Aurora Chorus News
Tickets on sale now. Shows December 14th and 15th.
Aurora Chorus sings of simple gifts and everyday graces, with songs of humble gratitude and joyful praise. Join us for the mystical sounds of Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil and the earthy energy of traditional sacred Shaker music; music by Baroque master Vivaldi and Broadway legend Irving Berlin; and the contemporary choral sounds of American composers Aaron Copland and David Conte.
Aurora will also premiere two original works and two arrangements by our director, nationally recognized composer Joan Szymko. With the Madrona Viola Duo as our special guests and accompanist Signe Lusk, Simple Gifts overflows with choral gems and the joy of the holiday season.
Seating begins 20 minutes before each performance. Come down to the friendship hall beforehand to stay warm and dry. We happily accommodate patrons who arrive early and request assistance due to mobility challenges. Note that the balcony is accessible only by stairs.
We will again have mini pies available to enjoy in the friendship hall, before or after the concert, or we can bag them for you to take home. No food can be consumed in the concert hall. Last year, the pies sold out quickly!
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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