Since 1992, Aurora Chorus has honored the strength and beauty of women’s lives through the fine art of choral singing. Aurora was founded on the belief that music can be a powerful instrument of peace—locally, globally, and in the hearts of all who sing and all who listen.

Aurora Chorus News

World Premiere of “I Am Malala”
At our March 8th concert The Rising of the Women Is the Rising of Us All, Aurora will be presenting the world premiere of “I Am Malala,” by Joan Szymko, with these lyrics:

I am Malala,
Their bullet did not stop me.
I am Malala,
Their bullet gave me power to raise my voice.
(voice-over: one child, one teacher, one pen, one book can change the world)
I am Malala,
I am afraid of no one.

Joan spoke about her inspiration:
MalalaI wrote “I Am Malala” specifically for this concert. I was motivated to present something that was current and international. And really, the key to women’s rising is education.

I’d been following the story of Malala Yousafzai* for some time, and after seeing the UN speech she gave on her 16th birthday, I was sure I would compose an ode to her for Aurora’s inaugural International Women’s Day concert. It’s a miracle that she survived the Taliban’s attack on her life. She is so young, and so incredibly courageous and inspiring. I also thought her name would be beautiful sung, as it is so musical. “Malala” means “grief stricken” (she was named after a Pashtun poet and warrior woman from southern Afghanistan).

The name of the piece, “I Am Malala,” is the name of her memoir. And when she was shot, there were a lot of young people around the world standing up saying, “I am Malala. We’re all Malala,” with the idea that violence cannot stop the human spirit and the will to better oneself. For the text, I watched a lot of Malala on YouTube, selecting quotes and crafting a lyric. “I am afraid of no one” comes from a longer quote. She said, “I don’t mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is education. And I’m afraid of no one.” And really, if you’ve been shot in the head and you survive — if you face that and come out on the other side — what happens to fear?

I listened to music of the Pashtun tribe, which Malala belongs to. I wanted the piece to feel somewhat informed by colors and the sounds of this music, but not to imitate it. I also wanted the piece to be very direct, very strong, like Malala herself — “their bullet did not stop me.” I wanted it to be feminine with a powerful fluidity, which I think it achieves. I wanted it to have a contemporary feel as well — and so there is a bit of a “rap” on a quote from her UN speech in the middle of the piece. There are several Malala songs on YouTube that have a western pop music, “We Are the World” anthem feel. “I Am Malala” is definitely in a different vein.

Watch Malala Yousafzai’s speech to the United Nations.

* Malala Yousafzai is the Pakistani schoolgirl who survived a gunshot to the head at the hands of the Taliban. She has since spearheaded the campaign for universal education for children. In 2013 she became the youngest person ever to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

International Women’s Day Event
Tickets for our March 8th event, The Rising of the Women Is the Rising of Us All, go on sale February 1st.

Good Food, Good Friends . . . Good for Aurora

Let’s have a hundred (or more!) parties in February and raise some money for Aurora. It’s simple: invite a group of friends for dinner, drinks, or anything else that sounds like fun and ask for a contribution similar to what your guests would have paid for dinner out. Ask 2 or 20 people. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s fun! Just jump in and party, collect the funds, and send a donation to Aurora. Questions? Send us an email.

We Have New Videos on YouTube

Joan conducting Aurora in 1996.11/20/13
Looking Forward, Looking Back:

Joan Szymko on 20 Years with Aurora
By Terri Grayum

“From a young age, I wanted to be either a doctor or a priest. As a choral conductor, I do a little of both,” says Joan Szymko, artistic director and conductor for the last 20 years of Portland’s Aurora Chorus. “Music is healing; the work we do in Aurora is heart opening for the singers and for the audience. One of my roles as a choral director is to facilitate a surrendering to and a communion with something bigger than the individual.” Szymko has felt called to compose, arrange, and conduct music, to be of service to the music and to the texts from which she draws her inspiration to compose.

Aurora Chorus is a 100-voice women’s choir. Though membership is non-auditioned, the choir achieves a highly polished sound while negotiating some very challenging music. Szymko attributes this success to her trust in the singers and theirs in her. “It’s no secret that I set the bar high. I am always teaching in rehearsal—vocal and choral technique. We also work on more than just rehearsing the correct notes and rhythms; we learn how to listen and we sing music that speaks to the heart of things.” She also puts the songs in context for the choir, giving them background information and translations so that they may more fully embrace the pieces they sing.

Szymko grew up in Chicago and came to the West Coast after college, settling first in Seattle, where she conducted the Seattle Women’s Ensemble for ten years. After a two-year writing sabbatical on Vashon Island, she moved to Portland when David York, then director of the Concord Community of Choirs, invited her to direct Aurora. Here she’s found a home base, a place of grounding and a choir to compose and arrange for. “Aurora is a harbor for me. It gives me a safe place to be creative, and it supports my exploration and adventures, such as a six-week fellowship at the Instituto Sacatar in Brazil in 2009.”

When asked which Aurora concert is her favorite out of the forty or so she’s programmed and conducted, Szymko laughs. “It’s like asking a parent which child is their favorite.” She does hold a special place in her heart for her first Aurora concert, The Rhythms We Harvest from Our Souls. “It was an ambitious show, and a statement of what I intended to accomplish as Aurora’s leader. It was like planting my flag in the ground here.” Another concert that was particularly meaningful was Life Is a Dance, which premiered her stunning work “It Is Happiness,” the setting of three Mary Oliver poems. “David York and the women of Aurora arranged for my parents to fly out from Chicago to attend the concert. It was the first time they’d seen me conduct, the first time they witnessed me as a serious musician, and it impacted our relationship tremendously. I’m forever grateful to David and Aurora for that gift.”

The choir’s purpose hasn’t changed significantly in its twenty-one years of existence. “It has always been about the power of women’s voices making a difference in the world,” says Szymko, “but Aurora’s mission statement has evolved from ‘Women in Harmony for Peace’ to ‘Powerful Women Singing Peace’ to its current expression, ‘Awakening the Heart,’ which involves our audience and invites change through compassion—for self, for others, and for the world. Our mission is not just about the music. The music is the vehicle for the larger gestures. That said, music in and of itself awakens the heart.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is the choir’s commitment to affect social issues. “Aurora has always been an organization that walks its talk, giving back to the community in tangible ways. For example, we’ve partnered with Home Free (Volunteers of America’s domestic violence intervention program) for the last five years by collecting supplies and raising awareness of that organization’s needs. The Aurora Outreach Ensemble takes our music and message into the community in more intimate settings, often helping to raise funds for social organizations.”

An organization like Aurora runs on volunteer power, and one of the challenges is to not overuse its resources. “The median age of Aurora’s members has increased,” says Szymko, “and our task is to find ways to appeal to a new generation of singers, to inject the chorus with some new energy so that our older singers can pass on the torch when they’re ready and still maintain a viable organization.” She recently took a position at Portland State University conducting Vox Femina, PSU’s women’s chorus, and she hopes that some of its members will consider singing with Aurora after graduating.

When asked what she envisions for Aurora in ten years, Szymko replies, “I would like to see Aurora expand into the community, drawing in a larger audience and a more diverse membership. I’d also love for Aurora to have our own home—an office and rehearsal space—as well as a dedicated venue. Portland lacks venues that are large enough for the choir and for our audiences.” And in twenty years? “Continuing the mission of awakening the heart and telling the stories that need to be told.”

What does someone who creates music for a living listen to when not working on pieces or researching potential repertoire? “Those who know my work won’t be surprised that I’m drawn to music that is driven by rhythm. Indigenous or roots folk music—especially African and Balkan—are particular favorites. And more and more I love silence. It may surprise some folks, but I am more of an introvert.”

Szymko is honored that her peers regularly program her music, and she was thrilled to be recognized by the American Choral Directors Association with the Raymond W. Brock Memorial Commission in 2010. She is also featured in the December 2013 issue of the Choral Journal. When asked how it feels to have an international stage for her compositions, she replies, “It’s a privilege that singers here and abroad have brought my music to life. It’s really wonderful to realize that words that have graced my life that I have set to music are having a ripple effect in the lives of others by way of my choral compositions.”

Szymko’s advice for young women considering a career as a conductor or composer—still largely male-dominated fields—is straightforward: “Don’t be afraid to be powerful. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, from your singers and of yourself. And to be a good composer, you must trust your own voice.”

Joan Szymko and the singers of Aurora Chorus are women with stories to tell, stories that change lives. “I am reminded over and over how Aurora impacts lives of the singers and the listeners,” she says. “It is humbling, and I never take it for granted.”


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