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Vox Femina Los Angeles celebrated its 20th Anniversary Season with a stunning performance at the Herbert Zipper Concert Hall, located in the Colburn School. Regarding the performance space, the Southwest Chamber Music has been quoted saying “Zipper Hall is acoustically one of the best performance spaces in Los Angeles”. This statement became evident as every word sung and each note played during this performance arrived at one’s ears with crystal clarity.

Dr. Iris S. Levine – Photo courtesy of the artist.

Dr. Iris S. Levine is the Artistic Director and Choral Director of Vox Femina Los Angeles. With her leadership, the group has become one of country’s finest women’s choruses and Women On The Rise highlighted works that demonstrated her vision of the company’s future. The evening included a wide range of music and lyrics composed primarily by women, plus the premiere of Fire Within choreographed by Sarah Swenson. Also featured were the talents of pianist Lisa Edwards.

Sarah Swenson in “Ancestors” – Photo by Tim Agler

Each section of the program had a separate topic with varying numbers of songs to represent each subject. The first was called When Fire Took our Shape with songs Fire Within and At the heart of our stillness. Having dance performed to live music is always a plus. Add in the sound of 38 amazing voices and you have the potential for an incredible experience. This was true for Sarah Swenson’s beautiful and elegant new dance, also titled Fire Within. Performed with great skill and clarity by members of Vox Dance Theatre, Cheryl Banks-Smith, Tamsin Carlson and Grace Privett-Mendoza, Fire Within was a quietly stunning work for three women whose ages spanned three generations. Wearing lovely floor-length gowns of gold, yellow and silver, the women demonstrated solidarity by periodically coming together in unified tableaux. When they danced separately, each commanded the stage with their individual strengths developed through varying years of experience. It was wonderful to see three generations performing onstage together to reflect how each generation learns from and becomes stronger due to the paths carved out by their elders. Swenson’s movement was lyrical, yet grounded; strong, while bending to vulnerability. The only criticism is that the dance was over far too quickly. A wonderful problem to have.

The music credits for Fire Within were listed as Marytha Paffrath / Dakota Butterfield / Traditional arranged by C. Wilson. At the heart of the matter was by Kathleen Allan. Together these works were, at times, haunting with voices rising up to fill the hall, only to soften into sounds of a gentle breeze whispering past one’s ear.

VOX Femina Los Angeles – Photo courtesy of the artist

Speak Up and Speak Out involved four songs. The strongest of these was Truth by Andrea Ramsey because of it poignant message that truth is all we have. The lyrics were driven home via the percussion rhythms performed by Nick Stone. Kindness composed by Christina Whitten Thomas with lyrics by poet/songwriter Naomi Shihab Nye added a touch of wisdom and ease.  I Have a Voice by Los Angeles composer Moira Smiley incorporated accents of exhaling breath, clapping, foot stomping and hand/body rhythms to became a visual treat and audible pleasure. William Tell Mom Song (with apologies to Rossini) was a humorous and fast paced song to Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture that pointed out the difficulties mothers face being the ones who bear the burden of raising their young.

Soaring featured the vivid and stirring Flight composed by Jocelyn Hagen, with texts by Janet Windeler Ryan (Sky Song) and Julia Klatt Singer (Come Spring and This Sky Falls). During a pre-performance discussion, Hagen spoke to how once she had chosen the poems or text, that the music came easily. Her choice of musical instruments was guided by the meaning behind the text. Here she composed using flute (Lisa Edelstein), Cello (Leah Metzler) and percussion (Nick Stone). The combination of these instruments with the Vox Femina voices conjured up a sense of open spaces or mid-west prairies while the text evoked a sense of flight and moving forward.

Desiree Balfour, who had a brief solo in Flight, was recently named Assistant Conductor for Vox Femina Los Angeles. Here she skillfully conducted Lux Aeterna composed by Michelle Roueché. Lux Aeterna is Latin for “eternal light” and may be referred as what is sung or recited during communion in the Roman Catholic Church. There was a definite religious or spiritual sense to this work enhanced by the structure of the vocals. During one section, the 38 voices sounded like many times that number, saying different but similar words all at once before returning to a peaceful harmony.

Levine returned to the podium to conduct the final section titled Stronger Together featuring Rise Up by Jake Runestad, Sister by Cris Williamson, arranged by S. Halleman, and Still I Rise by Rosephanye Powell. Rise Up was a powerful cry of protest or call to action. Sister was a song of sisterhood and support for one another and Still I Rise was a high energy song performed in style of southern church gospels. The latter feature the wonderful voices of Helen Mendoza and Allie Fukushima.

This was my first time attending a Vox Femina Los Angeles concert, but I intend to return for more. Under the expert direction of Dr. Iris S. Levine, the voices are gorgeous, the production is excellent and the performances are top notch. This group is a precious gem in the musical crown of Los Angeles. May they continue for another 20 years.

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Jeff Slayton
Jeff Slayton has had a long and influential career as a dancer, choreographer, and educator. Born in Virginia in 1945, Slayton began dancing as a child in order to correct his condition of hip dysplasia. He enjoyed a performance career in New York dancing for Merce Cunningham, Viola Farber and others. In 1978 he moved to Long Beach, CA. where began teaching at California State University, Long Beach as a part time faculty member. He became a full time faculty member in 1986 and continued to teach at CSULB until 1999. Jeff Slayton was one of the faculty members that helped design the Dance Center at CSULB as well as develop and implement the BFA, MFA and MA degree programs. While in Long Beach, he formed his own company, Jeff Slayton & Dancers, that operated from 1978 to 1983. He continues to stage works in the Southern California area. He is also the author of two books, "The Prickly Rose: A Biography of Viola Farber" and "Dancing Toward Sanity". For more information on Jeff Slayton please go to www.jeffslayton.org.

1 COMMENT

  1. Great article Jeff. I’m so glad that you were there. Thank you for your lovely words.

    Warm wishes,
    Cheryl

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