JITRO

JITRO, meaning “daybreak” in Czech, is more than just a concert choir from Hradec Králové, a town in the Czech Republic. It is an organization of 400 children in 7 preparatory ensembles, of which only the best 25 or 30 qualify to tour. For 46 years they have been admired all over the world for their tonal brilliance, superb intonation, distinctive rich blend of sound, and energetic vitality. Today, Jitro is considered one of the best children’s choirs in the world. They have competed in 18 international competitions with 38 categories won to date. These awards have been bestowed on the choir by international juries, including prestigious contests such as Llangollen (1988), Nantes (1989), Neerpelt (1996), Olomouc (2003), Xiamen (2006), Lecco (2010), Pardubice (2015), Žilina (2017), and Sydney (2018).

 

America’s love of Jitro was reborn when the choir was invited to sing at the National Convention of the American Choral Conductors Association in San Antonio TX in 1993, where they received a standing ovation from thousands of music professionals. An official response from Dr. J. B. Haberlen, ACDA President, stated, “Our ACDA members will long remember your concerts, as they were a major highlight of the 1993 convention.” Professor Doreen Rao of Toronto University commented, “Are you aware that you have just changed forever the character and style of all American choral singing?”

 

Jitro Choir makes over 100 appearances annually and has sung with other renowned choruses, including the American Boys’ Choir. Jitro has performed with the Bavarian Symphonic Orchestra, the Milano Symphonic Orchestra, the Prague Symphony Orchestra, and the Czech Philharmonic. They have performed in prestigious concert halls in Prague, Barcelona, Halle, Bern, Basle, Dortmund, Avignon, Toulouse, Strasbourg, Austin, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta, Nashville, Indianapolis, Madison, Chicago, Penn State University, New York City, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Corpus Christi, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Xiamen, Sydney, and many more. The Jitro Choir’s classical discography includes 37 solo Jitro albums. They have recorded with various companies including Supraphon, BMA, Classico, Amabile, ArcoDiva, and Navona Records. The recent discography of the choir contains a special edition of albums devoted to famous composers closely associated with the choir: Antonín Dvořák, Otmar Mácha, Petr Eben, Bohuslav Martinů, Ilja Hurník, and Jan Jirásek. Since 1977, Skopal has led the choir as Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, winning high praise for his brilliant leadership, and the superb playing of organist František Vaníček and pianist Michal Chrobák add luster to the choir’s remarkable performances. Noting that “jitro” means “daybreak,” BBC Music Magazine deemed this an apt description for the chorus’s “bright, gleaming” performances, which are “indeed like brilliant rays of sunshine slicing through the darkness.” — Stanislav Bohadlo

 

photo: Reykjavik Cathedral in Reykjavík, Iceland (August 2020). Photo: Marek Uhrin

JIŘÍ SKOPAL

Jiří Skopal, choral conductor and music educator, was born on August 15, 1947 in Velké Losiny, Czech Republic. Skopal received his first music education from his father, Jan Skopal, a choral conductor of North Moravia’s Teachers’ Association. For his Master’s in Education, he studied in Olomouc from 1965 to 1969, and received his doctorate in 1973. In 1982, he was named Associate Professor at the Charles University in Prague, and in 1994 he became a full Professor. Even Skopal’s very first choir, which was founded at the primary and secondary school in Postřelmov, won first prize in a regional singing competition in 1972. In the years 1968–82, he worked as a vocal adviser for the North Moravia’s Teachers’ Association, and in 1971 he started another choir in Mohelnice. Since 1974, he has been teaching at the University of Hradec Králové, where from 1986–90 he was head of the music department and founded a new choral conducting course. He has authored publications on music psychology, history, and management of boy choirs, as well as theory and methodology in choral singing. In 1977, he took over the management of the choir from Josef Vrátil, and a year later, the choir changed its name to the Královéhradecký Children’s Choir Jitro. He has achieved major national and international success with this group at concerts in Europe, Asia, the United States, and Australia. He continues to work as the choir conductor and music director of Jitro. Skopal and his wife, Květa Skopalová, also founded a boy’s choir, Boni Pueri, in 1982–96. In total, Skopal has recorded 44 albums with his choirs, conducted more than 3,500 concerts, and in the year 2000, received the Primus Inter Pares award for an exceptional benefit to the culture from the Mayor of Hradec Králové. Skopal has also been a judge in national and international competitions, as well as a lecturer of conducting courses in the Czech Republic and abroad.

 

photo: JIŘÍ SKOPAL (left) and ILJA HURNÍK (right) at Hurník’s Jitro concert in Philharmonic Hall, Hradec Králové, Nov 27, 2008. Photo: Ctirad Špičan

ILJA HURNÍK

The life and work of Ilja Hurník (November 25, 1922–September 7, 2013) is a story about gifts and thanks. He described his own life story as a cultivation of those gifts: “I was given four rails: firstly the pianist’s, secondly the composer’s, thirdly the writer’s, and finally, the teacher’s.” These rails all led from the small Silesian village of Poruba, today a suburb of Ostrava in northern Moravia. He distributed these gifts starting at the age of 6 in a recitation and theatre ensemble and in his first compositions, aided by his studies of German grammar, piano, and music composition. Before the occupation of the Sudetenland in 1938, his family fled to Prague, and Hurník brought with him the cultural, literary, and musical idioms from his home. He continued his studies of piano with Vilém Kurtz and composition Vítězslav Novák at the conservatory, went on to study at the Academy of Performing Arts, and began a 20-year career as a soloist with the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra in Ostrava, focusing on the piano works of Debussy and Janáček. At the same time, he became famous as a music educator and popularizer of classical music, commenting on concerts for school children and creating a magnificent gramophone edition of The Art of Listening to Music (1972).

 

In addition to his catalog of compositions, Hurník has written 30 books. On his birthday in 2011, he recalled the intertwining nature of his musical and literary careers, comparing them to two bowls on scales: “If composing gets stuck, I start making up stories. When I can’t think of any, I’ll go back to the sheet music. I always employ one cell and rest the other. That way, I’ll keep my balance.”

 

Hurník applied the brevity and concise expression of his native dialect to music and literature: “The saint says ‘unnecessary words are sinful.’ And unnecessary notes are sinful. There are two of us on stage. At first, the piano is a servant who does what I tell him. Later, he’s a friend I’m talking to. Sometimes something surprises me unexpectedly, I say, there’s a nuance in it, and it confirms that this is a moment that will never happen again.” When Hurník clarified his musical speech, he offered a reminder as to why he wasn’t an avant-garde modernist in a communist country: “We experienced a stifling atmosphere where we were pushed from above towards socialist realism. I found escape and freedom in neoclassicism. Although the draft of New Music invaded us, it suppressed the melody. I stayed with my way and I stick to it to this day.”

 

If the choir expresses its respect, admiration and experiences of singing with the already published monographic albums of Dvořák, Martinů, Mácha and Eben, the composer Ilja Hurník (* 1922) now enters this dramaturgical series. In 1980, Jitro sang Variations on a Mouse Theme in Olomouc at a competition. The piece Water, sweetwater was staged by the choir in 1988 for the 32nd Weeks of New Creation in Prague Rudolfinum, and has since been heard by listeners in Japan, the United States, Hong Kong, Germany, France, Switzerland, and other European countries. The Missa Vinea Crucis was performed by Professor Skopal with Jitro at festivals in Avignon, Strasbourg, New York, and many other places. “The children are great, they sing perfectly clean and with ease, astonishing in such a difficult song. The solos are excellent, the voice culture of the choir is also unprecedented, in all positions,“ the composer said in response to the recording of his mass. When family, musicians, and students in the church of St. Peter and Paul said goodbye to Ilja Hurník for the last time at Vyšehrad in Prague (September 17, 2013), there were parts of his Missa Vinea Crucis performed as a thank you for the stories he bequeathed to us through his life and work. — Stanislav Bohadlo

 

photo: Jiří Skopal, Ilja Hurník, and Michal Chrobák over the score at Hurník’s home in Prague, Czech Republic (2008). Photo: Květoslava Skopalová

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