With an invigorating program at Zipper Hall on March 22, Vox Femina Los Angeles (aka “Vox”) celebrated all things female, with ‘Half the Sky‘ including works by a multitude of American composers. The members are a mix of skilled hobbyists and vocal pros, and the level of quality, commitment and sensitivity really shows.
Leadership is key: director Iris Levine is one of the finest choral conductors in the area, and Lisa Edwards is a pianist of exquisite skill. The ensemble is well-disciplined, tuneful, and cohesive. Particularly in the first half, they were clearly thoroughly rehearsed, down to fine details. Overall, Vox’s choral sound is a lesson in the power of collaboration: individually, the voices are as varied as the women who possess them. But together, the group blends to a texture as fine as silk, from light chiffon to strong as a parachute.
All of this makes Vox top-of-the-line among SoCal community-based choirs, and they can easily hold its own with many professional ensembles. The repertoire is deliberately accessible, playing to the broad interests of their devoted audience, but nothing lacks challenge, and it is all sung with beauty and sincerity. The best part is the soaring spirit, fully tangible in the space — these chicks are having fun, and their performance reflects the obvious joy they take from being there.
Although most of the pieces were accompanied by piano or sung a cappella, instrumentation was varied: The first song, ‘Ancient Mother’ by Robert Gass, featured the Amazonian rainstick as true instrument, played with subtlety and style by Lesili Beard, revealing a haunting tone far beyond mere novelty. Another piece was accompanied only by Levine on what appeared to be a shekere (a gourd surrounded by a net of beads), adding texture and supportive rhythm to a piece that might have been performed unaccompanied by a less imaginative choir.
Beard is known primarily as a fine and sought-after soprano, but this evening, she was plenty busy playing, also lending her skills on the flute to Kevin Memley’s ‘Anadyomene’ and to the West Coast premiere of Christina Whitten Thomas‘ Mornings With You, joined there by clarinettist Patty Massey and Adrian Dunker on French horn. Of this set, ‘The Glass Half Full’ stood out, for its bright-as-springtime colors and the florid runs played on flute and clarinet with dizzying speed. The horn got his chance in the next piece, ‘Popovers’, with the long, fluid lines that the instrument sings so well.
Soloist Caroline McKenzie stole the show with her appearance on just one song, beginning Paul Carey’s ‘God Says Yes to Me’ with sheer audacity: “I asked God if it was OK to be melodramatic.” The chorus answers, “And she said, YES!” McKenzie enters with multiple flourishes, air kisses, and all the huge personality and likeability we love her for. She’s hamming it up, but with such commitment, style and comic timing that it’s all perfectly in place. (Seriously, we need more theater in choral concerts!)
The concert included performances by the 32-voice Mira Costa High School Advanced Women’s Chorale, led by Michael Hayden and accompanied by Mark McCormack. The institution was recently named as one of three Grammy Signature Schools in the nation, for their extraordinary music program, and for their teacher: Hayden was also recently named one of five California Teachers of the Year, and is the first choral director ever to receive this honor. On their own, the girls shone in an SSAA arrangement of Palestrina’s ‘Sicut cervus’, a devilish piece of polyphony that was nevertheless exceptionally in tune.
The guest choir was introduced after the break, with a heartfelt description of the continued relationship: Vox considers this collaboration “deep and meaningful”, not just a sharing of the stage with youngsters. This elevation of educational outreach speaks to the importance of true commitment as adult organizations work with younger performers, and is a model for the experience that can be created for the kids, as well as the level of satisfaction available to the adults. The success of this particular program is evident on stage, in the collegiality between the two groups when they combine. Being there together clearly means something to all involved. The stories are as moving as the music, including ‘Ella’s Song’ by Bernice Johnson Reagon, created from verses written by seven soloists selected from the two choirs.
‘We Are Home’ by Jenni Brandon has a fascinating texture, fully integrating drums and other percussion by performer Judy Chilnick with the choral parts. Weaving together texts created by Vox members, the piece explores the idea that the ensemble itself is a safe haven. It slips between tonalities seamlessly, deftly painting emotion, and is inspiring in its energy and connectedness.
‘She Rises’ by Catherine Dalton combines an evocative Celtic melody with vocal and foot percussion reminiscent of the ancient primal pulse of the bodhrán and bones. The program also included the premiere of ‘Someday Love’ by ensemble member Sally Chou, a work written for the group, incorporating bell sounds and other textures that put the sections through their paces. Chou also arranged ‘Liberated Crowns (A Mashup)’, a fun medley of pop tunes performed by The Voxettes, the ensemble’s resident doo-wop quartet.
There were a few pieces in the second half of the program that were not quite as tight, and seemed to need a bit more rehearsal. But by the spectacular finale, we were tapping feet and cheering wildly: Moses Hogan’s scintillating arrangement of ‘Music Down in my Soul’ put the combined choirs to play, in a rollicking spiritual that showed off Edwards’ pianistic flair with an energetic rally between choir and keyboard. Nothing’s more fun than this.