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Interview with Jiří Chvála - chief choirmaster of Kühn’s Children’s Choir

For me, the phenomenon of Kühn’s Children’s Choir embodies the connection between classical music and other themes such as education, civil society, Czech legacy, and tradition.

  For seven years I have witnessed how the choir functions, and I am still amazed how this group of more than 600 children, of different ages and levels of progress (from preschool years to adulthood), is organized. From their regular attendance to exams, we see the choir’s incredible determination through their performances, their hosting of operas and dramas, and their international tours to artistic summer camps (where more than 220 children meet), and in their the preparations for each upcoming season. All of this happens in a friendly and almost family-like atmosphere. Kühn’s Children’s Choir does not only give opportunities to the most advanced singers, but it also gives children the chance to perform in front of real audiences, children who come from different backgrounds,who may even have the chance to participate in an international tour.

The tradition of the Choir goes back to the year 1932, when Jan Kühn, an opera singer and  radio director, decided to organize a group of children from one of Prague’s schools, and teach them to cover difficult concerts and opera repertoires. This mission continues today. Kühn’s Children’s Choir is the only choir that has won three times at the international choir singing festival in Toulouse.

Known for its professionalism, the Choir is chosen by international artists like José Carreras, as well as by members of international state operas, national theatres, Summer Shakespeare celebrations and other professional organizations. 

Professor Jiří Chvála has been part of the Choir since 1958, and since 1967 he has been the chief choirmaster. Until now he has supervised the course of the Choir, carefully conducting the vocal warm-ups before the performances, and he also performs with the concert department. Professor Jiří Chvála is still teaching at the department of Music and Dance at the Academy of Performing Arts, and he is also the head of the mixed choir Canti di Praga.

The first traditional question – how do you perceive today´s world?

Each and every life is full of unexpected events, surprises, tests, happiness and disappointments. I cannot answer this question well. I just think that today’s human being – homo sapiens sapiens – understands the world and life less and less.

And how do you perceive the role of the Czech Republic in this world?

This question could be turned around. How do others perceive our role in this world? I think that we can agree that the imaginativeness of our heads, and skills of our hands, make a mark in the world. We should not forget how significantly Czech musicians “conquered” the world. 

Is the old saying “Every Czech is born a musician” still valid?

It is true that music in the Czech environment has naturally cultivated all social classes. However, our contemporary lifestyle leads us somewhere else. Even though it is possible to download any record, people have lost the need to express themselves through music. Although it seems like our musical foundation is sinking, I am surprised by how many amazing young talents I meet in art schools. I think that natural musical behaviour, as when a mother sings to her baby, is missing now. This kind of contact is important for the development of personality, and without it, a child can hardly discover expression through singing.  This is one of the reasons why we accept pre-school children to our choir. 

The importance of Czech music is essential for spreading the good name of the Czech Republic abroad. Do you feel sufficient institutional support in this area? 

Over the last few years, we have not received many offers from agencies to present our culture to the world. The only reason that we are appearing on international stages is because of our hard work and dedication. I feel as though creative and interpretative art has been left behind, and that nobody really cares about it anymore. There are many other things that should be financed first, however the issue is not only about money, it is also about interest and recognition that can encourage young people and set an example. Economic diplomacy is a term that is widely used in the Czech Republic. By the same token, cultural diplomacy is also  one of the best sources for drawing attention to us beyond our borders.

What role do you attribute to “art” classes (music, art, film, etc...) in the framework of education? Many prestigious schools abroad emphasise the importance of these subjects, while in the Czech Republic they are perceived as marginal, and the quality of the education is very low. 

Both students and the public consider these subjects marginal and not important. It is not common for someone to fail art education or music education class. These classes must be about the relationship to the artistic discipline, and feeling aesthetic values, rather than learning a curriculum. Art education takes time and requires patience, because it does not have an immediate effect. This type of education deepens and enriches the personality of a child (as well as that of an adult) and the benefits are essential and irreplaceable. We should not forget that the development of science and technology needs to be balanced by different values, which are hidden inside our souls. We should take care to cultivate these values, particularly in children.

You have followed the legacy of the founder of the choir, Jan Kühn, throughout your teaching career. However, looking at your work, I see parallels with the great Czech teacher and 17th century philosopher Johann Amos Comenius and his School by Play (Schola ludus).

It sounds great to be compared to Komenský’s vision about School by Play. When we do something for a long time and successfully, it really seems like we are playing. However, our success is the result of great effort and painstaking work. For years I have been trying with the choir and my co-workers to develop Kühn’s legacy. I am honoured that I was his student at the Academy of Musical Arts, and then his co-worker.

Experts indicate that the new generation of children is not interested in leisure activities and sports, but rather spends time in front of the computer. Kühn’s Children’s Choir is successful and the number of children is rising. What is your explanation for your success?

It is not easy, even for our choir. Even though we see a lot of interest, it is mostly the pre-school kids that come. This is because parents want to orient their children toward sports, languages and other activities. I can see that the older kids who join the choir have poor vocal expression and no previous experience. This could be due to, as you said, too much time spent in front of computer screens. Professional choir is not the solution to this problem, however it can encourage activity, creativity, discipline and musical sensibility. And that means a lot.

Every year you take a large number of children to the preparatory department, and the exams are not very hard. Do you support the theory that everybody can sing?

We always mention on our leaflets that we take children with healthy voices, and with a good sense of hearing. And that is still valid. However, the number of children with damaged voices is increasing. We tend to believe that we could bring up singers with average talent.  That does not mean that we cannot work with talented children. We have many examples of singers who started in Kühn’s choir, where we gave them solid training, and they continued in their career to become soloists, in the National Theatre for example.

It seems that Kühn’s Children’s Choir has reached the goals that it set out to achieve. Do you have some unfulfilled dream?

In 1967, when I was commissioned to lead Kühn’s Children’s Choir, I felt a huge responsibility. At that time, I could not imagine how many beautiful tasks I would fulfill, how many great people I would meet and work with. I did not even imagine that we could perform on prestigious podiums in Milan, New York, Moscow, and tour in Japan and America. I wish that my successors find great joy, happiness and life fulfilment in the development of our choir.

Your final words for the readers of Czech Leaders Magazine?   

We should honour Czech musical tradition, our choirs, and the biggest treasure passed on by generations in the form of Czech folk songs. In a few days, we are releasing a new CD recording with 35 beautiful folk songs. May this collection make us all happy. in cooperation with Czech Leaders Magazine 
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