Offering ‘The Best of Baroque’ to toddlers
If you’re a parent of young children, you might have found yourself missing going to cultural events such as classical music concerts where children are usually not welcome. Well, fear no more – there is an organisation in Prague offering classical music concerts for parents with kids under three.
Old friends Helena Bartošová and Vanda Kofroňová were pushing their strollers in the park one day in 2018, when they realised that they were missing something in their lives that was important to them both but didn’t seem possible for them in their new role as mothers - cultural events that they could go to with their babies. Helena, a former Czech language teacher for foreigners, and Vanda, who works for Czech Television, were both improv theatre actresses, as well as being big lovers of culture and live performance, and the lack of such events that parents could go to with their young children troubled them.
“We found out that in Germany and Britain it’s common to have those kinds of classical music concerts,” Helena says. “In the Czech Republic you can go to some educational programmes when the kids are three or four years old, but when they are smaller, there is nothing. And we really wanted that, so we said, ok, let’s try it here. So, the first motivation was to do it for ourselves.”
Shortly after this, Helena remembered that when she was giving birth to her daughter, she happened to be in the same labour ward as a musician from the National Theatre. So, she got in touch with her, and thus was born Filharmoniště – a portmanteau of the Czech words ‘Filharmonie’ (Philharmonic) and ‘hřiště’ (playground) – an organisation offering monthly concerts for parents and children under three. Through this contact, Vanda and Helena were able to get access to more and more musicians, and the project grew and grew.
When I arrive at Studio Itaka in Vinohrady on a bright February morning for a Filharmoniště concert dubbed ‘The Best of Baroque’, a few mothers and children are already settled on mats on the floor, and there is what I assume is a harpsichord in the corner (I later find out that it is in fact the closely-related positive organ). I am quite conspicuously the only person in the room without a child, but the atmosphere is friendly, joyful, and welcoming. More parents and children arrive – mostly mothers, although there is one brave father amongst our number.
And then the musicians walk in: three young women, decked out in colourful ballgowns and oversized Baroque wigs fashioned from cotton wool. They say a few words about the Baroque era over the din in the room and then introduce the first piece: Vivaldi’s Magnificat, Laudamus Te. Meanwhile, the children pay them almost no attention and most of the parents seem fairly distracted too. The woman in the blue dress starts playing the organ, and the other two women start to sing in beautiful harmony.
And then something amazing happens – a hush falls over the entire room. The previous din of babies crying, toddlers shouting, and mothers shushing dies down to almost nothing and everyone, including the children, stares in rapt attention, and listens. It scarcely seems possible that children so young could focus and hold their attention for the duration of an entire work of classical music, and yet they do. For the entire span of the Vivaldi piece, silence reigns in the room, and children as young as a few months old stare transfixed, as if with one pair of eyes, at the performers at the front of the room.
The fact that this is possible is a testament to the power of music, as Helena herself opines. “Music doesn’t know borders. The first 20 minutes are amazing – the kids’ eyes are open, they listen to it, they really are able to keep the concentration. We [Vanda and I] both have a theatre background and it’s a bit different, you have to use different skills and techniques to get their concentration, but with music, there is really no borders. It’s for everyone.”
The concert only lasts around 40 minutes, which is of course intentional given the attention span of the audience. There is plenty of audience interaction to keep the children as engaged as possible, and at the end the performers even take audience requests for songs. For the final song, they remove their wigs. By the end, there is a lot more noise and most of the children are playing rather than listening to the music, but everyone seems to have had a good time, which is, after all, the point.
After the concert I manage to get a few words with the two singers, who are as warm and friendly as their stage presence would suggest. They are actresses from the theatre ensemble Geisslers Hofcomoedianten, who usually perform at Divadlo VILA Štvanice in Prague 7 (which, they tell me, is where they got their fabulous wigs from).
They are mothers themselves, and one of them attended a previous concert:
“We were approached by the organizer of Filharmoniště because she found out about us through a friend. We found the idea wonderful, because we are mums of small children ourselves. I’ve been to one of these concerts before, and I thought it was great that I could go to something like this and take my child with me. Of course, we both like classical music, we studied it and we sing it. So, it was great for us to be able to participate so actively.”
I ask them if it’s ever distracting for them having small children running around and making noise while they’re trying to sing.
“I expected it, of course - they’re small children. But it’s true that I didn’t expect the noise level to be quite so high sometimes, and at first, I had the feeling that I had to shout over them to be heard, but then I realised I didn’t have to - it’s just how it is. But it’s true that it was a bit of a surprise that the noise level sometimes went up quite enough for me.”
Filharmoniště has been running since 2018, but when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the project was put on hold. Between October 2020 and May 2021 there were no concerts, but Helena says that the organisation winning 1st prize in a competition for female entrepreneurs gave them the push they needed to reboot the project.
Filharmoniště is still the only organisation in the Czech Republic offering concerts for children under three. The concerts take place at the child-friendly time of 10am, in different venues around Prague. Parents can bring their babies and young children, spread out on the floor on mats with snacks, toys and books, and enjoy professional classical music without fear of disapproving looks when their children make noise. The children are free to run around and play as well as enjoy the cultural delights on offer. The concerts have become so popular that there are now two identical concerts performed back-to-back, with a 45-minute interval in between, to give more people the chance to attend.
Helena and Vanda hope that Filharmoniště offers time that parents can spend together with their children in the presence of music, which, as Helena says, “doesn’t know any borders”. That doesn’t seem to have been lost on the grateful parents who attended this concert, as one mum explains: “I’m really pleased to be here because of my son, Rafael. I think that it’s a great idea to get music and children together, and I think that it’s necessary for children and also parents, because classical music can educate people and be enjoyed by people at the same time.”
The next upcoming Filharmoniště concerts will be taking place at Studio Itaka in Vinohrady on Tuesday 22nd March and Friday 1st April. Tickets cost 210kč for adults and 60kč for children. Check out their website at filharmoniste.cz for more information.