The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: University Opera’s “Poppea” proves engaging, satisfying and timely. Performances remain this afternoon at 2 and Tuesday night at 7:30 

November 18, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the University Opera and filed this review, with rehearsal photos of students, who alternate roles in different performances, by Michael R. Anderson.

By Larry Wells

The only other time I attended a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” (1643) was in the early 1980s at The San Francisco Opera. Despite the appearance of Tatiana Troyanos as Poppea, I remember being baffled by both the static nature of the music and the grandness of the production of what seemed should be an intimate opera.

That memory, in addition to my being a fan of 20th-century music, made attending the opening performance of University Opera’s performance Friday evening fraught with foreboding.

Despite the production being a lengthy three hours, I must praise the ensemble and director David Ronis — who never disappoints — for keeping my attention throughout the evening as I witnessed an intimate retelling of the passion between Nero and Poppea (portrayed below by Benjamin Hopkins and Anja Pustaver).

The opera was staged in Music Hall on a semicircular platform with the small instrumental ensemble directly to the front side of the audience. Stunning lighting and beautiful costumes made up for the minimal set. I was seated in the center of the first row of the balcony and must say that the sightlines and the sound were superb, even though it was very hot up there. (Below is the coronation scene with Hopkins and Pustaver in the center.)

The ensemble was conducted by Chad Hutchinson (below) whom I had heard conduct the UW Symphony Orchestra the night before in a rousing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The plucked instruments – harp, guitars, theorbo (I had to look it up, too) and harpsichords – were the backbone of the accompaniment. Strings and recorders completed the orchestra, and they were a delight to the ear – totally delicate and restrained.

The plot of the opera involves love triangles and political intrigue. The supertitles created by David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Dalalio) were amusing and colloquial. So much of the political posturing by Nero, whose main motivation is consistently self-interest, seemed to be pertinent to our time.

Nero was sung by countertenor Thomas Aláan who has a voice of great agility and expressiveness. His lover, Poppea, who yearns to be his empress, was sung by Talia Engstrom. Hers is a voice of great suppleness and flexibility. Throughout the evening she acted and sang with great subtlety, and I admired her performance very much.

I had been primed for the opera’s very final duet (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom) to be the most sublime moment of the opera, but I was much more aroused by the farewell duet between Nero and Poppea toward the end of the first act. It was highly charged vocally and erotic in its beauty and delivery.

Other characters included Seneca, portrayed by bass Benjamin Galvin (below left front, surrounded, from left to right, by Eliav Goldman, Jack Innes, Jiabao Zhang, Jake Elfner and Noah Bossert.) The lower range of his voice is profound and impressive.

Kevin Green (below right with Pustaver) portrayed the hapless Ottone, and his baritone voice shows promise.

It was, however, a night for the female singers. Cayla Rosché’s Ottavia was beautifully sung. She was completely believable as the spurned wife of Nero. Likewise Kelsey Wang’s Drusilla, Ottone’s second choice, was also wonderfully sung.

In the first scene we were introduced to Fortuna, Virtù and Amore who shone vocally. Throughout the remainder of the opera they silently hovered in the background as visual reminders of the forces driving the plots. Love, portrayed by Emily Vandenberg, eventually triumphed and got to sing a bit more.

There were moments of humor sprinkled throughout the production. I do not know how historically informed they were, but they did help to lighten the heaviness of the political intrigue and amorous complexities.

Some were perhaps unintentional – particularly the absurdly amusing wig that Fortuna wore. But Professor Mimmi Fulmer, in the small role as Nutrice, had a moment of complete hilarity. Her performance – both vocally and as an actress – underlined the contrast between earnestly serious, focused students and a relaxed, confident professional. (Below is the final scene with Nero and Poppea).

Altogether, it was a surprisingly engaging evening. There remain chances to see it this afternoon and Tuesday evening. It is not a brief or light evening of entertainment, but it is wholly engaging, thought provoking, timely and certainly something out of the ordinary.

Two more performances take place in Music Hall: today at 2 p.m. and Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. For more information including how to get tickets – adults are $25, seniors are $20 and students are $10 — go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-monteverdis-the-coronation-of-poppea/

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Classical music: The international Handel Aria Competition launches a new showcase concert for local high school singers

November 16, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post:

The Handel Aria Competition (below are the 2017 finalists) was established seven years ago to encourage emerging artists ages 18-35 from around the world to perform Handel’s vocal works.

We are pleased to introduce our newest project, the Handel Aria Competition High School Singers Showcase. Our goal with this event is to encourage high school singers in the Madison, Wisconsin area to explore works from George Frideric Handel’s extensive vocal repertoire.

We are inviting local voice teachers to help one or more of their students prepare a Handel aria or duet to be performed at the Handel Aria Competition High School Singers Showcase.

This concert, which will be free and open to the public, will take place at Capitol Lakes, 333 West Main Street in downtown Madison, at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Piano accompaniment will be provided, and each singer will receive a $100 scholarship towards voice lessons.

Voice teachers with students who might be interested are encouraged to contact Handel Aria Competition Artistic Director Sarah Brailey (below) — herself a winner of the competition and now a graduate student at the UW-Madison — at handelariacompetition@gmail.com for more information. A limited number of performance slots are available on a first-come basis.

PLEASE NOTE: The 7th annual Handel Aria Competition will be Friday night, June 7, 2019 in Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. (Below is a soprano Suzanne Karpov, First Prize winner of the 2018 competition. Many other performances from past years are on YouTube.)

Auditions for the competition via YAP Tracker, an online way to audition for opera and vocal competition, will open soon – and the deadline will be April 1, 2019


Classical music: A busy week at the UW-Madison brings an early opera and an all-Bernstein brass and winds program plus orchestral and choral concerts that will be LIVE-STREAMED

November 14, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

A busy week brings an early opera plus orchestral and choral concerts with live streaming to the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Here are details:

On Thursday and Saturday nights, the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music will LIVE STREAM concerts by the UW Symphony Orchestra and the UW Concert Choir.

“We plan to do more live streaming of ensemble groups,  especially large ones, and of non-ticketed events,” says concert manager Katherine Esposito. “It is more and more becoming the norm for music schools.”

Here is the all-purpose Live Streaming link where you can see what events will be live-streamed: https://www.music.wisc.edu/video/

At 7:30 p.m. on Thursday night, Nov. 15, in Mills Hall, the UW Symphony Orchestra (below top) will perform a FREE concert under director Chad Hutchinson (below bottom).

The program is American composer Jennifer Higdon’s “Blue Cathedral” and the Symphony No. 5 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

For information about the program and the concert, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-madison-symphony-orchestra-2/

On Saturday night, Nov. 17,  at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Concert Choir (below) will perform a FREE concert featuring the “Hymn to St. Cecilia” by British composer Benjamin Britten and “Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah” by Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera as well as works by several other composers.

Conductors will be Beverly Taylor (below), the director of choral activities at the UW-Madison, and graduate student Michael Johnson.

For details about the program and individual performers, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-concert-choir-2/

On Friday night, Nov. 16, at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall there is the first of three performances by the University Opera of Italian baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea,” directed by David Ronis (below, in a photo by Luke Delalio).

Other performances are on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 18,  at 2 p.m. and Tuesday night, Nov. 20, at 7:30 in Music Hall. (Sorry, no photos of the UW production. But you can hear a famous duet from another professional production in the YouTube video below.)

Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and $10 for students.

Chad Hutchinson will conduct the orchestra.

For more information about the plot of the opera, comments by the two singers playing Emperor Nero, the production and tickets, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/university-opera-monteverdis-the-coronation-of-poppea/

And here is a link to a press release about the opera: https://www.music.wisc.edu/2018/10/09/university-opera-poppea2018/

On Sunday night, Nov. 18, at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Brass Ensemble and the Winds of Wisconsin join forces under conductor Scott Teeple for an FREE all-Leonard Bernstein (below) program. For details, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/uw-wind-ensemble-and-winds-of-wisconsin-joint-concert/


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Classical music: Soprano and past winner Sarah Brailey is the new artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition

October 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following announcement to post about a well-established and international annual event that takes place in Madison:

“We are delighted to announce that soprano Sarah Brailey is the new artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition.

“Sarah was one of our first finalists, in the second year of the event, and she won first prize the following year. Her wonderful performances of “M’adora l’idol mio” from Teseo (in the YouTube video at the bottom) and “Ferma l’ali” from La resurrezione from the 2015 Handel Aria Competition can be seen on our YouTube channel.

“Sarah recently returned to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study for her DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) with voice professor and bass-baritone Paul Rowe.

“She continues to maintain a busy international touring schedule, and in addition has already co-founded a monthly Madison midday concert series entitled Just Bach. Please take a moment to read her fascinating and impressive bio.

“As we welcome Sarah to her new position, we want to express our boundless gratitude to Cheryl Bensman-Rowe. Cheryl, the co-director of the Madison Early Music Festival,  was the artistic director of the Handel Aria Competition from the very start, and we would never have been able to launch this event without her enthusiasm, musical knowledge and organizational skills.

“The seventh annual Handel Aria Competition will take place on Friday, June 7, 2019 in Mills Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.”


Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians celebrate 15 years with three performances this weekend of “Arias and Sonatas” by Bach and Handel

October 3, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Two towering geniuses of the Baroque era – Johann Sebastian Bach (below top) and George Frideric Handel (below bottom) — were born in the same year, 1685, and just a little over 100 miles from each other.

Yet the two masters never met!

To mark their 15th anniversary, the Madison Bach Musicians will open their new season with three performances of a program “Arias and Sonatas” by the two great composers.

The program will include selections from Handel’s Violin Sonata in F major, Nine German Arias, Lascia chi’o ping (heard sung by Joyce DiDonato in the YouTube video at the bottom), Tornami a vagheggiar; and Bach’s Laudamus te (B minor Mass), Öffne dich (Cantata 61), Ich bin vergnügt in meinem Leiden (Cantata 58), and Prelude and Fugue in C major (Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II).

Advance-sale discount tickets are $30  general admission and are available at Orange Tree Imports, and Willy Street Co-op (East and West).

Online advance tickets at www.madisonbachmusicians.org

Tickets at the door are $33  for  general admission, $30 for seniors (65+)  with student rush  tickets costing $10 at the door.

Here are the performance times and places.

Each performance offers a FREE pre-concert lecture by MBM founder, music director and keyboardist Trevor Stephenson (below), who will also appear at NOON TODAY (Wednesday, Oct. 3) with host Norman Gilliland on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Midday.”

This Friday, Oct. 5, with a 7:15 p.m. lecture and 8 p.m. performance at the Grace Episcopal Church (below top and bottom) at 116 W. Washington Ave., in Madison on the downtown Capitol Square.

This Saturday, Oct. 6, with a 7:15 p.m. lecture and 8 p.m. performance at Immanuel Lutheran Church (below top and bottom) at 1021 Spaight Street in Madison.

This Sunday afternoon, Oct. 7, with a 2:15 p.m. lecture and 3 p.m. performance followed by an outdoor wine reception at historic Park Hall at 307 Polk Street in Sauk City. The Park Hall venue has limited seating, so it is recommended to buy tickets in advance either online or at Willy St. Co-Op (East or West), or at Orange Tree Imports.

The major guest artist is soprano Chelsea Shephard (below). Praised by Opera News for her “beautiful, lyric instrument” and “flawless legato,” she won the 2014 Handel Aria Competition in Madison. She returns to perform with the Madison Bach Musicians after appearing in MBM’s  production last season of Henry Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas.”

Other performers include the Madison Bach Musicians concertmaster Kangwon Kim (below) on baroque violin.

Also, James Waldo (below) will perform on baroque cello. Known for his “nuanced, richly ambered” interpretations of Bach (LucidCulture in New York City), Waldo has lived and breathed period performance his whole life, having been raised in the home of two musicians who specialized in recorder, traverso and Renaissance choral music.

After graduate studies at Mannes College of Music and nine years living and working in New York City, he returned to Madison last fall to begin his DMA studies at UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music with Professor Uri Vardi. He recently participated in an all-Bach program for Midsummer’s Music in Door County, and is the regular principal cellist of Cecilia Chorus, performing twice a year in Carnegie Hall.


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Classical music: Can the annual Handel Aria Competition be improved? Here are two modest proposals from a fan. What do you think?

June 13, 2018
9 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a guest posting by George Savage, a blog follower who is a self-described musical amateur. In his youth he sang in choirs and had a bit solo part of Morales in his college production of Bizet’s Carmen. Then, a long musical hiatus until his 60th birthday celebration, when he sang Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah,” black hat in hand, knees on floor.

Most of his adult life was spent teaching literature and composition at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, specializing in the American Renaissance. To the extent he has stayed connected to the world of music, it is through his daughter Kelly Savage, who has a D.M.A in harpsichord from Stony Brook University and now teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

By George Savage

As my bio indicates, I am a musical amateur, meaning simply that I am a lover (French amateur) of music. For the past three years, I have had this love rekindled through the annual Handel Aria Competition in Madison, Wisconsin.

The vocal quality has consistently been high — especially this year! — and it is fun to vote for the Audience Favorite, even when the judges disagree with your assessment.

(Editor’s note: This year the Audience Favorite was mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger, below top, while the three judges awarded First Prize to soprano Suzanne Karpov, below bottom. Here is a link to story about all the winners: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/06/11/classical-music-here-are-the-winners-of-friday-nights-sixth-annual-handel-aria-competition/).

My heartfelt congratulations go to Dean and Carol “Orange” Schroeder (below) for establishing this annual competition in 2013 and for the many supporters who have made this competition a success.

I have two modest proposals, though, for improvement, one minor and one major.

A minor proposal: Unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of opera — and I know that some people reading this have that knowledge — you will not know the context of the arias.

I propose that the program notes contain a brief context for each of the arias. Alternatively, the singers – below are the seven finalists this year — could introduce their songs with a similar brief context.

A major proposal: As I listened this year to Handel piece after Handel piece after Handel piece, I wondered: “Could there be some variation?”

I started to think of other festivals that started with a single-artist focus but then gradually expanded, such as the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, or, closer to home, the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Both summer theater venues began with a single focus – Shaw and Shakespeare — but then evolved while at the same time staying true to their precipitating muse.

There is still lots of Shaw at the Shaw festival and lots of Shakespeare at APT. The same is true of the Carmel Bach Festival, which started with Bach but now has expanded to include many other forms of classical music. The same holds true for the famous Mostly Mozart Festival in New York City, which continues to expand its repertoire beyond Mozart.

In that spirit, I wonder if the singers at the Handel Competition, back up by the period-instrument Madison Bach Musicians, could in future events sing two selections — the first an aria by Handel and the second a non-Handel Baroque aria of the singer’s choice.

I think many singers would welcome the expanded repertoire and the audience would appreciate the added variety. The judging would be murkier, but it would be a good kind of murky.

I hope these proposals will engender a discussion: Should the competition be tweaked, or should it stay the same?

Your thoughts on these two proposals would be appreciated as well as other suggestions of your own.


Classical music: Here are the winners of Friday night’s sixth annual Handel Aria Competition

June 11, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The sixth annual Handel Aria Competition took place Friday night in Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus at the Mead Witter School of Music.

It was, as usual, much fun.

Such serious fun deserved a bigger audience. But The Ear suspects that the opening night of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society at the Overture Center and the aria competition cut into each other’s audience. Maybe that scheduling conflict can be avoided in the future.

Everyone seems to agree that every year, as word of the competition continues to spread far and wide, the singers get better. This year, the seven finalists – five sopranos and three mezzo-sopranos chosen from 113 international applicants — were all terrific.

Special thanks should also go to the Madison Bach Musicians, who in a short amount of rehearsal time turned in outstanding accompaniment in music that can be hard to follow because or ornaments and embellishments as well as subjective interpretations and the Baroque singing style.

The wide repertoire included recitatives and arias from “Semele,” “Giulio Cesare,” “Rodelinda,” “Theodora,” “Hercules,” “Ariodante,” “Judas Maccabeus” and “Ricardo Primo, re d’Inghilterra” (Richard the First, King of England).

The biggest disappointment – in truth not very big — was that the competition had no male voices. There were no tenors, countertenor, baritones or basses to add to the variety. (You can hear the 2017 Audience Favorite, tenor Gene Stenger, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But that is how judging on merit works, so who can argue?

Once again, The Ear and many of his voice-savvy friends disagreed with the three professional judges. That seems to happen every year. But there will be more about that, as well as some other observations, another time.

In the meantime, let us celebrate the results.

Here, from left to right in a photo by David Peterson, are this year’s winners: soprano Sarah Hayashi, Second Prize; soprano Suzanne Karpov, First Prize; mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger, Audience Favorite; and mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit, Third Prize.

All of the performances will be posted on YouTube at a later date, which The Ear will announce when it happens.

For more information about the seven finalists and the three professional judges, as well as updated news and how you can support the ever-expanding competition, go to:

https://handelariacompetition.com

https://handelariacompetition.com/2018-competition/


Classical music: The sixth annual Handel Aria Competition is this coming Friday night

June 3, 2018
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Not many people get to see a dream become reality in the way that Dean and Orange Schroeder, the longtime owners and operators of Orange Tree Imports, have.

Six years ago, the two had a dream of hosting a modest event to explore and celebrate the operatic music of the Baroque master George Frideric Handel that they so love.

Thus was born the annual Handel Aria Competition. (Below is a photo of the seven finalists in the 2015 competition).

Now, half a dozen years later, that same competition, once attached to the Madison Early Music Festival but now held independently a month earlier, has developed an international following, and is a much-loved and much-anticipated staple of the summer music season in Madison.

The sixth annual Handel Aria Competition will take place this coming Friday night, June 8, at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall in the Mosse Humanities Building of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In addition to the professional judging for first, second and third prize, all those in attendance will be invited to vote for the “Audience Favorite” prize.

Tickets are $15, general admission, and will be available at the door.

Chosen from 110 international applicants, the seven finalists, all-female for the first time, are (below, from top left to right):  soprano Sarah Hayashi; mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit; soprano Amanda Keenan; soprano Suzanne Karpov; mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger; soprano Sarah Yanovitch; and soprano Ashley Valentine. (Last year’s first-prize winner, mezzo-soprano Nian Wang, performs in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a link to the overall site for the Handel Aria Competition, with its underlying justification and wrap-ups of five previous competitions as well as information about how to apply for future ones and how to support the competition (a major fundraiser this spring was cancelled because of a snowstorm).

https://handelariacompetition.com

And here is a link to photos and extensive biographical information about the seven contestants and three judges for this year’s competition:

https://handelariacompetition.com/2018-competition/

Finally, here is the view of the competition from the outstanding early music ensemble that will accompany the finalists, the Madison Bach Musicians. It comes from MBM artistic director and keyboardist Trevor Stephenson:

“This is the fourth year that the Madison Bach Musicians have accompanied the finalists in this event. A wonderful collaboration has resulted, with a number of Handel Aria Competition prize-winners becoming favorite soloists with Madison Bach Musicians: Chelsea Morris (below), Margaret Fox, Andrew Rader, Gene Stenger and Nola Richardson.”


Classical music: Madison Bach Musicians, with dancers and guest vocal soloists, will perform a tragic Purcell opera and comic Bach cantata this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

April 2, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger’

This coming weekend the Madison Bach Musicians — an acclaimed local group devoted to period instruments and historically informed performance practices — will present a double bill that features the tragic opera “Dido and Aeneas” by British composer Henry Purcell (below top) and the comic “Coffee” Cantata, BWV 211, by Johann Sebastian Bach (below bottom).

Both performances take place in the Atrium Auditorium (below in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

On Saturday, April 7, there is a 6:45 p.m.  lecture by MBM founder and artistic director Trevor Stephenson followed by a 7:30 p.m. performance.

On Sunday, April 8, there is a 2:45 p.m.  lecture by Trevor Stephenson followed by a 3:30 p.m. performance.

Purcell’s vivid and eloquent operatic masterpiece, Dido and Aeneas is based on the tragic love story told in Book IV of Virgil’s epic Latin poem “Aeneid”and is depicted in the 1815 painting (below) by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.

The performance of the Baroque opera uses a full baroque orchestra.

In addition there are three guest singers as soloists: Chelsea Shepherd (below top) as Dido; Elijah Blaisdell (below middle) as Aeneas; and Nola Richardson (below bottom) as Belinda.

Adding to the production are dance sequences, all coming together thanks to the collaboration of director David Ronis (below top in a photo by Luke Delalio) of the University Opera; Karen McShane-Hellenbrand (below middle) of the UW-Madison Dance Department; and Baroque-performance specialist conductor and UW bassoonist Marc Vallon (below bottom in a photo by James Gill).

J. S. Bach’s witty Coffee Cantata will add some mischievous fun to the program.

This work suggests that perhaps Johann Sebastian himself was a coffee enthusiast at a time when coffee was sweeping the Continent and often seen as a sinful new fad.  “Ah! How sweet coffee tastes! Lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter than muscatel wine! I must have my coffee….” sings Lieschen in an aria that you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Bach even premiered and performed many of his works at Zimmermann’s Coffeehouse in Leipzig, which he frequented and which is depicted below in an 18th-century engraving by Georg Schreiber.

As usual, MBM artistic director Trevor Stephenson (below) will offer his insightful and entertaining commentary on these two diverse masterworks in his lecture preceding each concert.

Tickets are $38, $35 for seniors and $10 for student rush tickets at the door if the concert is not sold out.

Advance tickets are available at the Willy Street Coops East and West. More information about the production and tickets can be found at madisonbachmusicians.org


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