From Bologna to Shanghai: Stories of the Antoniano and the Hydrangea

By Xia Peiyao (People's Daily Online) 16:27, January 18, 2022


The stage lit up and the audience cheered. The choristers, row by row, shot up onto the stage, and along with the music they belted out 'Siamo noi, lo Zecchino siamo noi' (It's us, we are the Zecchino), a song that opens every Antoniano concert.

To celebrate the best in music for children, the Zecchino d'Oro international festival was established in 1959 and collects songs each year from all over Italy. The Piccolo Coro dell'Antoniano (Little Choir of Antoniano), which was formed in 1963, later became regular performers at the Zecchino competition, interpreting the songs for a jury of children.

The Antoniano concert has already become a New Year's countdown tradition for many in China, starting in 2016 when the choir made its debut performance in Shanghai. This year, and with no exception, the Antoniano choir, accompanied this time with its sister choir of the Hydrangea from China, greeted the year 2022 with their heavenly voices, and gave us a performance to match the lyrics of their classic opening song: 'Inimitable, as you want it'. 


The Zecchino phenomena

The Zecchino is a journey

Made of music and life

——We are the Zecchino (Lo Zecchino Siamo Noi)

Each year-end in Italy, the children of the Little Choir of Antoniano will perform in the Zecchino d'Oro children's song competition, a cultural staple and a regular custom that brings together an entire nation via national live stream. After nearly 60 years on the stage, the choir is now a major part of Italian culture, with musicians constantly writing new songs on a vast variety of topics dedicated to childhood, which has served to further enrich the choir's opulent repertoire.

"It's about joy, freedom, and positive vibes. In Italy, every kid is raised with Antoniano songs," said Noemie's dad, an Italian currently living in Shanghai. What arouses his nostalgia is seeing his daughter learning in China some of the songs that have remained popular in his home country since his childhood, all thanks to the Choir of Hydrangea that has made it happen.

The formation of the Hydrangea was not a surprise after some of the Zecchino songs went viral in China. "Chinese children love their (Zecchino) songs. Some can even hum a few words in Italian. So we want to provide more options for our children, something with the Antoniano style, in Chinese… By that we also wish to encourage professionals or non-professionals to write more songs for Chinese children, forming a social atmosphere just like what they have in Italy," said Christine Liang, the choir's art counselor.


The magical healing power of music

If we stay together

Everything will be fine!

——Everything will be fine (Let’s stay together)

"My favorite Chinese song that I learned has the chorus of 'Hear me say thank you' (听我说谢谢你), because it's about those heartwarming people who have gone through difficulties to help us during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Victoria, a 10-year-old child who, as one of the three lead singers, provided the audience with an unforgettable memory after singing this song during the 2021 Chinese New Year's concert.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the two choirs remain active, having refrained from renouncing their mission to continue spreading, as always, their message of hope: including Everything will be fine (Let's stay together), a pandemic-era inspired song. The Hydrangea also created a Chinese version of the song, stitching together footage of children and Chinese fans, in order to pass on the musical torch relayed by their Italian friends.

At the 2022 Chinese New Year's concert, the choir's message will remain unchanged: "We hope to transmit a bit of serenity and hope, and confidence for the future… The idea of togetherness and a better world where we can truly live in harmony is also what the world needs immensely now," said Sabrina Simoni, conductor of the Choir of Antoniano.

"The magical power your voices hold makes me feel very healed and heartwarming," said a Chinese fan at the concert. "Though the world is constantly changing, your warm and pure voices can always bring us heartening feelings," another fan said. 


Music brings happiness, and more…

If I play, if I sing

It’s because I’m happy! You are happy!

——The Because of the Why (Le Parce Que Des Pourquoi)

For years, scientists and philosophers asked: "If music confers no survival advantage, where does it come from and why does it work?" For the four-year-old Mangduo the answer is inspiringly simple: "Singing is fun."

Zecchino songs are not easy for children to learn. The informative lyrics and sometimes the fast tempo can place a high demand on children's vocabularies and musical skills. "Certain songs can have 30 lines of lyrics… But since the songs are usually about an interesting thing or a simple lesson, after many repetitions, the kids can sing them out even before figuring out all the words," said Liang.

Children's love for the Zecchino songs is also part and parcel of yet another lesson: music is meant to be enjoyed. "It's not a cram course for examinations, nor a star-making project. You can still be an ordinary person and freely express your emotions, as long as the music can do you good," explained Liang.

Due to the pandemic, some of the recruiting activities and rehearsals of the Hydrangea have been moved online. Virtual rehearsals, recordings, and concerts might seem out of touch and surreal for a period of time, but the changes the choir has brought to the children are genuine. "Jinzhua used to be a timid little boy, but now he is willing to open himself to others and has proposed to sing at his friend's birthday; Tina also practices hard and would even sing before sleeping under the sheets," Liang recalled, passionately reflecting on the children's progress.

Such impact is, just like Liang's quote from a Chinese poem, "like the gentle rain that silently moistens everything."


Music harmonizes the kaleidoscope of cultures

We'll all be friends

We'll be a thousand voices

A choir that will sing to erase

The languages, the distances

——I Will Write In The Wind(Lo Scrivero Nel Vento)

After 59 years of history, the Zecchino d'Oro competition now represents a full repertoire of brilliant splendor, and it is still absorbing new ideas to keep up with the times. For the latest Zecchino competition, which was the 64th such competition, children interpreted new music genres, shifting from trap to reggaeton, and from pop songs to rock and rap.

While creating music hits in its home country and beyond, the Antoniano choir also absorbed music from other parts of the world. Since the 1970s, the Zecchino d'Oro competition has taken on an international format, selecting works from foreign contestants each year for the children to interpret in their own rendition. For Sabrina Simoni, such an exposure to diverse cultures can “make it simpler for kids to build links with children from other countries."

Over the years, the Italian children have learned several Chinese songs: "they would first have the lyrics labeled in pinyin, and then learn the lines one character at a time from the first word to last. Their parents, after learning the Chinese songs themselves, also helped their kids perfect their pronunciation at home," Liang told People's Daily Online.

Some of them even developed an interest in Chinese culture. "Now I take Chinese courses at school. I think Chinese is not very hard to learn because I love Chinese and Chinese culture," said Giuseppe, a 12-year-old Antoniano chorister whose dream is to become a veterinarian in China. 


Music builds the bond of friendship

As a kid, do you know what I want to tell you?

I can turn a stranger into a new friend.

——Guardians of the World (Custodi Del Mondo)

"I can turn a stranger into a friend," the children sing in the 'Guardians of the World', which shows that it seems as if people are too overly worried about children's communication skills.

Back in 2017, the then 4-year-old Chinese girl Jiawen was invited to perform the Chinese song 'Geese go Southward' at the 60th annual Zecchino d'Oro competition. "They don't speak each other's language, but they just can get along with each other in literally an instant, like some sort of telepathy," Liang said, recalling a past encounter with the children.

In the ensuing years, the children in the choir have traveled to China several times, becoming true cultural exchange ambassadors between China and Italy. "I've been to China four times. It was an amazing experience. I love to sing with our Chinese fans," said the Antoniano chorister Matilde.

"Each child brings something back after their tour in China. And certainly, bringing our culture, our musical tradition to the Chinese fans is also a source of pride for them… There is no language difference that cannot be overcome by the universal language of music," said Simoni.

Due to the pandemic, the 2021 Chinese New Year’s concert was performed using hologram figures of the Antoniano children. Before the concert, the children were asked to exchange photos and letters with their Chinese partners: some wrote in English, while others, too young to know how to write, drew pictures to introduce themselves.

"It was their first concert together. Though staged in two countries, the director didn't want it to be two separate shows, with children not knowing each other. They wanted it to be an emotionally boundary-breaking performance," Liang explained.

If not for the pandemic, the Antoniano choristers would have been able to meet their Chinese friends this year, but the virtual choir still managed to create something positive out of the situation.

At the 2022 Chinese New Year's concert, the Italian children shared their tagliatelle recipe and updated everyone on their lives in Bologne by taking the Chinese audience on a virtual tour to the Piazza Maggiore square, the fountain of Neptune, the Salaborsa Library, and the Two Towers. "We hope to return to China soon to meet you and visit your wonderful cities," said Caterina at the end of the tour. 


A song that lasts forever

I dream of a world that

Has not lost its fairy tales

I will sing with you

Knowing that there is a rainbow

——A Dream in the Sky (Un Sogno Nel Cielo)

"The best thing about singing in the choir is that we have all become like family and true friends. The concerts, the travels, and the moving memories are also amazing," said Valentina while looking back on her six-year experience in the choir.

Most children leave the Antoniano family at the age of around 12, but that is surely not the end to their love for music. Their sense of nostalgia for the bygone days has led to all sorts of musical activities of remembrance, including the establishment of the Mariele's Vecchioni, a choir formed with ex-Antoniano choristers.

Their concerts are where you can probably see a group of graduates from the choir, usually those in their middle-age years or above, providing their interpretation of the old Zecchino songs, with the screen in behind showing black-and-white footage of them performing at the Zecchino competition when they were little.

"I have never lost my friends from the Piccolo Coro dell'Antoniano. We will soon set up musical or theatrical projects together and try to see each other as much as possible – to 'harmonize in friendship' as I say! And I'm sure, like me, we all have our Antoniano badge safely stored in our homes, certainly in our hearts," wrote Alessandra Mariani, who was an Antoniano chorister back in the 1980s.

"The discovery that I still have a voice suitable for singing made the rehearsal one of the most anticipated appointments of my week. When we meet, no one wears their work uniforms; we are again those children, happy and carefree," described another ex-Antoniano chorister, Paola Todeschini, exuding her excitement in an article posted on the choir's website. 

(Web editor: Xia Peiyao, Liang Jun)


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