EC choral director unites the world, one concert performance at a time

Joanna+Medawar+Nachef+is+the+first+female+conductor+of+the+Middle+East.+The+Palos+Verdes+resident+has+been+the+director+of+choral+activities+at+El+Camino+College+since+1996.+A+native+of+Lebanon%2C+she+and+her+family+came+to+the+United+States+in+1975.+%28Gary+Kohatsu+%7C+Warrior+Life%29

Joanna Medawar Nachef is the first female conductor of the Middle East. The Palos Verdes resident has been the director of choral activities at El Camino College since 1996. A native of Lebanon, she and her family came to the United States in 1975. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)

She has a “performance” before noon and her preparation starts with a choice of shoes — understandable, since she has an admitted shoe fetish.

Her footwear today will be a pair of red Longchamps pumps, open-toed, with ankle straps and thick soles.

​​“Everything begins with the shoes. It’s how I match my wardrobe,” she says. “I’m vertically challenged, so I like heels. The soles are thick for comfort, because I’m on my feet so much.”

Joanna Medawar Nachef cuts no corners when it comes to purchasing gorgeous, quality shoes. As a child in Beirut, her feet were “crooked and flat.”

“From ages 5 to 13, I had to wear [Dr. Scholl’s] boots with arches,” Joanna says. “I wore pretty dresses with those ugly boots. I never saw pretty shoes on my feet and I think now, I have gone the other way.”

In recent years, shoes with thick soles for comfort and sturdiness have become as important to her as style.

For Joanna, 63, her shoes, wardrobe and makeup are synonymous with a beautiful presentation.

With hundreds of fashion shoes in her wardrobe collection, Joanna Nachef says she matches her attire to her shoes. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)
With hundreds of fashion shoes in her wardrobe collection, Joanna Nachef says she matches her attire to her shoes. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)

“I never leave the house without (black) eyeliner,” Joanna says. “The Lebanese have significant, expressive eyes. They are the windows to my soul.”

She also never goes anywhere without cherry-red lipstick by Chanel (Long Wearing) — her preferred shade and brand.

Bright colors, like music, can lift the human spirit, she says.

Joanna is preparing for her Thursday choral class at El Camino College, where she teaches full-time, four days a week.

“When I step into the classroom, I give a performance,” Joanna says. “My motto is ‘life is a performance, not a rehearsal.’ Today I’m going to give my best effort. I believe in presenting and expecting excellence, (although) not perfection.”

For Joanna, ECC’s director of choral activities, it’s a typical morning. A native of Lebanon, she immigrated to this country at 17 and now at 63, is a professional musician and conductor who has performed with chorus groups and orchestras in seven countries.

As a self-appointed “ambassador of harmony,” she believes God has blessed her with the gift of music to help unite people and cultures.

Joanna Nachef conducts her Tuesday night orchestra class with focus and energy. The orchestra class was preparing for a holiday concert in December 2021, after a year of no live performances due to the coronavirus. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)
Joanna Nachef conducts her Tuesday night orchestra class with focus and energy. The orchestra class was preparing for a holiday concert in December 2021, after a year of no live performances due to the coronavirus. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)

“My responsibility is huge because I want to dissolve these misconceptions that people from the Middle East are terrorists. We are not,” Joanna says. “It may be extremists, governments (that are to blame). People are not like that. Music is the universal language and the best tool to unite us all.”

A devout Christian, Joanna is a member of the Peninsula Community Church in Palos Verdes, where she served as minister of music from 1980 to 1997 and then as choir director from ‘97 to the present.

Her journey is inspired by the Bible, but fueled by a passion for fashion.

“I come (to concerts) in beautiful outfits,” Joanna says. “Because vibrant colors give the audience something to visualize and enjoy. And why not? It’s extravagant, yes. But I want my audiences to experience it all.”

At 5 feet, 2 inches high, Joanna says she might appear taller because she stands straight.

“Erect posture is crucial,” Joanna says. “I teach that and I live that. (Good posture) gives our breathing mechanism a chance to work naturally.”

Correct posture was instilled in her as a youth.

“My grandmother, who had excellent posture, had a good friend with osteoporosis,” Joanna says. “She would say to me, ‘(Yuwanna), don’t sit like her. Sit like me.’ And I have never forgotten that. (Good posture) is the key to singing and playing (instruments) accurately.”

Having developed an eye for spectacular wardrobes has brought out both her personality and confidence as a performer.

Joanna Nachef is the first female conductor in the Middle East and has always included fashion and decorum into her concerts. She has returned to her native Lebanon to conduct several concerts since 2009. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)
Joanna Nachef is the first female conductor in the Middle East and has always included fashion and decorum into her concerts. She has returned to her native Lebanon to conduct several concerts since 2009. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)

In 1989, she became the first female conductor of the Middle East when she conducted the Pacific Symphony Orchestra at the Orange County Performing Arts Center (Segerstrom Center for the Arts). The occasion was a performance for the 500 Club Lebanese-American Organization.

Since that historical concert, several other Middle Eastern women have joined her as professional conductors, she says.

 

New opportunities

Born in Beirut, Lebanon, Joanna is the second oldest of four children to parents Michel and Yolla Medawar. She and her family fled Lebanon in 1975, during the early stages of Lebanon’s civil war. They traveled to America and settled with relatives in Los Angeles’ South Bay.

Joanna enrolled at El Camino College near Torrance to study music with instructor Jane Hardester. But in 1977, Michel and his family returned to their beloved home country in hopes that the war was subsiding.

Jane, who was the college’s choral director, thought about the young Lebanese girl with big dreams of conducting an orchestra. She dashed a letter to Joanna in Beirut.

“So what are you doing about your conducting?” Jane wrote.

The war in Lebanon was escalating and Michel Medawar, a third-generation jeweler-clockmaker, chose to remain politically neutral which was not viewed favorably by Lebanese authorities. For their security, the Medawars left their homeland for good in 1977 and settled in Palos Verdes.

Joanna was happy to return to ECC and complete her lessons.

A student makes changes to her music sheet. Reading music is an important part of being a musician, Joanna Nachef says. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)
A student makes changes to her music sheet. Reading music is an important part of being a musician, Joanna Nachef says. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)

After studying music conducting with Jane, Joanna earned her bachelor’s degree in piano performance at California State University, Dominguez Hills. She credits both Jane and Frances Steiner at CSUDH for being major influences on her career.

At 22, Joanna continued her education at the University of Southern California. She earned her Doctor of Musical Arts and Master in Music degrees in choral music

She started as a part-time music instructor at ECC in 1989 and was hired as a full-time director of choral activities in 1996.

Her honors have been abundant over the decades. She was selected as one of the Outstanding Young Women of America in 1986, one of 1996’s Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers, 2008 Who’s Who Among America’s Women and 2010 Who’s Who in the World.

In 2014, she received ECC’s Distinguished Faculty Award.

She retired as artistic director of Los Cancioneros Master Chorale in 2015, after 24 years. In 2017 she started the Joanna Medawar Nachef Singers (comprised of many former ECC singers) and in 2018, was chosen to revive the defunct Torrance Pops Orchestra.

Joanna has maintained a consistent physical appearance, blending fashion and comfort with professionalism for much of the last 30 years.

Joanna Nachef works with her choral students in the fall of 2021, as some of the ECC classes returned to in-person instruction. Besides her conducting and singing prowess, she is also an accomplished pianist. Joanna’s choral class and orchestra performed a holiday concert at ECC Marsee Auditorium in December 2021. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)
Joanna Nachef works with her choral students in the fall of 2021, as some of the ECC classes returned to in-person instruction. Besides her conducting and singing prowess, she is also an accomplished pianist. Joanna’s choral class and orchestra performed a holiday concert at ECC Marsee Auditorium in December 2021. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)

She has worn her natural “blue-black hair” in a style she describes as a “half-do, off the shoulders.” Her hairstylist since 1999 is Zouhair Itani, a friend she met in America more than 40 years ago.

Zouhair also fled with his family from war-ravaged Lebanon in the mid-1970s. By chance, he studied cosmetology at ECC before turning professional.

Toni & Zouhair Salon in Redondo Beach has been owned by the Itani brothers since 1979. Their shop is a quick jaunt from the Nachef home, Joanna says with a smile.

When conducting music on a stage, Joanna says she wants to be seen, admired and respected for her femininity, as much as her conducting prowess.

“I’m not trying to replace a man, I’m trying to complete the circle,” Joanna says. “I wear elegant dresses and look attractive because I want the audience to see beauty on the stage. That’s why I insist my singers are also dressed (impeccably).”

Rodney Rose, an ECC music student of Joanna’s in 1997 and now a member of her JMNS chorus, marvels at her sense of style.

“She is a force of nature,” Rodney said. “Joanna has a great sense of fashion and is always dressed immaculately, with a little bit of sass.”

Female conductors have to work harder to earn respect and acceptability, Mary Lou “Marya” Basaraba, resident chorus maestra of the Golden State Pops Orchestra, says. The GSPO is a symphony pops orchestra formed in 2002 and is the resident orchestra in San Pedro.

I believe women are judged much more harshly on their podium presentation than their male counterparts,” Marya said. “The onus is on the women to look great, especially nowadays with so many televised events.”

With her wardrobe set, Joanna adds sparkly teardrop earrings to complete the look.

Her appreciation for expensive jewelry is understandable since her parent’s own Medawar Fine Jewelers in the Rolling Hills Estate.

Fine jewelry is also part of Joanna Nachef's presentation. Her parents own Medawar Fine Jewelers in Palos Verdes Estates. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)
Fine jewelry is also part of Joanna Nachef’s presentation. Her parents own Medawar Fine Jewelers in Palos Verdes Estates. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)

“(Colleagues and students) call me Dr. Bling,” Joanna says with a laugh. “Here comes the diva, the maestra. I love glitter. I love sequins. You can tell by my (glittery COVID health) mask. And why not? It’s part of my persona. It brings more brightness to the day.”

As with everything else, her home life is a juggling act. Joanna has been married to husband Hani for 34 years. They met in Lawndale in 1983, when Joanna was invited to conduct the Arabic choir started by Hani and friends.

The couple have lived in their PV home for 25 years, where they enjoy gardening and cooking.

Hani retired from the corporate world to open two Jersey Mike’s Subs restaurants (as of 2021) in Gardena, starting in 2014.

Joanna and Hani have two adult children: Hannah, an attorney with Booth Law, a Torrance firm specializing in sexual abuse and serious injury cases; and son Timothy, a youth leader at Seacoast Grace Church in Cypress, who is studying to be a minister.

 

Legacy of teaching

The in-class learning experience cannot be duplicated online for musicians, Joanna says. Which is why she has returned (early) to in-person instruction for all of her fall 2021 classes.

She calculates that more than 250 of her ECC music students have continued their music education at universities and performance art institutions across the world.

Joanna has led her El Camino students to six concert tours of New York’s Carnegie Hall in the past 15 years. This task has included fundraising to help students with air travel and hotel stay.

Joanna Nachef gives her approval to the bass section during a class rehearsal. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)
Joanna Nachef gives her approval to the bass section during a class rehearsal. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)

Traditionally, conductors do not engage with the audience before a performance, she says. Joanna, however, diplomatically broke with tradition at Carnegie Hall.

“I told (the audience) what we are going to do. No boring historic stuff. I said, ‘what were you doing at age 5? Guess what I was doing at age 5? I was sucking my thumb. But what was Mozart doing at age 5? He was composing and concertizing.’ And (the audience) connected,” Joanna says with a chuckle.

In May 2010, April 2013 and May 2015, Joanna conducted three historic performances at Carnegie Hall with choirs from Lebanon, Dubai and Los Angeles, she says.

“These students realized that they don’t have to learn each other’s language or culture,” Joanna says. “They stand side by side (when singing), have the same challenges, the same successes. It’s the best form of self-diplomacy.”

Joanna traveled to Lebanon in 2009 to compile Arabic choral music for publication in the United States. That year she also made her conducting debut in her home country at the Al Bustan Summer Festival in Beit Mery.

Her legacy was furthered when she conducted the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra on three occasions: 2013, 2014 and 2019.

One of Joanna’s proudest moments came in 2014, when she ignited the career of a young Lebanese composer.

Georges Tomb, 22, sought out Joanna to show his work of music compositions.

“He asked if I would do his work here at El Camino and I said, ‘I have a concert in Lebanon in two months,’” Joanna says. “Georges responded, ‘you will do it in Lebanon?’”

Joanna, however, faced resistance from Lebanese music leaders.

“They fought me tooth and nail,” Joanna says. “They did not want to open the door for a young composer to be featured.”

Her program was to conduct Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 and Mozart’s “Vesperae solenness de confessore.”

Some of Joanna Nachef's many colorful conductor batons. She color coordinates everything starting with her shoes. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)
Some of Joanna Nachef’s many colorful conductor batons. She color coordinates everything starting with her shoes. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)

“They said, ‘how would you put somebody young like that in the middle of these masters?’ Joanna says. “I said, ‘where do you think Mozart and Beethoven started? Somebody has to open the door.’”

She convinced her contemporaries to give the unknown composer a chance. Joanna included Georges’ compositions in the concert, highlighted by “Hope,” a romantic piece arranged for the piano and orchestra.

That performance made Georges the youngest Lebanese composer to have his work played by the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra.

Joanna premiered my career, and as every artist needs someone to believe in him at first, she was the one giving me this very first chance in my country, where many wouldn’t have risked it,” Georges says.

Joanna’s last major concert was in 2019 when she took her JMNS troupe to Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia to present Master Classes. JMNS and Pokroff Chamber Choir received a Department of State Public Diplomacy Grant, she says.

While her journey as ECC choral director is nearing its end, Joanna can’t imagine a life without sharing her music with the masses.

“I really believe my future is not just to do what I’m given the opportunity to do, which is to teach the discipline,” Joanna says. “But continue to live my life and show them that I’m not just a teacher, I am a performer.”

With her office walls adorned with photos and news clippings, Joanna Nachef shares the history of her musical accomplishments. She is a native of Beirut, Lebanon. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)
With her office walls adorned with photos and news clippings, Joanna Nachef shares the history of her musical accomplishments. She is a native of Beirut, Lebanon. (Gary Kohatsu | Warrior Life)

 

Editor’s note: Space was added in headline on June 10, 2022, at 12:45 p.m.