken to most of them. It’s the simple sharing of something as intimate as music, year after year, which gives rise to that sense.

On the sunny Sunday afternoon of July 9, at the Lincoln Performance Hall on the PSU campus, the concert opened with Zoltán Kodály’s Serenade for Two Violins and Viola, Op. 12. Alexi Kenney, violin, Jessica Lee, second violin, and Hanna Lee, viola, bolted right out of the gate with this treat. Folksy, unpretentious, and warm, the music fairly danced, and yet the ease of the performance belied the trickiness of the composition, with clever ‘false’ entrances suggesting at times that there was a fourth instrument playing. Hanna Lee’s full-throated and lusty delivery during the Lento was a serenade indeed, and a ceaseless tremolando from second violin underlay an argument between the viola and first violin, as Kenney blurted out flippant remarks suddenly and without warning, before a glorious reprise of the folk idea. There was some fun sawing away at block chords in the third, and it was easy to imagine there was a story hidden just beneath the surface of the whole work, one which the performers felt keenly.

Alexi Kenney, Jessica Lee, and Hanna Lee performed Zoltán Kodály’s "Serenade for Two Violins and Viola" at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Alexi Kenney, Jessica Lee, and Hanna Lee performed Zoltán Kodály’s “Serenade for Two Violins and Viola” at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.

Composer/performer collective umama womama’s West Coast premiere of their CMNW co-commissioned Three Pieces for Flute, Viola and Harp (2022)–delayed for three years by the pandemic, and therefore somewhat influenced by it–has created something of a buzz, and the work did not disappoint. Violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama, harpist Han Lash and flutist Valerie Coleman each composed one piece, and each spoke about their compositions before performing it.

According to the group:

The name umama womama is a rhythmic play of the word ‘mother’ in Zulu, said in the singular and plural. It speaks to the complex responsibilities of its members, whose artistry as performers and composers is informed by their related experiences.

Ngwenyama’s work Down was first, and the composer said it began with a speculation: “what would a movement sound like if it was all based on downward movement?” The overall dark tenor of the work was also reflected in its title, as was the conception of the word ‘down’ as being ok with something, or being in the know. She also acknowledged that the movement’s finale included some brief quotations from Julia Gomelskaya’s Symphony #2, Ukraine Forever.

The work opened with Coleman aspirating gently into the flute, as Lash scritched the harp strings and Ngwnyama played arpeggios. The work experimented with sonic textures such as some type of flutter tonguing from the flute, and a rattling fortissimo buzz from a harshly plucked harp string–a fascinating, jarring technique, and I was frankly unable to figure out how it was effected by the performer. There were descending minor scales in various patterns from flute and violin, and for a time the harp sang alone, wistful. There was a lot of sadness here, but not hopelessness, and so the work was not a ‘downer’ as such. As something of a word nerd, I enjoyed the fact that the multifaceted meanings of a simple word like down were reflected in the composition.

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The second movement, Music in Cold by Lash, dealt with, in the composer’s words, a “dark affect,” and “firm compositional parameters,” which took the form of a type of tone row. There were some pretty but uninspiring melodic moments, and the effect was one of serenity rather than disquiet, though there was some interesting squealing from the flute. Some of the harmonic structures were vaguely reminiscent of Debussy–not a bad thing.

Performer-composer trio umama womama (L to R: Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Han Lash, Valerie Coleman) at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.

Coleman spoke glowingly of the multidisciplinary nature of the group, all of them being composers and performers. “There is a common thread” uniting us, she said, “that thread is humanity.” She explained that her piece Aja was named after a goddess from Yoruban mythology, a goddess of forests, childbirth, of everything living. She described her work as an “antidote” to the darkness of the previous movements, and invited the audience to move, tap their toes, or do whatever they felt like in response to the music. The work was upbeat indeed; rhythmically immersive, with a rapid pianissimo motif on the harp as the viola and flute joined on a repeating theme. The piece felt primal at first before moving into an expansive space, pentatonic scales on the harp imitating the kalimba (sometimes called a thumb harp) as the flute and harp sang to one another.

The second half opened with R. Murray Schafer’s Trio for Flute, Viola & Harp (2010). With this particular instrument combination, it would almost be impossible for the ghost of Debussy not to appear. It was there briefly in Music in Cold, but this piece was an acknowledged homage to the Debussy trio, the most famous of works for these instruments.  

The opening movement contained ululating ascending scales on the flute and viola, and like the impressionism of its muse, was transportive and dreamy at times. Uneven themes characterized by sudden explosions of sound were followed by dwindling decrescendos that reignited in alarming explosions—it was very manic and intriguing stuff. The middle movement was almost pastoral in texture, and the finale opened with a galloping viola and strange, eerie harmonies between the flute and viola. There were dizzyingly fast, immense arpeggios from the harp as the viola soared, and a dance-like feel in unison descending scales until, subito, it was over.

Performer-composer trio umama womama (L to R: Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Han Lash, Valerie Coleman) at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Performer-composer trio umama womama (L to R: Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Han Lash, Valerie Coleman) at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Performer-composer trio umama womama (L to R: Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Han Lash, Valerie Coleman) at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
umama womama at Kaul Auditorium for CMNW 2023. Photos by Tom Emerson.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

A lifelong musician and writer, Lorin Wilkerson has been a part of the Portland classical music scene as a performer, writer, and non-profit board member for over 15 years. He has performed with the Portland Symphonic Choir, Bach Cantata Choir, and Classical Revolution PDX, and served on the boards of the Bach Cantata Choir and Musica Maestrale. He has written for Willamette Week, Hollywood Star, Oregon Music News and other publications. An avid birder, he is the Field Notes Editor of Oregon Birds, the journal of the Oregon Birding Association.

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