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International Women’s Day Concert
Dare to Be Powerful
March 8, 2015

Dare to Be Powerful

When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether  I am afraid. – Audre Lorde

In our second annual International Women’s Day concert, Aurora celebrates the power and strength of women who have faced societal challenges with beauty, grace, and courage—women such as Malala Yousafzai, Ella Baker, and Audre Lorde. Hope-filled favorites by Libby Roderick and Holly Near complement the program. This year we again introduce an exciting local artist to our Aurora community. We are thrilled to present Portland singer-songwriter Kelly Bosworth as our special guest.

Light Is Returning
Program Notes from Artistic Director Joan Szymko

Joan SzymkoAs we begin our concert, we inhabit the darkness of the season and explore its power and mystery. According to Sri Ramakrishna, a famed 19th-century Indian mystic, darkness is the ultimate Mother—Kali:

My Mother is the principle of consciousness. . . . The night sky between the stars is perfectly black. The waters of the ocean depths are the same; the infinite is always mysteriously dark. This inebriating darkness is my beloved Kali.

In our opening chant, From the Reaches of Darkness, poet (and former Aurora singer) Elly Worden reflects on the Solstice and on Mother Kali’s transformative powers as overseer of darkness (death) and rebirth. In the Hindu religion, Kali is a manifestation of the supreme Mother Goddess, Durga, who is honored in our next piece, the prayer chant Jai Bhavani, as divine Mother Earth. Some believe Kali/Durga to be one of the many Black Madonnas that exist in various locations throughout the world. Aurora’s celebration of the Divine Feminine then culminates with David MacIntyre’s meditative, ecstatic Ave Maria.

The image of mother and child is at the center of Christmas religious observance. Another familiar image is that of Joseph leading Mary and baby Jesus on a donkey in the desert night, refugees fleeing Bethlehem and the murderous wrath of King Herod. Coventry Carol tells the dark story from the book of Matthew of Herod’s brutal paranoia and his slaying of the innocents. Two thousand years later, there are many King Herods in the world, who will stop at nothing to maintain or gain a grip on power. As a result, today over 16 million people—half of them children—are refugees. It seems, as the lyrics go in our next piece, that “peace has hidden her lovely face and turned in tears away.” And yet here we remain, ever hopeful in this great season of returning light, gathering family and friends in homes filled with music and good food, with love and good will. Yes, for many of us gathered here, There Shall Be Christmas Day. This song is a setting of Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Wartime Christmas,” which he wrote while serving on the front lines of France near the end of World War I. He was killed by a sniper’s bullet not long after penning this wartime ode to peace.

Originally performed by members of the Israeli Defense Forces in 1969, the song Shir Lashalom is now an anthem in the Israeli peace movement. Although penned for the military, its lyrics criticize songs of victory in war. Its refrain states, “Therefore sing only a song to peace with a great shout.” During his second term as prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was cut down by an assassin’s bullet just after having led the crowd in the singing of Shir LaShalom at a 1995 peace rally.

We now welcome our special guest artist, Oregon poet and author Kim Stafford. His 2004 poem “Friend: Download This Free Proclamation for Local Use” is the lyric to our next piece, Be It Therefore Resolved. In simple, true words, the poem transforms peace from an “abstraction” into a living, breathing action—a song. I was honored that he gave me permission to set this poem to music for a commission by the Congressional Chorus in Washington, D.C., in 2011. Aurora’s performance is the premiere of the setting for women’s voices. With stories and poetry, Stafford’s presentation will be the “hinge” between the darkness and the light.

Leonard Cohen, explaining the meaning of his song Anthem, wrote:

This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect. And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together, physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.

Anthem’s message of hope is clear and unsentimental and believable. Do what you can: “Ring the bells that still can ring.” The winter solstice is a kind of resurrection, a new beginning, even though it is the darkest hour. In our concert title song, Light Is Returning, we keep the “light of hope alive” for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for the planet. With the return of the light and the lengthening of days, our concert program gives way to the sun. Wendeyaho, popularized by Rita Coolidge as Cherokee Morning Song, has traditionally been sung by women as part of morning prayers, while facing the rising sun and welcoming the new day. The song is actually not in the Cherokee language, but is sung in a little-known Native American language, Tihanama. According to one of the remaining fluent speakers, the phrase wendeyaho means “Our hearts (spirits) are strong.”

Turn the World Around begins, “We come from the fire.” Harry Belafonte was inspired to write this song upon hearing a story, told by a village storyteller deep in the interior of the West African nation of Guinea, about how fire (the sun), the water, the earth, and Spirit together turn the world around. We are here for but a short time, and if we take the time to understand and care for each other, we together can “turn the world around.” Imagine it were so—the earth and the heavens would surely sing for joy! ¡El Cielo Canta Alegria! (Heaven Is Singing for Joy) brings us fully out of the dark and into the shining light that is there for each of us, and in each of us. The sun is always shining somewhere in December—if not in our beloved hometown, then somewhere in the Aloha state. Aurora takes you there with Honolulu Chorus.

No matter where you go or what holiday you celebrate this week, we send you off with the wise, practical, and enlightened Seven Principles of the African American/Pan-African holiday of Kwanzaa, celebrated from December 26 to January 1. The name Kwanzaa comes from a Swahili phrase meaning “fruits of the harvest.” The message of Kwanzaa speaks to the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense. May we all enjoy the fruits of our understanding as we seek to “know who we are” and to truly “see each other clearly.” Wishing you all light and beauty in the new year.

Photo of Joan Szymko by Steve Hambuchen


Kim Stafford on the Power of Words, Sung and Spoken
By Jeanne Krinsley

A spoken poem, a charm, a spell, a song can fill a room, fill a heart, crowd a mind with hope . . . we are stirred . . . we are moved. For the duration, we may dream the same dream.

Kim Stafford

This is what writer, teacher, filmmaker, and musician Kim Stafford told me during an interview about his extraordinary poem, “Friend: Download This Free Proclamation for Local Use.” During this concert you can look forward to hearing Stafford read from his work, as well as the chorus performing a musical setting of his poem, “Be It Therefore Resolved,” written by Artistic Director Joan Szymko.

Stafford’s poem is a testament to the healing power of poetry and song, although he told me that songs and poems come to him in quite different ways and have different effects:

Poems come to me every day. Now and then a song comes. It feels different, seems to be singing already. I remember walking late at night, in the rain, and hearing a song, in the voice of a homeless person, ringing in my mind. Rhyme is part of it. But the text for a song feels like it’s in a different language, our deepest, most native language. As a diva said once, we start life by singing—the child’s long wail is an aria. Some people stop singing as they grow, but fortunately others do not.

But a successful poem, Stafford added, is “a song in disguise. It may ring true even when spoken.” Still, he feels that a poem’s words set to music “[raise] the power of words exponentially.”

On the website of Lewis and Clark College’s Northwest Writing Institute, which Stafford directs, he states, “If communication is the fundamental alternative to violence and injustice, what is the work of each voice among us?” This is a question that each of us must answer for ourselves, a question that may take us a lifetime to answer. But in Stafford’s poem, he states:

Whereas I am free—despite all
fire and anger and fear;
Be it therefore resolved a song
shall be my calling—a song
not yet made shall be vocation
and peaceful words the work
of my remaining days.

“Composing words,” Stafford told me,

is one way to make at least this one part of our experience safe, positive, humane. . . . As children, when threatened, we would chant that primitive charm, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” The words like a magic spell felt like armor to me then. I grew up with the chorus “We shall overcome . . .” facing down guns and attack dogs. Since those days, I have felt my calling has been to put together words and songs, and to invite others to compose healing stories, as my own form of witness and testimony.

“To be a good citizen,” Stafford continued, “I would fill my days with kind words, and sing when I can, when the time is right.”

May we all, as Stafford has, find a calling that will lead us to write, sing, and work for peace.

Photo of Kim Stafford by Perrin Kerns

World Premiere of “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 “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 “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).

“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. “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.

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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.”