About Joan Szymko

Short bio suitable for concert programs.

Joan Szymko* (b.1957) is a composer and conductor from the Pacific Northwest. With a catalog of over 100 published choral works, her music is performed by ensembles across North America and abroad. Abundant lyricism, rhythmic integrity and vigorous attention to text are hallmarks of Szymko's diverse and distinctive choral writing. Fresh and inspiring, her text selections are as notable as her music. Especially significant is Szymko's contribution to the body of quality literature for women's voices. Her music frequently is heard at regional, national and international choral festivals and competitions. Since 2003, her music has been performed at every National Conference of the American Choral Directors Association. Works such as "Nada te turbe" and "It Takes a Village" have entered into the standard repertoire. The ACDA recognized Szymko's lasting impact on the choral arts in America by selecting her as the recipient of the Raymond W. Brock Memorial Commission in 2010. Most recently she was commissioned by Eugene Vocal Arts to both create the libretto and compose a large scale work which focuses on those faced with the tragedy of Alzheimer's dementia. ”Shadow and Light” for mezzo-soprano, tenor, soprano, SATB chorus and full chamber orchestra was premiered in April 2016 to great critical acclaim. This notable addition to the choral-orchestral repertoire will be made available by Joan Szymko Music in 2017.

Composing for vocal ensembles is an extension of Szymko's creativity as a choral director. She has inspired community and church choirs in Seattle and Portland for over 30 years. Her passion for the singing voice, an embodied approach to sound, a dedication to craft and artistry, and her insistence on quality texts—all relate to her experience as a conductor and are reflected in her choral compositions. In addition to her own published works, her music appears in the catalogs of Santa Barbara Music Publishing, Lorenz Corporation (Roger Dean Publishing), earthsongs,Treble Clef Press and Walton Music. She is a founding member of the Independent Music Publishers Cooperative.

Szymko lives and works in Portland, Oregon. She enjoyed a fruitful, decade long collaboration with Robin Lane and Do Jump! Movement Theater (1994-2004) performing her music with the company inPortland and touring on Broadway, at the Kennedy Center and Geffen Playhouse (LA). She recently served on the choral music faculty at Portland State University. As a visiting artist, she has workshopped her music with choirs in a variety of educational settings across the US and most recently, in the Netherlands. Szymko is entering her 23rd season as the Artistic Director of Aurora Chorus.

*pronounced: SHIM-koh 

Born and raised in Chicago (1957) Joan Szymko grew up the youngest of five children in a devoutly Catholic home. Catholic faith, education and the arts were the core values her parents passed on to their children. As for the arts, music reigned. Her father adored classical music and mother played piano by ear. Joan fondly remembers dancing wildly with her sisters around the basement family room to orchestral "greatest hits" like Cappricio Español. Key to her early musical development was the exposure to a wide variety of music—Benjamin Britten and the Beatles, Mussorgsky and Mitch Miller, Prokofiev and Peter, Paul & Mary, Gregorian chant and Crosby Still & NashLeontyne Price and Joni Mitchell, Rodgers & Hammerstein and West Side Story. However, the default soundtrack in the home was classical piano music. Like all of her older siblings, she took piano lessons with the Catholic nun who taught at her parochial grammar school. The music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok and Debussy, among others, was continuously being played on the family spinet. Brother and sisters also took up the guitar, and played and sang together the folk and rock music of the 60's and early 70's, a la the Von Trapp family. Her youthful musical explorations in singing, ensemble, movement, rhythm and diversity of styles—all remain key to Szymko's artistic expression today.

Szymko studied piano throughout high school and sang in choir. She was a Folk Mass music leader at her parish church and at school. But is was the moments of transcendence and bliss experienced while listening to great music that compelled her to enter college as a music student. She began at the Chicago Musical College at Roosevelt University and continued at the University of Illinois (Urbana), where she received a B.S. in Music Education (1979) with an emphasis on vocal/choral education. She left for Seattle, Washington following graduation. Szymko soon began arranging and composing music to fill the repertoire needs of the progressively leaning women's and church choirs she directed there in the 1980's and early 90's—the Seattle Women's Ensemble and University Baptist Church. During her first decade as a choral professional, she expanded her knowledge of conducting and vocal pedagogy by way of numerous workshops and summer sessions. A year of music study at the University of Washington (1988) and a successful musical theater collaboration, "Cradle and All" (1991), both solidified her determination to continue the pursuit of a career in music with an emphasis on composition. Joan Szymko is esentially a self-taught composer.

In 1993 Szymko was invited to Portland, Oregon to take on the leadership of Aurora Chorus, a 100 voice non-auditioned women's community chorus, a post she still holds. Soon after arriving in Portland, she founded the select women's choir, Viriditas Vocal Ensemble. She composed prolifically for this group as well as for Aurora Chorus and several of Szymko's best known works have been premiered by these two ensembles. With Viriditas (1994-2002) her mission was to provide an exceptional, eclectic choral experience for both singers and audience. Performances explored connections between music and ritual, unique collaborations, and were aimed at bringing down the "fourth wall" between performers and audience. In her collaborations with choreographer Robin Lane of Do Jump! Movement Theater (1995-present) she learned a great deal about flow and momentum which has impacted how she programs concerts. In the Fall of 2013 Szymko joined the choral faculty at Portland State University as director of the auditioned women's choir, Vox Femina.

Szymko loves language, poetry and metaphor.  To Joan, words are sensual: their sounds, rhythms, and how they feel in one's mouth when speaking or singing.  Born with strong rhythmic impulses, her compositions often display a natural command of compound meters and polyrhythms. Drawn to African polyrhythms, she studied West African hand drumming technique in the late 80's and performed with Anzanga African Marimba Ensemble (1991-93). While a Fellow at the Instituto Sacatar Artist Residency in Bahia, Brazil (2009) she was exposed to samba, and has enjoyed playing in a Portland area samba batteria. Szymko is fascinated by time as an emotional component in music by way of tempo, duration and meter, and her compositions often have a dynamic rhythmic feel. Joan Szymko's innate musicality, her fascination with rhythm and line, a passion for the singing voice and insistence on quality texts are all reflected in her choral compositions; as abundant lyricism, rhythmic integrity and and a vigorous attention to text are hallmarks of her diverse and distinctive choral writing. She has earned a reputation for her ability to capture the essence of the poetry she sets with consistent skill, artistry, and with a keen understanding of composing for voice. 

Do Jump! Movement Theater Company,
"Peace Window"

In the 1980's Seattle was becoming a center for modern dance and Szymko was very drawn to this style of movement theater. As director of the Seattle Women's Ensemble, her most adventurous programming involved concert collaborations with dancer/choreographers Pat Graney and Llory Wilson. Szymko's first major choral-theater work was her collaboration with Wilson who choreographed a loving tribute to friends in the dance community lost to the AIDS epidemic to Szymko's "On Holding On (1989)—a ten minute a cappella choral piece set entirely to the words "hold on."  Joan carried her enthusiasm for the dance stage to Portland where she began her long fruitful relationship with director/choreographer, Robin Lane, founder of Do Jump! Movement Theater.

Since 1995, Szymko has composed much of the music for Robin Lane's aerial choreography; including scores used in three full length presentations as well as numerous repertory works. She performed this music with the company in Portland and on tour, including runs on Broadway, at the Kennedy Center and the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Early music composed for Do Jump! is featured on her CD of original works, “Openings.”

In the early 90's Szymko composed musical theater. She worked on three major projects: "Cradle and All," "Group" and "Abraham's Land." "Cradle and All," (1990, book & lyrics by Ellen Cooper) received full productions in Seattle, San Francisco and Indianapolis.  She remains interested in the form and in 2013 Joan was selected as a participant in the New Dramatist/Nautilus Music Theater Composer-Librettist Studio in New York. This intensive exploration of the collaborative process pushed her creative limits, as she composed five songs with five different playrights in ten days!


Music Composed for Do Jump! Movement Theater Company

  • At Such a Dizzy Height (“Peace Window”) Aaaah HA! (2011-12);  Portland and New York (New Victory Theater)
  • "Aria," (2009) Tiger Lilly and Sunny Lu; Echo Theater (Portland)
  • “Aaaah HA!” 006-08; Newmark Theater (Portland), Ordway Center for Performing Arts, St Paul, MN
  • "Openings," (150+ performances between 1995-2001) Echo Theater; New Victory Theater, NYC; Geffen Playhouse, LA
  • “¡Entusiasmo!” (2005-08) ¡Entusiasmo! Incidental instrumental music and "Sunrise." Newmark Theater, Portland, OR
  • “Fly", “Ah Ha!” “Braided Light,” (1996-2011, multiple) Repertory Works. Portland & on tour (multiple venues).

Musical Theater Productions
"Cradle and All” (1991) Two Acts, cast of 4; book-lyrics by Ellen Cooper.
Alice B. Theater (Seattle, 1990) and Theater Rhinoceros (San Francisco, 1991)

I am deeply committed to making choral art in my community. As our culture becomes more reliant on disembodied communication and as strident individualism is marketed with an almost religious fervor, I find great solace in weekly choral rehearsals. There, people from all walks of life come together to surrender themselves to the whole; they come for communion, hoping to perfect a unified sound and for the promise of a deeply exhilarating musical experience. It can be transformative. It is healing.

I approach the process of composing as that of "deep listening." I believe that as I compose, if I truly surrender myself—if I become at-one with the process, then I will create something of beauty that will resonate deeply with singer and listener, whatever the tone, character or meaning of the work.

My goal has always been to compose music that invites the audience "in" while challenging the notion that accessibility and musical integrity are incompatible concepts. One of the means to realizing this goal has been through collaboration; I have composed choral music to be performed with actors, poets, Taiko drummers, modern dancers, aerialists and accordion players. I have set texts by fourth graders and Pulitzer Prize winners, medieval mystics and contemporary poets. I employ words that delight, confront or inspire me; make me think, make me feel. I am particularly drawn to poems and texts that invoke divine grace, speak to the universal yearning for good and that nurture a compassionate heart. I desire to illuminate the texts, allowing my music to be a vehicle for the words. — Joan Szymko



"Joan Szymko holds a position of honor in the women’s choir realm, in part because of her plentiful and skillfully composed contributions to the women’s repertoire, numbering more than eighty works as of this writing. Numerous honor choirs have performed her music at the past five national ACDA conventions, as well as choirs selected for international competitions. In 2010 she was chosen to compose ACDA’s prestigious Raymond W. Brock Commission, for which she penned 'All Works of Love' for SATB choir."
CHORAL JOURNAL, December 2013, Excerpt from Feature Article written by Debra Spurgeon, DMA, Associate Professor of Choral Music, University of Mississippi-Oxford


"Szymko specializes in choral works of haunting beauty.”
— Willamette Week, Portland, Oregon


Peace Window, [was] accompanied by ethereal vocal music by Joan Szymko.”
The New York Times


“Fortunately Alan Hovhaness's 'Ave Maria' came along to ease the program out of its sleepy doldrums and Joan Szymko's excellent and incisive 'Nada te Turbe' finished the job of waking it up.”
The Washington Post


“The Milwaukee Choral Artists then took command with a set including a pair of striking and intense compositions by American composer Joan Szymko… “
Chicago Classical Review


“Joan Szymko has earned a reputation for setting interesting texts with skill and finesse...”


“Do Jump! is buoyed by Joan Szymko’s original music..."
Los Angeles Times


“Perhaps the most delightful work on the second half was a setting of bibulous words from a Horace Ode by Joan Szymko ... Rich choral textures were interrupted and enlivened by a sudden rhythmic groove from a tambourine as the title refrain 'Carpe Diem' was chanted.”
— Cleveland classical.com, 2011


“Joan Szymko has produced another winner ... and in so doing, has continued to provide opportunities for women’s choruses to stretch beyond the ordinary and the expected to the refreshing and powerful.”


"...'Pendulum' emerged as the best of the Tolerance Project's five selections, a triumph of creative writing for Joan Szymko."
Beverly Hills Outlook


"....there were some supreme high points as well. In this, Joan Szymko's 'Nada te turbe' and 'This We Know' were exemplary."
The Oregonian

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