The story appears on

Page A4

January 7, 2023

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Sunday » People

Italian musician drums up interest in new musical horizons

In 1986, Luciano Pavarotti celebrated the 25th year of his career by joining the Genoa Opera in a trip to China, performing “La Bohème” in Beijing and Shanghai and dazzling audiences with his high C in a country where only 15 years earlier Western music was banned.

The tour impressed many Chinese with their first introduction to Italian opera, and China impressed timpanist Enrico Calini, who played in the opera orchestra.

Thus, in 2017, Calini, then 62, didn’t hesitate when Yu Long, music director of Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, invited him to become the orchestra’s principal timpanist.

Without knowing a word of Chinese or English — well, music is an international language unto itself — he came to the city and has since become “that soothing and reliable foreign uncle on the timpani” to many fans of the orchestra.

“Yu Long told me I can keep playing here for a very long time,” he told Shanghai Daily at a recent interview, speaking through an interpreter. “I love timpani, and I like China. So that’s it. I came. No problem at all.”

Before moving to Shanghai, he had played with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome for 20 years, after tenures with various opera houses.

The timpani, or kettle drums, are part of the percussion section of an orchestra and don’t normally generate the kind of public notice that violins, horns and oboes attract.

The standard set of four large drums is usually tucked behind rows of string, woodwind and brass instruments, but on rare occasions, timpani take on a starring role.

One example is the “Concert Piece for Timpani and Orchestra” by Argentine-German composer Mauricio Kagel, who was famous for theatrical instructions in his scores, including directions for facial expressions. The concerto ends with the timpanist banging his head into a drum, with the notation “fffff,” which is about as loud as it gets in music.

Videos of that piece went viral in China, with viewers linking it to the Chinese phrase “sheltered in the drum,” which means “totally in the dark.”

Calini hasn’t played Kagel’s piece yet, but he found himself “sheltered in the drum” when he arrived in the city and discovered to his surprise that timpani had developed quite a following here.

Calini is keen to introduce all sorts of musical innovations to Shanghai audiences.

His most frequently uttered phrase in an exclusive interview with Shanghai Daily was “I propose this ...”

One such proposal is a performance of Russian composer Shchedrin’s “Carmen Suite” ballet, written for his wife, prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. The creative piece is marked by frequent use of percussion that adds refreshing instrumental color to the familiar melodies.

“Many composing masters love timpani and many masterworks contain memorable iconic timpani beats,” Calini explained.

He cited the “beats” in Mahler’s symphonies No. 2, 5 and 7, and in Beethoven’s symphonies No. 7 and 9.

What would happen if there were no timpani in these symphonies?

“Oh, no!” Calini exclaimed, stunned by the question. “It’s just unthinkable! You don’t have the sophisticated music layers anymore. Compositions that respect timpani often lead to very rich and sophisticated music. No, it’s unimaginable.”

Whilst the word timpani is derived from the Latinized Greek word for “a hand drum,” its Chinese translation may be closer to how Calini views the instrument. Dingyin gu literally means “the tune-setting drum.”

“The timpanist is the second conductor,” said Calini, who enjoys sitting in the back, watching and listening to fellow musicians playing. “I have to pay attention to everyone — their tempos, whether we are going too fast or too slow, whether everyone is on the same page.”

The coronavirus pandemic, which limited orchestral performances, also made it more difficult for Calini to undertake his annual trip back to Italy to visit family and friends, and for concerts.

“I had two quarantines,” he said, shortly after coming out of the quarantine from a recent visit home. “It’s a little more challenging, but it’s no problem as long as we can perform.”

After five years in Shanghai, he has picked up some Chinese words familiar to many foreign residents, like xiexie (thank you), nihao (hello) and xiaolongbao (steamed pork dumplings). He has traveled to many Chinese cities and has found his favorite Italian restaurants in Shanghai, though his mealtime preferences are Chinese and Japanese food.

“I’m in my second contract now,” he said of his Shanghai tenure. “Fantastic! And I propose this ...”


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend