The Czech Philharmonic Children’s Choir conducted by Petr Louženský, piano accompaniment by Jan Kalfus
Music by Novák, Dvořák, Martinů, Mysliveček, Lukáš, and a sung dance piece, Slavnosti jara, by Otmar Mácha
St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington
Monday 2 November, 12:15 pm
We have visits from overseas choirs from time to time, but I don’t think I’ve encountered one like this before. Words like enchanting, artless, exquisite, tender, crystalline, joyful, guileless, come to mind, and it refers to both the singing, and the dancing.
The choir was established in 1932 to meet the needs of Czech Radio; it survived World War II and the years under Communism and became associated with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in 1952, a relationship that lasted 40 years. The choir is now independent and exists with help from the Czech Government, the City of Prague, the National Theatre, the Prague Philharmonic Choir and a number of other cultural, media and commercial organisations. They have the world record of three wins at the famous choral competition at Tolosa in Spain (in which the Voices New Zealand won gold and silver awards in 1998) and an astonishing range of other international awards.
If I’d had the impression from the word ‘children’ that these were predominantly primary-school-age children, it was clear at once that while some were probably under 13, the great majority were teenagers and so it is to be considered a ‘youth choir’. There were about 40 performers in all, all but five, girls. Two mature, taller boys contributed fine lower voices.
Otherwise, it does have the character of a children’s choir, on account of the freshness, clarity and innocence of the soprano voices. Though only 40 travelled, some 800 are currently participating in the wide range of singing, dancing and musical activities in Prague.
The most striking visual features were the costumes, beautifully harmonised, peasant-derived skirts, bodices, ribbons in the hair, floral and foliage head decorations, and the impression of pastoral innocence expressed by calm yet animated faces, bare feet, modest deportment.
The concert was in two parts. The first half was devoted to religious and secular pieces by familiar Czech, Moravian and Slovak classical composers: Dvořák, Martinů, Novák, and Mysliveček, and a couple of names unfamiliar to me: Zdeněk Lukáš and Otmar Mácha.
There was a quality in their singing that marked them as different from comparable New Zealand voices: an unaffected simplicity and delight in their performances conveyed as much through facial expressions and gestures as their voices. While their dress was harmonious in the use of pastel shades, style and dress length, there was considerable variety in colour and detail within the peasant style.
There was delightful variety in the five straight vocal items that filled the first 20 minutes or so: a spirited though soulful Gloria by Novák; a bright, staccato, dance-like song, ‘Sentencing Death’, by Martinů, with its brief interruption by a triple-time phase in the middle. A song entitled ‘Wreath’ by Lukáš followed, with alto voices more pronounced; there was a fast staccato section followed by several tempo changes all handled with accuracy, fluid dynamics, with the voices indeed wreathing the most charming patterns.
The second part of the concert came with ‘Spring Celebration’ (Slavnosti jara) by Mácha, in effect an extended folk ballet, with choreography by Živana Vajsarová. What turned out to be the ‘singing’ part of the ensemble (some 20) gathered round the piano on the left of the platform in front of the sanctuary, while the rest retreated. And they returned through the doors at the rear of the sanctuary in small groups, running, dancing, in different, more colourful, costumes, to dance, as well as to sing. Among the non-dancing singers there emerged a player of cow or sheep bells and a recorder player, who lent the bucolic tone to the ritual. A rite of spring, no doubt, but not of the violent kind Stravinsky has accustomed us to.
They bore garlands of fir and pine, a May-pole is brought on and the attached ribbons were woven by eight dancers, now in fresh costumes, circling it in complex patterns. The piano led the dancers through slower and faster steps: the footwork might not have been balletic in the classical sense but it was perfect, and utterly diverting, clearly a considerable feat of memory.
Then a flaxen-haired puppet on a long pole appeared – the symbol of Winter; it is subject to increasingly hostile gestures of rejection and finally thrown into the wings. A solo voice emerged at this stage, firm and clear, a symbol of Spring no doubt, and she was encircled by others as the new season finally triumphs.
Throughout, Otmar Mácha’s music was either authentic Czech and Slovak peasant songs and dances, or convincing imitations that were typical of the rich fund of folk music that is familiar to us in the music of Dvořák and Smetana. It became increasingly joyful and exciting, the dancing reflecting the effervescent spirit of the music wonderfully as it accelerated towards a heart-raising conclusion.
Even after the formal ending of the performance, more was at hand, with folk or operetta tunes that were familiar, but names eluded me apart from one that resembled ‘Roll out the barrel’.
Yet that did not satisfy the enraptured audience, and Dvořák’s ‘Songs my mother taught me’ rather changed the atmosphere and allowed them all to retire quietly.
As background, here are some words from the choir’s website (http://www.kuhnata.cz/en/):
“Over the course of its existence it has given thousands of talented children a love of music and art. Its most talented children have grown into distinguished musicians – conductors, directors, composers, singers and instrumentalists. Its tradition and the breadth of its artistic scope makes it a unique artistic institution, not only in the Czech Republic but throughout Europe…. During its existence, the choir has recorded over 50 CDs of both Czech and international music.”
But finally, what a pity word had not been more widely spread about this wonderful ensemble. St Andrew’s had prepared and distributed a small flyer and it was included in Radio NZ Concert’s Live Diary, but I didn’t read about it in print media. As a result, the church was far from full, as it truly deserved to be.