Music, Vocal music

Joan Szymko – Illuminating Poetry with Song

A preview by Marc Shulgold

Joan Szymko

Glancing at the accomplishments of composer Joan Szymko, it’s no surprise that she emerged from an encouraging home environment. Born in Chicago in 1957 to a devout Catholic family, where (her bio states) “faith, education and the arts were core values,” she began piano at 8. Pursuing a life in music seemed a clear path.

Not so fast.

“I didn’t have a calling,” Szymko (pronounced SHIM-ko) said in recalling her career, prior to a rare Colorado visit in April, when she’ll conduct two concerts of her music by the Ars Nova Chamber Singers.

“I was the smart one in the family, but not the musical one,” she said. “I wanted to be a doctor. But I was developing a gestural response to music. I remember crying while listening to the slow movement of a Tchaikovsky Concerto. After that, I signed up for every music course.”

She had led Mass on occasion and sang in her high school choir. Still, no bells were rung. “I didn’t have any teachers who gave me context,” Szymko said. It’s as if that “calling” was waiting to be called. Attending the University of Illinois, she received a degree in Music Education with a choral/vocal emphasis, and toyed with the idea of becoming a high school choral director. 

Joan Szymko

A move to Seattle in 1980 changed everything. She enrolled at the University of Washington to study composition and joined a feminist choir as accompanist. “I spent a lot of time working on conducting,” she recalled. Then, she noticed something interesting.

“I began to realize that there was not a lot of music for women’s choirs – that they were thought of as second tier.” The reason was simple, she discovered: Early Western traditions in the church did not allow women to sing. “There was a need to fill for me.” 

Her long list of compositions was destined to contain an impressive number of works for women’s chorus. “I had an awakening,” she said. “But understand, never did I say, ‘I’m going to be a composer.’ There were no teaching jobs at that time.”

While living in the middle of a horse pasture on Vashon Island, north of Tacoma, Szymko led a small choir in a church whose congregation supported refugees. In 1993, she moved to Portland, Oregon (her current home) when a friend offered her his women’s choir, the Aurora Chorus.

Mary Oliver

The following year, she formed an adjunct women’s ensemble, Viriditas. “I’d been reading a lot of the works of Hildegard,” she explained, referring to the legendary 12th Century German abbess. “She used that word a lot – viriditas – which means ‘greening.’ So I chose to name my group after that.” In 1994 she also began a collaboration in Portland with direcor/choreographer Robin Lane’s multi-disciplinary group DoJump!Movement Theater.

No wonder her music is so filled with variety and a sense of wonder. Her choice of texts reflects that, as well. 

Wendell Berry

Szymko’s settings of poems by Mary Oliver, Kim Stafford and Wendell Berry – included in the Ars Nova programs – showcase her embrace of environmental subjects and her love of nature. But then, there’s the novelty of “Where is the Door to the Tavern?” with accompaniment by tuned water-filled bottles (words from the 14th Century!). Texts of all kinds inspire her.

“The words come first,” Szymko said, in describing her approach to composition.  “We’re storytellers in the chorus. When I set a text, I’m trying to illuminate it. I want the audience to feel what I felt when I wrote it. I’m a vehicle for the language.”

Joan Szymko will lead the Ars Nova Chamber Singers in concerts of her music at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 12 in First United Methodist Church, 1421 Spruce St., Boulder; 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 13 in Bethany Lutheran Church, 4500 E. Hampden Ave., Cherry Hills Village. Information:

Ars Nova Singers

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