At her high school in suburban Boston, Iris Levine’s aptitude tests earmarked her for a career as an accountant. Her mother sounded a different note.
“If you want to go to school for accounting, you’ll live at home and go to business school in Boston,” Levine recalled her mother saying. “If you want to go to school for music, I will send you anywhere.”
For Levine, who had begun playing piano at age 5 and relished spending her teenage summers at a music camp in Maine, “anywhere” meant the University of New Hampshire, which was near home and had a celebrated music program.
The experience there set her on a path that has led to unquestioned renown, nationally and beyond, as a longtime Cal Poly Pomona professor of choral music, the chair of the university’s music department and, since 2018, dean of the College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences (CLASS). Levine is also the founding artistic director and conductor of the acclaimed women’s choir VOX Femina Los Angeles, an all-female chorus established in 1997.
Levine’s wide-ranging interests and experiences have equipped her to understand CLASS students and instructors.
“At age 16, I went into the University of New Hampshire as undeclared, unsure of my major,” said Levine, who skipped second grade. “I can clearly relate to a lot of our students who come to Cal Poly Pomona and are investigating things.”
Cal Poly Pomona is one of two polytechnic universities in the 23-campus California State University system. The classical meaning of the Greek polytechnos is “skilled in many arts.” The university has adopted an inclusive polytechnic approach that incorporates eight elements, including: learn by doing; creativity, discovery and innovation; integration of technology; and community and global engagement.
While the most popular majors at Cal Poly Pomona are business administration, computer science and civil and mechanical engineering, CLASS serves a vital role as the home of a liberal education in a polytechnic environment. The college encompasses 11 departments. In addition to music, they are communication, economics, English and modern languages, geography and anthropology, history, philosophy, political science, psychology, sociology, and theatre and new dance.
As an undergraduate at UNH, it did not take long for Levine to realize that she was a musician at heart, as her mother, a drama teacher and childhood trumpet player, had long suspected. Undeclared students such as Levine were not allowed to take courses geared to music majors, but Levine met with the department chair and persuaded him to make an exception.
Levine recalls that her high school choir was “awful,” with an unskilled director who enlisted her as the pianist. “I essentially directed the choir from the piano,” she said. When she sang in the choir in college, things started to click. The university concert choir sang Schubert’s “Mass No. 2 in G Major,” Mozart’s “Requiem” and other masterworks — in Latin — that were revelatory for her.
“I loved being part of a group,” she said. “I loved that joy of making music with others.”
After receiving her master’s degree in choral conducting from Temple University in Philadelphia, Levine pursued a doctor of musical arts degree in choral music from the University of Southern California, under the tutelage of Rodney Eichenberger and James Vail.
When Levine applied for the doctoral program at USC, one strong letter of recommendation arrived from her mentor Alan Harler, the head of choral music at Temple and who later served as artistic director of Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia.
“Of course, we accepted her [Levine] on the spot,” Vail recalled. The next year, Vail chose Levine as his teaching assistant and assistant conductor of the Concert Choir. “Unsurprisingly,” he added, “she turned out to be one of the best I had in my 40 years on the faculty … and one of our most distinguished grads on many levels.”
Levine joined the faculty of Cal Poly Pomona’s music department in 1990. When she became a full professor, in 2000, she was asked to take on the position of department chair. At the time, she was the department’s youngest faculty member.
“People saw in her potential that she has since said she didn’t see in herself,” said Peter Yates, a guitarist and composer who is now the music department chair. “To become chair, she had to open her purview to being head of the entire department, to encompass everyone’s needs and talents. She became very good at shepherding that whole program. Not everybody can do that.”
Levine continued to teach and conduct while running the department. In 2014, she spearheaded a campaign to raise $2.5 million to buy and maintain 29 new Steinway & Sons pianos and make Cal Poly Pomona an “all-Steinway school.” In 2015, the school completed the purchase, bringing its total number of Steinways to 30. At the time, a fellow faculty member praised Levine’s “magical ability to reach for the stars.” The prestigious instruments have become a selling point not just for music majors but also for the university’s many musically inclined math, chemistry and engineering students.
In August 2017, Levine was named interim dean of CLASS. She initiated a strategic planning process for the college and spearheaded an innovative “personal coaching” program, an initiative in collaboration with the Division of Student Affairs that was aimed at improving student retention rates. The next year, Levine became dean of CLASS.
“It is a wonderful delight to work with Iris,” said Sylvia A. Alva, provost and vice president for academic affairs. “She is a team player and a hard worker who brings value to our leadership conversations because of her breadth of experience and knowledge of the history of the campus.
“I would just say she is a class act.” (Pun intended.)
Joel Wilson (’03, music), a former student who is now the choir director at Claremont High School, recalled Levine as an engaged mentor who oversaw his education, advising him along the way on all of his classes. On one occasion, when Cal Poly Pomona’s choirs and a choir from another college were performing Mozart’s “Requiem” accompanied by a professional orchestra, Levine surprised Wilson by passing him the conductor’s baton.
“When we actually got to the rehearsal, she called me out of the choir to have the experience of conducting this mass of singers and the orchestra,” he said. “She did it just so that I could have that experience. I remember that she listed me in the program as student conductor. I felt so honored and blessed to be under her wing for that.”
As Wilson learned firsthand, Levine sets a high bar for herself, her colleagues and her students — a trait he seeks to emulate.
“She’s demanding, and she’s not afraid to push you and hold you to that high bar,” he said. “She was the kind of teacher who was always teaching. I learned just as much from her walking down the hallway as I did in the studio.”
Fellow instructors said they also benefit from her work ethic and high standards.
“She’s always on top of things, always enthusiastic about the work of all of the professors,” said Nadia Shpachenko-Gottesman, a Grammy-winning professor of music who leads the piano performance area.
As artistic director of VOX Femina, which aims to raise awareness for women’s issues and to affirm human dignity through music, Levine has developed a reputation in the world of choral music as an advocate of female empowerment. It’s a reputation she embraces. On her desktop at Cal Poly Pomona is a statuette of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late Supreme Court Justice who fought for women’s rights.
After COVID-19 restrictions imposed in March forced the ensemble to cancel its spring concert, Levine urged the disappointed singers to devote time to preparing an online performance of “Suffrage Cantata,” a newly commissioned score by Andrea Ramsey. The work marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, with lyrics and narration that depict the struggle of those on the suffrage movement’s front lines.
On Nov. 1, the nonprofit ensemble, which is supported by grants and private donations, streamed its performance.
“I wanted it to happen before the 2020 election,” she said.
That Levine pulled it off is testament to her ability to confidently juggle work responsibilities and outside interests — even via Zoom during the pandemic. She has plenty of multitasking practice. She played basketball in high school and college while working for caterers and fine restaurants.
She said she recently acquired “The Jerusalem Cookbook” and is “making my way through it,” learning to prepare Mediterranean dishes in the kitchen of the 1923 home she shares in the Culver City’s Arts District with her wife, Lesili Beard. Beard, an alto, performs with VOX Femina and the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
“I love being at Cal Poly Pomona,” Levine said. “I believe strongly in the mission of the campus itself. I truly believe that our college is the heart and soul of the university.”