December 13, 2018

Voices of women loud and proud with ‘Vox Femina’

More than a decade ago, when Gay Men’s Chorus director John Bailey lobbied Iris Levine, chair of the music department at Cal Poly Pomona, to start up a parallel women’s group, she balked. “It wasn’t something I wanted to do,” she said over the phone recently, recalling how Bailey envisioned a large, all-lesbian group.

Later, Levine said, Bailey approached her again, having realized that a women’s group might be different in nature from the men’s group — more intimate and “about being women, not about being lesbian.” With this new premise and a grant from the Gay Men’s Chorus, Levine founded Vox Femina, which will be performing “Nerli,” a children’s Chanukah song, at the 47th annual Los Angeles County Holiday Celebration on Dec. 24 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Now in its 10th year, Vox Femina recently staged its season opener, “Defying Gravity: Flying High on L.A.,” focusing on music about the heavens. One song on that bill, “Sky Dances,” also appears on Vox’s new CD, “Still I Rise.”

“Sky Dances” seems emblematic of the music sung by the 38-member women’s group — choral music with lyrics limited to a large extent to the refrain and with an emphasis on high soprano singers. Yet “Still I Rise” also includes the Marvin Hamlisch-Edward Kleban “A Chorus Line” tune “At the Ballet”; a snappy folk-rock number, “Closer to Fine,” and the titular gospel song, “Still I Rise,” all three of which feature soloists, alto singers and, in one case, an acoustic guitar.

Despite its eclectic repertoire, Vox Femina is not to be confused with the Whiffenpoofs, a Broadway chorus or a 1960s girl group. It is not an a cappella group; it almost always receives accompaniment on piano. The members are primarily interested in world music composed by women, not Cole Porter or Bob Dylan.

Levine is not only the founder of Vox Femina, she is also its artistic director. She chooses the themes of the performances, the music and even the singers. She also sometimes does the arrangements of the songs, such as that of “Hinei Mah Tov,” which the group once sang in Hebrew. For that piece, she provided group members with transliterated Hebrew; she herself knows the language from studying at a kibbutz ulpan.

Although Vox Femina will be singing “Nerli” in Hebrew, it is not in any sense a Jewish singing group. The women in Vox come from all backgrounds, not only in their sexuality, but also in ethnicity, race, religion and age. They sing in many foreign languages and even gave one concert entirely in Spanish at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, where they practice.

“We want to give the women of Los Angeles a voice,” said Levine, pointing out that every world song in their repertoire “has a population right here” in Los Angeles. She added that world music is “the music of the people.”

Levine began her musical career by taking the obligatory piano lessons at age of 5 or 6. Later, she sang in or accompanied choruses in high school.

When it came time for her to go to college, her mother encouraged her to pursue her love for music. After getting a B.A. in music at the University of New Hampshire, the Boston native followed up with a master’s degree from Temple University and then a doctorate at USC.

When she is not teaching music to college students or conducting Vox Femina, Levine directs the choir at Stephen S. Wise Temple, a job she has held for nearly two decades.

One gets the sense that she has almost no time for leisure. Given her schedule, it is perhaps not surprising that she had a cold when she spoke to a reporter recently, which affected her voice. But she is not a singer. She is a conductor, arranger, choir director, professor and artistic director, a Renaissance woman of the people.

Vox Femina will perform along with more than 40 other ensembles, including the Gay Men’s Chorus, the TishTones, the Beth Shir Shalom Choir, the Burbank Chorale and the Universal Dance Designs Kennedy Tap Company at the L.A. County Holiday Celebration on Sunday, Dec. 24, from 3 to 9 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For information, call (213) 972-7211 or go to