The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: New faculty conductor Chad Hutchinson makes an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra

October 11, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Saturday night, Chad Hutchinson (below), the new faculty conductor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, made an impressive and promising debut with the UW Symphony Orchestra.

The ambitious program that Hutchinson put together says a lot about his priorities and instincts, and about his confidence in himself and the abilities of his student players, who performed superbly.  

The varied works came from the early 19th century, the mid-19th century, the early 20th century and the 21st century. And it seemed that each piece in the ambitious program was chosen to put the spotlight on a different section – percussion, brass, strings and winds.

Curiously, The Ear found the most successful pieces were the most traditional ones.

The Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Richard Wagner received the right mix of horn pomp and string zest. It made The Ear realize again how much more he prefers Wagner’s instrumental music to his vocal music. Let’s hear more Wagner preludes, since we are unlikely to hear more Wagner operas.

The orchestral transcription by Leopold Stokowski (below) of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy was the least successful work of the night. This is the second overblown and bombastic Stokowski transcription that The Ear has heard performed live in a month.

Clearly, Stokowski’s aesthetic was Bigger is Better. This particular transcription strips away the mystery, sensuality and subtlety, the watery softness,  of the original. It works more as an etude for orchestra than as an authentic expression of Impressionism.  The Ear’s objections are to the transcription, not to the performance, which was well voiced, precise and tightly controlled.

“Mothership” by the popular American composer Mason Bates (below), who wrote the recent successful opera based on the life of the late Apple guru Steve Jobs, proved an interesting foray into contemporary music culture. It was also the Madison premiere of the 2011 work.

The electronic music in the pulsating and highly atmospheric score, including the computer-generated disco dance beat, highlighted the percussion section and the UW’s new Electro-Acoustic Research Space (EARS), which collaborated with the symphony orchestra.

The dramatic work, a novelty that is pop-infused and resembles music by John Adams a little too closely, has its pleasing and engaging moments. But overall it seems a triumph of style over substance. (You can judge for yourself from the performance with Michael Tilson Thomas in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

That said, Hutchinson nonetheless held the complex and coordinated score together, and the young audience seemed to take to the new music — a major achievement in itself.

Expect to hear many more contemporary works from Hutchinson, who says he is an unabashed champion of new music. He will include other living composers in many other concerts, including the next one on Nov. 4 and then again on Feb. 22.  

To these ears, the most impressive performance came in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven. In its day, the difficult and long work proved revolutionary and perplexing. More recently, more than 100 conductors named it the best symphony ever written. You can’t get more establishment than that.

Yet despite being so mainstream, the “Eroica” remains a difficult and challenging work, both technically and interpretively. And this performance succeeded on both counts. That is no small feat for a new conductor and his young students to pull off in the first six weeks of school.

Especially impressive was Hutchinson’s choice to skip any pause between the third movement and the finale. It worked dramatically to maintain momentum. Such exciting attacks should be a more common practice in performing symphonies and concertos as well as chamber music.

Hutchinson seems a congenial and humorous concert hall host. His pre-concert talk (below), which he is slated to do at all performances, was helpful and informative, even if he repeated some major points when he introduced  the actual performances. Hutchinson, intent on expanding the audience for classical music, is worth listening to.

Hutchinson may not possess an especially graceful or fluid podium presence that is pleasing to watch, but he gets results. Certainly both the student players and the large audience (below) seemed pleased and excited by these performances.

In the end, the concert provided plenty of reasons to look forward to hearing more from Chad Hutchinson and seeing how he develops and leaves his mark on programming and performing at the UW.

Were you there as either a performer or an audience member?

What did you think of the concert and of Chad Hutchinson’s debut?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: A busy week at the UW-Madison brings the debut of a new conducting professor with the UW Symphony Orchestra plus a major voice recital, a string quintet and two master classes.

October 2, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

It will be a busy week for classical music in Madison, especially at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

Certainly the standout event is the debut of Chad Hutchinson (below). He is the new conducting teacher and succeeds James Smith.

The FREE concert by the UW Symphony Orchestra will take place on Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall.

The intriguing program features the Prelude to the opera “Die Meistersinger” by Richard Wagner (you can hear George Solti perform it with the Vienna Philharmonic the YouTube video at the bottom); the orchestral arrangement by Leopold Stokowski of the piano prelude “The Sunken Cathedral” by Claude Debussy; the “Mothership,” with electronics, by the American composer Mason Bates; and the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven, a work that was recently voted the best symphony ever written by more than a hundred conductors.

Here is a link to more about Hutchinson’s impressive background:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/chad-hutchinson/

And here is a schedule of other events at the UW:

WEDNESDAY

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall conductor Scott Teeple leads the UW Wind Ensemble (below top) in its FREE season opener featuring music by Percy Grainger, Aaron Copland, Roger Zare and Jennifer Higdon. Also featured is guest oboist, faculty member Aaron Hill (below bottom).

Here is a link to program notes:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/wind-ensemble/

Also at 7:30 p.m. in nearby Morphy Recital Hall, the internationally renowned guest violist Nobuko Imai (below), from Japan, will give a free public master class in strings and chamber music.

THURSDAY

At noon in Mills Hall, guest violist Nobuko Imai (see above) will perform a FREE one-hour lunchtime concert with the Pro Arte Quartet, which has San Francisco cellist guest Jean-Michel Fonteneau substituting for the quartet’s usual cellist, Parry Karp, who is sidelined temporarily with a finger injury.

The ensemble will perform just one work: a driving and glorious masterpiece, the String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111, by Johannes Brahms.

At 1 p.m. in Old Music Hall, Demondrae Thurman (below), a UW alumnus who is distinguished for playing the euphonium, will give a free public master class in brass.

For more information, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/master-class-demondrae-thurman-euphonium/

NOTE: The 3:30 master class for singers by Melanie Helton has been CANCELLED. The UW hopes to reschedule it for late fall or spring.

FRIDAY

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, UW baritone Paul Rowe (below top, in a  photo by Michael R. Anderson) and UW collaborative pianist Martha Fischer (below middle) will give a FREE concert of three songs cycles by Robert Schumann (the famed “Liederkreis); Maurice Ravel; and UW alumnus composer Scott Gendel (below bottom).

For the complete program, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/faculty-recital-paul-rowe-voice-martha-fischer-piano-2/

SATURDAY

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Symphony Orchestra (below) will perform under its new conductor Chad Hutchinson. See above.

SUNDAY

At 3 p.m. the afternoon concerts by Lyle Anderson at the UW Carillon (below) on Observatory Drive will resume.

Here is a link with a schedule and more information:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/event/carillon-concert/2017-10-08/


Classical music: The seventh annual FREE Concert in the Park by the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) is this coming Wednesday night in Old Sauk Trails Park.

August 7, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s friends at the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) write:

The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras is proud to be a part of Concert in the Park, hosted by The Gialamas Co. for yet another season.

WYSO Concert  the Park Tent 4

For seven consecutive years, WYSO has been invited by The Gialamas Company to be a part of this spectacular event. This special FREE concert has recently become a highlight of the summer.

The Youth Orchestra, consisting of members ages 14–18, will perform this coming Wednesday night, Aug. 12 (NOT Aug. 9 as was first stated in error), in Madison’s far west side in Old Sauk Trails Park, 1200 John Q. Hammons Drive, from 5 to 10 p.m. The music starts at 7 and runs to about 9 p.m.

WYSO Concert in the Park

The Youth Orchestra, under the direction of WYSO Music Director James Smith, will perform six works: “Festive Overture” by Dmitri Shostakovich; Movements 1 and 4 from Symphony No. 1 by Sergei Rachmaninoff; excerpts from “Die Meistersinger” by Richard Wagner; the first movement from Symphony No. 8 “Unfinished” by Franz Schubert; Suite from “The Incredible Flutist” by Walter Piston (at bottom in a YouTube video); and “Over the Rainbow.”

WYSO Concert in the Park, playing under Jim Smith 3

The evening is capped off with a marvelous fireworks display.

fireworks

Before the event there will be an instrument petting zoo, face painting and Ice Cream Social. Tables, food and drinks are available for purchase. For more information, visit www.gialamas.com.

Make sure to stay after the event for a spectacular fireworks show. Set up lawn chairs, lay out blankets and put out your picnic baskets as you enjoy all of the music and activities this FREE event has to offer.

WYSO Concert in the Park Photo aeriel view

For additional information, please contact WYSO at (608) 263-3320 or e-mail at wyso@wyso.music.wisc.edu.

 


Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players end the season with memorable performances of piano quintets by Faure and Brahms.

April 27, 2015
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker, who also provided performance photos. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John Barker

By John W. Barker

For its final concert of the season, the Mosaic Chamber Players (below) gave a program Saturday night at the First Unitarian Society of Madison. It combined two of the great quintets for piano and strings: the second of that type, in C minor, Op. 115, by Gabriel Fauré (1847-1924); and the only one if its kind, in F minor, Op. 34, by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

Mosaic Chamber Players  Quintets 1 JWB

So close together, one would think, and yet, so far apart. Contrasts result from distinct differences between the two composers in both nationality and personality — between Gallic eloquence and German burliness.

The work by Fauré (below) was completed in 1921, by which time Debussy was dead and Ravel, who was Faure’s student, was in his prime. It  is one of a half-dozen chamber pieces with which the composer rounded out his final years — almost, one might think, as an extension of his long output of piano writing.

Its expansive four-movement format is conventional in scope and with a range of expression. But its heart is a long and rapturous slow movement that flows with the unfolding elegance of one of Fauré’s piano nocturnes. (You can hear the slow movement in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

faure

By contrast, the quintet by Brahms (below) is one of the masterpieces of his early chamber-music writing. It dates from 1862, when Richard Wagner was between the composition of “Tristan und Isolde” and “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.”

Starting as some ideas for a symphony, it exists also in Brahms’s own adaptation of it as a sonata for two pianos. Its four movements are more conventionally conceived than Fauré’s, combining masterful Classical craftsmanship with powerful Romantic urgency.

brahms3

The performances involved five players from the group. The two violinists alternated in the first chair: Laura Burns for the Fauré, Wes Luke for the Brahms. Micah Behr and Michael Allen played viola and cello, respectively, while pianist Jess Salek (below) was the anchor as pianist, just as he is as the group’s guiding spirit.

Jess Salek JWB

These players have worked together before, but not as a consistent ensemble, although they suggested a close collegiality that more established groups might envy. They fully captured the moods, nuances and strengths of the two works.

If there were problems, it had to do with some balances, above all disadvantaging the viola. Some of the explanation could be in the choice of the cavernous Atrium Hall (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) as performing venue, rather then the more intimate Landmark auditorium, the original meeting house of the First Unitarian Society, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Atrium’s highly reverberant acoustics overwhelmed the players’ sound, and, at the same time, prompted over-exertions in volume output, to the detriment of carefully calculated ensemble.

FUS Atrium, Auditorium Zane Williams

The size of the hall also pointed up the painfully small size of the audience. There are always weekend competitions for attention, especially in the spring. Still, the Mosaic group is only beginning to develop sufficient promotion and publicity for its activities. Potential audience members need to be made aware of what the group offers.

Mosaic Chamber Players bow at Quintets JWB

What it does offer is one of the high-quality sources of chamber music performance in Madison’s very rich spectrum of events in that category.

The next Mosaic season should win the wider attention it greatly deserves.


Classical music education: Classical music can help students study for final exams. Plus, the WYSO Harp Ensemble and Youth Orchestra perform Saturday afternoon.

December 12, 2014
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ALERT: Just a reminder that tomorrow, Saturday, Dec. 13, at 1:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, on the UW-Madison campus in the George Mosse Humanities Building at 455 North Park Street.

The Youth Orchestra (below) and the Harp Ensemble of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) will perform.

The orchestra’s program includes The Roman Carnival Overture by the French composer Hector Berlioz; three excerpts from Act 3 of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by the German Opera composer Richard Wagner; and the first, third and fourth movements from the Symphony No. 1 in D Minor by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The Harp Ensemble will perform the traditional tune “Be Thou My Vision” as well as “Grandjany, Eleanor and Marcia”; and a medley of music by the Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini.

Call the WYSO office at (608) 263-3320 for up-to-date concert and ticket information. Or visit http://wyso.music.wisc.edu

Tickets are $10 for adult, $5 for young people 18 and under; and they are available at the door 45 minutes prior to each concert.

WYSO Youth  Orchestra

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is officially the last day of classes for the first semester at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The next two weeks are devoted to a study period and to final papers and exams.

That means classes are also ending at a lot of other public and private universities and colleges around the nation, The Ear suspects. And elementary schools, middle schools and high schools will not be far behind.

Final exams 2

So it is a timely time to post the results of research that shows that classical music -– not just any music, but specifically classical music, which lowers rather raises blood pressure –- can help students study and prepare for final exams.

It was published in advance of two radio stations’ scheduling of useful classical music in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California and in San Francisco.

Apparently, the secret is that it has to do with the embedded structure of the music itself.

The researchers, which range from the cancer center at Duke University and the University of San Diego to the University of Toronto, even mention some specific composers and musical genres or forms that exhibit that sense of structure in outstanding ways.

The composers cited include such Old Masters as Johann Sebastian Bach (below top), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below middle) and Johannes Brahms (below bottom). Richard Strauss and George Frideric Handel also were mentioned. Surprisingly, no mention was made of music by Antonio Vivaldi, Franz Joseph Haydn or Franz Schubert.

But students should avoid loud and more scattered music, the research suggests. No “1812 Overture,” complete with cannons, by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky! Such music is actually disrupting and counterproductive.

Bach1

mozart big

brahms3

Hmmmm.

Maybe that same sense of structure and regularity — especially noticeable in Baroque music as well as the Classical period and early Romantic music — also explains why those composers have appealed to so many people for so long.

It may also explain why student who study music  and go through formal music education often go on to high achievement in other fields.

And the preferred forms include solo music, including the piano and the lute, and string quartets. That makes sense to me since they are more intimate and less overwhelming forms. Solo French piano by Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré  and Francis Poulenc come in for special mention. (I would also add the 550 sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti.)

The Ear suspects that what works for final exams also works for other studying and homework in general and other intensive intellectual tasks.

studying to music CR Holly Wilder.jpeg

And maybe what is good for college students is also good for high school or even middle school or elementary school students.

final exams 1

I do have some questions: Did the researchers take the conflicting evidence about multi-taking into account? But I assume they probably gave that some thought. Still, you have to wonder.

Here is a link to the story:

http://news.usc.edu/71969/studying-for-finals-let-classical-music-help/

Do you have favorite music to study by? (One of my favorites is the Waltz in C-Sharo minor by Frederic Chopin as played with great discernible structure, repetition and variation — listen to inner voices — as well as incredible color and nuance by Yuja Wang in a popular YouTube video at the bottom.)

Favorite composers, favorite kinds and favorite pieces?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra deserves to be taken seriously by local symphony fans. Plus, Edgewood College’s FREE Fall Choral Concert is tonight at 7.

October 18, 2013
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ALERT: Tonight at 7 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood College Drive, Edgewood College presents its FREE Fall Choral Concert. The program includes the Chamber Singers and Men’s Choir under the direction of Albert Pinsonneault (below), and the Women’s Choir under the direction of Kathleen Otterson.  This free concert will feature a diverse repertoire, including traditional Western, African and American Gospel works.

Albert Pissonneault 2

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Margaret Barker) is trailblazing in a number of ways.

Middleton Community Orchestra Margaret Barker

For one thing, it regularly has its concerts on Wednesday evenings (though the one on December 23 will be on a Monday), thus avoiding contributing to the already impossible crush of weekend conflicts.

Second, like some other groups, it performs a program without intermission (and follows the concert with generous refreshments, below, and a chance to meet the musicians).  Under some circumstances, that kind of program could be hard on the performers, given no rest.  But it does make for a compact concert experience.

Middleton Community Orchestra reception

On Wednesday night, the MCO opened its 2013-14 season, its fourth season, at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, attached to Middleton High School. And it sounded better than ever.

Middleton Community Orchestra Steve Kurr conducting

After some shuffling, the program had settled down to a familiar symphony, framed by two familiar overtures.

Hector Berlioz (below) took material from his opera “Benvenuto Cellini for his “Roman Carnival” concert overture.

berlioz

Maestro Steve Kurr (below, in a photo by Margaret Barker) tends to favor somewhat leisurely tempos, but not always just to make things easier for the players. In the slow opening material the strings delivered a degree of confidence and suavity beyond anything I have heard from them before. And the whole orchestra easily managed the brisker tempo of the overtures fast and flashy later sections.

Steve Kurr 10-13 Margaret Barker 2

The meat in the hamburger, as it were, was the Fourth or “Italian” Symphony by Felix Mendelssohn (below). Given the limited number of rehearsals the orchestra can manage, it works miracles. To be sure, it could use more, and the somewhat overtaxed sound of the strings, especially the violins, seemed not quite fully secure, at least in the first movement.  But that movement contains particularly difficult string writing, after all.

Mendelssohn

Conductor Kurr rightly included the movement’s repeat, too often ignored by many conductors (who thereby lose some lovely transitional moments). But the work went very well, overall, in an intelligently conceived and very handsomely played performance, a real pleasure to hear.

The final piece was by Richard Wagner (below), whose bicentennial is being marked this year: the overture to his opera “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.”  It is an absolute marvel of orchestral writing, and the Middleton players made it sound truly magnificent.  Particularly noticeable was progress in the brass section, which sounded more secure, better disciplined and balanced, than ever before, truly splendid.

Richard Wagner

Madisonians, listen up!  It can fairly be said that our area now has four orchestras to take seriously.

Not only the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, of course, but the UW Symphony Orchestra as the third, and the Middleton Community Orchestra as an honorable fourth. Madison’s concert-lovers who ignore their concerts are missing some very fine music-making!

Fore more information about attending, p;laying in and supporting the Middleton Community Orchestra, which is heard playing Johann Strauss Jr.’s famous “On the The Beautiful Blue Danube” waltz in a YouTube video at the bottom,  visit:

http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org


Classical music: Music critics of The New York Times name their favorite recordings — historical and current — of Richard Wagner to celebrate this year’s bicentennial of the famous opera composer’s birth. What are your favorite Wagner works and recordings?

August 27, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

This year is the bicentennial of the birth of composer Richard Wagner.

Just about everything about Richard Wagner (below) is epic and titanic, dramatic and revolutionary.

Little wonder, then, that he is known especially for “The Ring of the Nibelung,” that 16–hour, four-opera mythological cycle that challenges the most resourceful singers, actors, stage directors, orchestras, conductors and opera companies. It took many complications and until the 1960s for conductor Sir Georg Solti to make the first complete recording of “The Ring” for Decca — and it still holds up to the best complete recordings since then.

Richard Wagner

Stop and think and consider this: In the time it usually takes to hear “The Ring” you could listen to all the symphonies and concertos of Beethoven, or all his string quartets and most of his piano trios.

True, some of Wagner’s vocal music is quite stirring and enthralling.

But only some of it — at least to my ears.

I share some of the sentiments of his detractors, who included some pretty good artists and discriminating musicians.

Take the composer Gioachino Rossini, who quipped “Wagner’s music has great moments but dull quarter hours.”

The American writer and humorist Mark Twain observed that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”

The comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen remarked: “Every time I listen Wagner, I get the urge to invade Poland.”

If you like those, here is a link to some more quips about Wagner, including some by French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire and French composer Claude Debussy:

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Richard_Wagner

I am probably a dissenter, but I think Wagner generally wrote better for instruments than he did for the voice. At least I generally find his orchestral music tighter and more enjoyable to listen to.

Indeed, I would like to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra or the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra do one of the various versions of “The Ring Without Words,” perhaps the orchestral anthology of highlights from “The Ring” and other operas that famed conductor George Szell (below) arranged and conducted with the Cleveland Orchestra (in a YouTube video at the bottom).

George Szell wide BW

I love the overtures and preludes, and I don’t think they get programmed often enough these days. Same for the charming “Siegfried Idyll.”

I remember an old vinyl LP recording with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. How I loved, and found endlessly thrilling the Overture to “Tannhauser,” the “Prelude and Liebestod” to “Tristan und Isolde,” the Overture to “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” preludes from “Lohengrin,” and the magically static and haunting Prelude to “Parsifal.” They are terrific curtain-raisers.

So I was happy to see orchestral recordings by Herbert von Karajan and Otto Klemperer included on the list in The New York Times.

I also love “best moment” anthologies so it is also good to see choices like the new recording by the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann – a great choice since Kaufmann (below) seems a perfect Wagner singer who has a huge but subtle voice, stamina and the handsome good looks for the parts.

Kaufmann Wagner CD

Anyway, here is a link to the Wagner discography in The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/23/arts/music/critics-name-their-favorite-wagner-recordings.html?pagewanted=all

What is your favorite Wagner recording? What piece and what performer?

And do you favor his vocal or instrumental music?

The Ear wants to hear.


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