The Well-Tempered Ear

Can American film director Ron Howard make a sensitive and accurate biopic of Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang? Or is it a cultural appropriation that deserves to be condemned?

September 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The self-appointed PC diversity police have struck again.

This is getting silly and tiresome, insulting and embarrassing.

Some advocates of cultural diversity are crying foul over the latest project of the American and Academy Award-winning Hollywood film director Ron Howard: making a biopic of the superstar Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang (below).

The script will be drawn from the pianist’s bestselling memoir “Journey of a Thousand Miles” — which has also been recast as an inspirational children’s book — and the director and scriptwriters will consult with Lang Lang.

It seems to The Ear a natural collaboration, as well as a surefire box office hit, between two high-achieving entertainers. Check out their bios:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lang_Lang

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_Howard

But some people are criticizing the project in the belief that because Ron Howard  (below) is white and Western, he cannot do justice to someone who is Chinese or to Asian culture.

Here is an essay, found on the website of Classic FM, by one objector. She is Chinese film director Lulu Wang (below), who says she has no interest in doing the project herself: https://www.classicfm.com/artists/lang-lang/pianist-biopic-ron-howard-faces-criticism-lulu-wang/

Talk about misplaced alarm over “cultural appropriation.”

Don’t you think that Lang Lang will have a lot to say about how he is depicted?

Do you wonder if Wang thinks cultural appropriation works in reverse?

Should we dismiss Lang Lang’s interpretations of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Bartok simply because he is non-Western and Chinese rather than German, French or Russian?

Of course not. They should be taken on their own merits, just as the interpretations of any other Asian classical musician, and artists in general including Ai Weiwei, should be.

But however unfairly, cultural appropriation just doesn’t seem to work in reverse.

Mind you, The Ear thinks that cultural appropriation is a valid concept and can indeed sometimes be useful in discussing cross-cultural influences.

But it sure seems that the concept is being applied in an overly broad and even misdirected or ridiculous way, kind of the way that the idea of “micro-aggressions” can be so generously applied that it loses its ability to be truthful and useful.

Take the example of the heterosexual Taiwanese movie director Ang Lee. He certainly proved himself able to depict American culture in “The Ice Storm” and the gay world in “Brokeback Mountain.”

Let’s be clear. The Ear is a piano fan.

But if he objects to the project, it is because he doesn’t like Lang Lang’s flamboyant playing, his Liberace-like performance manners and showmanship, and his exaggerated facial expressions.

Yet there is no denying the human appeal of his story. He rose from a young and suicidal piano student (below) who was emotionally abused by his ambitious father – shades of the lives of young Mozart and Beethoven and probably many other prodigies – to become the best known, most frequently booked and highest paid classical pianist in the world. 

Yet not for nothing did some critics baptize him with the nickname Bang Bang.

Still, the Curtis Institute graduate does all he can to foster music education, especially among the young and the poor.

And there is simply no denying his virtuosity. (See Lang Lang playing Liszt’s Paganini etude “La Campanella” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So there is plenty to object to about Lang Lang the Piano Star besides the ethnicity of Ron Howard, who also did a biopic of opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti, in telling his story.

What do you think?

Is it culturally all right for Ron Howard to direct a film about Lang Lang?

Do you look forward to the movie and seeing it?

What do you think of Lang Lang as a pianist and a celebrity?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: This year’s LunART Festival in late June has been canceled and indefinitely postponed. Here are tastes of what is to come in new music commissions

April 21, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post from flutist Iva Ugrcic, the founder and executive director of the national award-winning LunART Festival (below), originally slated to take place in late June in various venues around Madison.

The event promotes and advocates for women in the arts including local artists and guest artists in music, poetry, dance, visual art and stand-up comedy. (You can see aerial choreography from last year’s festival in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Each year, the annual event also issues an international call for women composers to submit new works to be premiered during the festival.

“Like many others, we have been closely monitoring the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the world,” says Ugrcic (below), a doctoral graduate of the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

“In order to protect the wellbeing of our guests, artists and team members, we have made the heartbreaking but necessary decision to postpone LunART Festival 2020 until further notice.” (Below is a past performance at the First Unitarian Society of Madison.)

“Once we establish a timeline to resume our celebration, you will be the first to know. In the meantime, our incredible third season is already being planned. It will feature works by over 40 women artists and composers from across the globe.

“These are exceptionally difficult times, but this too will pass, and we will all emerge from this more united than ever. Stay safe and healthy. We cannot wait to share the love and joy of the arts with you in person again. (Below is the festival in Promenade Hall of the Overture Center.)

“Warmest regards,
“The LunART Team” (Yana Avedyan, Leslie Damaso, Satoko Hayami, Allison Jerzak, Marie Pauls and Iva Ugrcic)

Ugrcic also provided additional information:

“I am still hoping that we would be able to hold the festival this summer. However, it is really hard to say right now.

“In the meantime, I have been in contact with all four of our Call for Scores winners: Alexis Bacon (USA, below top), Patricia Lopes (Brazil), Nicole Murphy (Australia) and Rosita Piritore (Italy, below bottom).

“We are finding ways to still promote their music and excite our audience about what they are going to hear and who they are going to meet when we get back together. So here are links to YouTube and some of the interviews we did with them:

  1. Patricia  Lopes (below): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAaZfD0Licc

  1. Nicole Murphy (below): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QoT4hg9hQSo

 


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Classical music: Meet UW-Madison bassoonist Marc Vallon who performs with the Willy Street Chamber Players on Friday night

July 17, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Who is Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill)?

This week, he is the bassoonist who will perform Franz Danzi’s Quartet for Bassoon and Strings in D minor, Op. 40, No. 2 (ca. 1820), this coming Friday night, July 19, with the acclaimed Willy Street Chamber Players (below), who will also be joined by pianist Jason Kutz and violist Sharon Tenhundfeld..

(The concert is at 6 p.m. in Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street. The program includes: the Allegretto for Piano Trio by Ludwig van Beethoven (1812); “Dark Wood” by American composer Jennifer Higdon (2001); and the rarely heard String Quartet No. 1  (1948) by Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera. Admission is $15.)

A native of France, Vallon is one of the busiest musicians in Madison. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where he also performs individually, with faculty and student colleagues, and as a member of the Wingra Wind Quintet. He also frequently performs and conducts Baroque music with the Madison Bach Musicians.

Vallon attended the Paris Conservatory, where he won first prizes in bassoon and chamber music, and also earned a philosopher degree at the Sorbonne or University of Paris.

A versatile musician, Vallon played with famed avant-garde French composer Pierre Boulez and for more than 20 years was the principal bassoon of the well-known Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. He has also performed with major modern orchestras and conductors as well as with many period-instrument groups.

He gives master classes worldwide and also composes.

For a more extended and detailed biography, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/marc-vallon/

Vallon recently did an email Q&A interview with The Ear:

What drew you to the bassoon (below) over, say, the piano or singing, over strings, brass or other woodwinds?

I played the piano as young kid but was not very interested in the mechanics of it, even if I had a strong passion for music. It was the day that my piano teacher brought to my lesson a friend of his to do a bassoon demo that I found the right medium for my passion.

I started practicing like a maniac and knew by the age of 14 that I was going to be a professional bassoonist.

What would you like the public to know about the bassoon, perhaps about the challenges of playing it and about the repertoire for it?

The bassoon does not offer more challenges than other wind instruments, but it is safe to say that an absolute perfectionist person should probably not play it.

It is an instrument capable of true beauties, yet it has its own character. You don’t conquer it, you work with it like you would work with a wonderful but temperamental colleague.

Bassoonists sometimes complain that our solo repertoire is not as rich in masterpieces as the clarinet’s or the flute’s. True, but in its 350 years of existence, the bassoon has amassed enough wonderful music to keep us busy for several lifetimes.

What would you like to tell the public about the specific Bassoon Quartet by Franz Danzi that you will perform, and about Danzi and his music in general?

The bassoon and strings quartet became popular in the last decades of the 18th century, a trend that lasted well into the Romantic era.

Sadly, many of these quartets are basically show-off pieces for the bassoonist while the strings players have to suffer through some often very dull accompaniment parts.

I like this one by Danzi (below) because it features the strings on the same musical level as the bassoon, creating an enjoyable musical conversation rather than a cocky bassoon monologue. (You can hear that musical conversation in the opening movement of the Bassoon Quartet by Danzi in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

As a performer and conductor, you are well–known for championing baroque music as well as modern and contemporary music. Do you have a preference? Do they feed each other in your experience?

What I always have enjoyed about playing contemporary music is the possibility to work with living composers because I often realized how flexible they are with their own music and how much they like the performer’s input. They’re often ready to compromise and veer away from the strict notation.

The approach when playing composers from the past is actually very similar in the sense that we have to remember how approximate music notation is. Baroque composers are not here anymore obviously, but the 17th and 18th centuries sources tell us clearly how much flexibility we, modern performers, have in our approach to their music.

When it comes to music pre-1800, we basically have a sketch on our music stands. I always want to remember this. (Below is a manuscript page of a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach.)

Do you have big projects coming up next season?

Always! I am putting together a contemporary program on March 27 in our new concert hall on campus. It is called ”Opening Statements” and will feature early works from major 20th-century composers.

On period instruments, I have Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” and more Bach on my calendar.

Is there something else you would like to say?

A big Thank You to you, Jake, for being such a relentless and informed advocate of the Madison musical scene!


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Classical music: Starting Wednesday, the second LunART Festival will again spotlight women in the performing and creative arts. Here is the first of a two-part preview

June 2, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received a long and detailed announcement about the upcoming second LunART Festival. Here is Part 1 with background and participants. Tomorrow will be Part 2 with more information about new music and a schedule of events.

The LunART Festival is back for its second season from this Wednesday, June 5, through Sunday, June 9, and will continue its mission of supporting, inspiring, promoting and celebrating women in the arts.

The 2019 season brings 10 events to eight venues in the Madison area, providing accessible, high-quality, engaging concerts and events with diverse programming from various arts fields.

The festival will showcase over 100 artists this season, including many familiar local artists and performers as well as guest artists hailing from Missouri to Texas, Minnesota to Florida and as far away as Peru.

LunART’s inaugural 2018 season was a success on numerous fronts. From showcasing a wide variety of artists and arts disciplines to building lasting relationships and collaborations, LunART has distinguished itself from other arts events in Madison.

Both artists and audiences have commented that the LunART atmosphere is one of camaraderie, love and acceptance. Festival directors Iva Ugrcic and Laura Medisky (below right and left, respectively) have set this season to come back even stronger, with expanded dates and more diverse programming.

Like last year, the three ticketed evening gala concerts are centered on classical chamber music. Other art forms — including contemporary and aerial dance, poetry, spoken word and visual arts — are interwoven throughout the programs to create a unique atmosphere for performers, artists and audiences.

This year’s Grammy-nominated composer-in-residence is flutist Valerie Coleman (below), a former member of Imani Winds, who was described as one of the “Top 35 Female Composers in Classical Music” by The Washington Post.

Coleman embodies LunART’s vision by challenging norms and being a strong advocate for diversity in the arts. Her rich compositional output infuses elements of jazz and African secular music into the Western classical tradition, creating a soundscape that honors both worlds. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Valerie Coleman playing her own composition “Fanmi Imen” at the 2018 convention of the National Flute Association.)

Coleman’s music will be featured throughout the festival among the works of other remarkable women who shaped music history, from Baroque composer Barbara Strozzi to Romantic composer Clara Schumann to living composer Missy Mazzoli.

Drawing from Madison’s rich arts scene and community, LunART 2019 features local artists including: former Madison poet laureate Andrea Musher (below); actor and theater artist Deborah Hearst; choreographers and dancers Liz Sexe and Kimi Evelyn; and aerial dancer Linda DiRaimondo.

Also featured are musicians from arts organizations such as Madison Symphony Orchestra, Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Fresco Opera Theatre, Arbor Ensemble, Madison New Music Ensemble and Sound Out Loud Contemporary Music Collective. Under the direction of Edgewood College professor Kathleen Otterson, Madison’s only women’s choir ARTemis Ensemble returns in greater numbers and will present a work by LunART 2018 “From Page to Stage” alum Meg Huskin among others.

Visual art will have a stronger presence in the 2019 Festival. From May 11-July 7, Overture’s Playhouse Gallery will house “Women Against Hate United by Love,” a collaborative, traveling art exhibition and multi-step “anti-hate” campaign united against bigotry, intolerance and racism, created by J. Leigh Garcia (below), Rachael Griffin and Kelly Parks Snider.

A gallery reception on Wednesday, June 5, serves as LunART’s opening event, in which Snider will give a talk about the exhibit and her use of art to educate communities about targeted issues in the hopes of shaking up the status quo. This engaging and thought-provoking exhibit is meant to provide a meaningful and hopeful community experience for all who attend.

In collaboration with Studio 84 and ArtWorking, two nonprofit art studios specializing in the creative development of people with disabilities, the final Gala concert at First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, on Saturday, June 8, will showcase 40 artworks. This exhibit will feature 20 women artists whose works will be displayed, flanking the Atrium Auditorium stage as well as in the lobby.

Tomorrow: New music to be premiered, comedy and the full schedule of events


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Classical music: Happy Birthday to Lenny at 100! Here are some ways to celebrate today’s Bernstein centennial

August 25, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

One hundred years ago today, the versatile and world-celebrated American musician Leonard Bernstein (below) was born.

For most of his adult life, starting with his meteoric rise after his nationally broadcast debut with the New York Philharmonic, Lenny remained an international star that has continued to shine brightly long after his death at 72 in 1990.

When his father Sam was asked why he wouldn’t pay for young Lenny’s piano lessons and why he resisted the idea of a career in music for his son, he said simply: “I didn’t know he would grow up to be Leonard Bernstein.”

Lenny! The name itself is shorthand for a phenomenon, for musical greatness as a conductor, composer (below, in 1955), pianist, educator, popularizer, advocate, humanitarian and proselytizer, and so much more.

Here is a link to the Wikipedia biography where you can check out the astonishing extent of Lenny’s career and his many firsts, from being the first major American-born and American-trained conductor — he studied at Harvard University and the Curtis Institute of Music — to his revival of Gustav Mahler:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Bernstein

You should also view the engaging YouTube video at the bottom.

So eager have the media been to mark the centennial of Leonard Bernstein, one might well ask: “Have you had enough Lenny yet?”

New recordings and compilations of recordings have been issued and reissued.

Numerous books have been published.

Many new photos of the dramatic, expressive and photogenic Lenny (below, by Paul de Hueck) have emerged.

TV stations have discussed him and Turner Classic Movies rebroadcast several of his “Young People’s Concerts.”

For weeks, radio stations have been drowning us with his various performances, especially his performances of his own Overture to “Candide.”

Still, today is the actual Leonard Bernstein centennial and the culmination of the build-up and hype, and if you haven’t paid attention before today, chances are you wind find Encounters with Lenny unavoidable this weekend. 

Yet if you pay attention, you are sure to learn new things about Lenny who seems an inexhaustible supply of insights and interesting information, a man of productive contradictions.

With that in mind, The Ear has just a few suggestions for this weekend, with other tributes coming during the season from the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the University of Wisconsin’s Mead Witter School of Music and other music groups and individuals.

You can start by listening to the radio.

For most of the daytime today Wisconsin Public Radio with pay homage to Lenny. It will start at 10 a.m. with Classics by Request when listeners will ask to hear favorite pieces and offer personal thoughts and memories. After that a couple of more hours of Bernstein’s music will be broadcast on WPR.

Then on Sunday at 2 p.m., WPR host Norman Gilliland (below top) will interview Madison Symphony Orchestra conductor John DeMain (below bottom, by Prasad) about working with Lenny.

Here, thanks to National Public Radio (NPR), is the best short overview that The Ear has heard so far:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/08/24/641208843/the-complex-life-of-leonard-bernstein-a-once-in-a-century-talent

Want to know more about Lenny the Man as well as Lenny the Musician?

Try this review from The New Yorker  by David Denby of daughter Jamie Bernstein’s book (below) that has juicy anecdotes and new information about growing up with her famous father.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/06/25/leonard-bernstein-through-his-daughters-eyes

And here, from Time magazine, is the little known story of how Lenny the Humanitarian conducted an orchestra of Holocaust survivors (below):

http://time.com/5376731/leonard-bernstein-holocaust-survivors-concert/

What is your favorite tribute to Bernstein so far? Leave a link in the COMMENT section if you can.

What is you favorite composition by Bernstein?

What is your favorite performance by Bernstein?

What would you like to say or tell others about Leonard Bernstein?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The superb final concert of the Madison Early Music Festival took the audience through an Elizabethan day with inventive fun

July 20, 2016
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

You have to hand it to early music advocate, scholar, conductor and performer Grant Herreid (below), who once again was a major player in the 17th annual Madison Early Music Festival, which wrapped up this past Saturday night.

MEMF 2016 all-festival Grant Herreid

What could have been a scissors-and-paste job to wrap up the celebration of music in Shakespeare and Elizabethan England was turned by the creative Herreid into an event that was thoroughly enjoyable and thoroughly inventive.

What the final All-Festival Concert did was to bring together what seemed a very large number of students, faculty and guest performers.

MEMF 2016 all-festival all forces

Then what the combined forces did was offer a sampler of a typical Elizabethan day. That day included the usual routines from waking up, exercising and going to bed, but also included prayers, romance and entertainment.

It used snippets from plays by William Shakespeare (below) and snippets by many composers of the period including Thomas Tomkins, Anthony Holborne, Thomas Morley, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Weelkes, John Bennet, John Coperario, Thomas Ravenscroft, John Dowland and Thomas Tallis as well an anonymous composers and reconstructions.

shakespeare BW

The formula must have appealed because it drew a large and enthusiastic audience.

Since it was such an ensemble effort, it is difficult to single out individuals for praise or criticism.

Instead, The Ear simply wants to mention a few of his favorite things with photos to illustrate them.

Here is what The Ear liked:

He liked that the entire 90-minute program of sacred and secular music was done without an intermission. Once you were in the zone, you didn’t have to leave it and then have to get back into it. Plus, the unity of the day was preserved.

He liked the diverse and always highly accomplished singing.

He liked seeing the unusual period string and wind instruments that are beautiful as well as useful.

MEMF 2016 all-festival strings left

He liked how the entire hall, not just the main stage, was used, including the balconies from which a fanfare opened the concert:

MEMF 2016 all-festival balcony

He liked the many “actors” who stepped to the edge of the Mills Hall stage and did an exceptional job reading the excerpts of Shakespeare that were kept short and to the point:

MEMF 2016 all-festival Shakespeare reader

He liked the period and very energetic dancing with handkerchiefs and leg bells:

MEMF 2016 all-festival dancing

There was more. But you get the idea.

Once again, if you can’t make it to other concerts in the Madison Early Music Festival’s annual week-long schedule, try to make it to the impressive All-Festival Concert at the end.

In 17 years, it has never disappointed.

That is a record to be envied and praised.


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