Westside Voices bring tuneful cheer to Westchester

By Brian Marks

The Westside Voices mix a capella with the spirit of the holidays for their Dec. 16 concert
Photo by Zsuzsi Steiner

It’s already happening — radio stations across the country have switched over to nonstop Christmas and holiday music to last through the end of the year. Many of the classic songs that used to signify the season have been replaced by slickly produced pop remakes, but those iconic songs live on in the Westside Voices’ choral repertoire. The group will showcase its holiday songs with a program at the Westchester United Methodist Church on Sunday, Dec. 16.

The a cappella group was founded in 2006 by Harris J. Levey. Levey has been a singer most of his life and grew up rubbing elbows with future musical legends like Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt, though his career trajectory took a more modest turn. He worked for years in small groups and on the now-defunct club circuit. Levey even appeared on a number of game shows; he went two for four on “The Dating Game” and was a contestant on “The Gong Show.” (He made it to the end without getting the gong.)

Later in life, Levey began to explore choral music, a departure from the more commercial styles in which he had previously specialized. Westside Voices was assembled from Levey’s friends and acquaintances. A few members are choral directors, but most are amateurs.

“We have a financial consultant, we have an accountant, a bookkeeper, and escrow officer,” says Levey. “One person is a teacher who also works with NASA. A couple of us are retired.”

The group rehearses every Monday evening, alternating among the members’ houses. The group’s Dec. 3 rehearsal is held at the house of Joanne Rachford, a choral director at Church of the Visitation in Westchester.

All 12 members of the group are arranged on chairs in a circle in the house’s living room. It’s fittingly decked out in Christmas decorations from floor to ceiling. An opulent Christmas tree sits in the corner, while the mantle boasts a nativity set, and a thigh-high Santa and snow man stand guard on both sides of the fireplace.

Levey often takes a leading role in rehearsals, but it’s still a fairly democratic institution, and other members chime in with suggestions throughout the evening. Levey may have founded Westside Voices, but he avoids calling himself its director.

“When you have a director, they pretty much tell you what to do,” says Levey. “I just wanted a group where everybody has an input. Also, when you have a director, you have to pay them!”

The group cycles through its pieces for the upcoming holiday concert, a mix of classic Christmas songs and carols with more esoteric pieces. There’s also a Hanukkah song for good measure, the jaunty “Hanukkah in Santa Monica.” The group’s focus on standards is partly due to their popularity, but also a matter of practicality; many newer songs only exist in arrangements requiring instrumental accompaniment.

As the group rehearses, they struggle at first to match the notes on the page, but then find their way through the music, adding flourishes and inflections to the pitches they discover.

“I’ve been performing a long time, and I understand that what’s written on the paper for choral music is just a guideline,” says Levey. “Each group has to modify it to the strength of the group. It’s hard to get people to put their own stamp on it. But we’re getting more comfortable with it.”

In some respects, a cappella music is more popular than it has been in decades. It’s common to see so-called a cappella groups on singing competition shows, though many of them cheat by using backing music or beatboxing. True a cappella — sans any instrumental accompaniment —isn’t quite as popular at the moment.

“Audiences are very hard to come by,” explains Levey. “To paraphrase Oscar Peterson, they asked him one time why he got into jazz. ‘Well, because I don’t like to play in front of large crowds.’ And that’s kind of what it’s like with the music we do.”

Still, Levey hopes that the renewed popularity of a cappella-like groups might benefit Westside Voices.

“If you want an unusual musical experience, well then an a cappella group might be for you,” he says. “Come to our show and try it. You might like it!”

Westside Voices performs at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 16, at Westchester United Methodist Church (8065 Emerson Ave., Westchester). Admission is free, but a $15 donation is suggested. For reservations, call (310) 670-3777. Visit westsidevoices.com or call (310) 822-9067 for more info.