The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Acclaimed native son Kenneth Woods returns this weekend to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He talks to The Ear about what Madison meant to him and his international career

March 2, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, native Madisonian Kenneth Woods (below) returns from his home in the UK to conduct three performances of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The concerts feature two MSO debuts: the prize-winning young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor; and the acclaimed guest conductor, Kenneth Woods, leading the orchestra for the MSO premiere of Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, “Miracle” plus Richard Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Performances will be held in Overture Hall on Friday night, March 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, March 7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, March 8, at 2:30 p.m.

Single tickets are $19-$95 each and are on sale now, along with discounted tickets, at: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/the-miracle/; through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street; or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online and phone sales.

You can view program notes for this concert online at http://bit.ly/msomar2020programnotes

A Prelude Discussion by Randal Swiggum will take place one hour before each concert.

Guest conductor Kenneth Woods is a busy and versatile musician. He is the Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of both the Colorado MahlerFest and the Elgar Festival in England. (You can hear Woods conducting Carl Maria von Weber’s “Oberon” Overture in the YouTube video at the bottom.) 

Woods has won accolades for rediscovering and recording the music of the Austrian-British composer Hans Gàl. Woods, who has played guitar in a rock band, is also a professional cellist who solos with orchestras and plays chamber music. He writes a respected blog. And he currently plays and records in the Briggs Piano Trio for Avie Records.

For much more information about Kenneth Woods, including his blog “A View From the Podium,” go to: https://kennethwoods.net/blog1/

Woods recently spoke via email to The Ear about what Madison has meant to him and to his international career.

How did living in Madison play a role in your decision to become a professional musician?

Madison offered me a chance to hear music at an early age. I was taken to watch a rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra as a very young kid, maybe three or four years old. That made a huge impression on me, especially seeing the rehearsal process. Later, my parents took us to all the UW Symphony Orchestra concerts for years.

There’s really no reason not to take young kids to concerts! For me, a love of live music led to a love of recorded music, listening to records at home, and from there, to an interest in playing music as a kid.

We were lucky to have a very strong music program in the Madison public schools when I was growing up here. The orchestras at Memorial High School played some really impressive repertoire under Tom Buchhauser (below top, in a photo by Jon Harlow). The UW Summer Music Clinic made being a musician social – it was a great immersion with one’s peers.

Most important, however, was probably the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). Playing under Jim Smith (below bottom) was the most fantastic education in orchestral playing one could hope for. He and Tom are a big part of why I became a conductor.

Madison in those days wasn’t a super-pressurized scene, like one might encounter around the big pre-college programs in New York or LA. But what I might have missed in terms of conservatory-level instrumentalists in every corridor, one made up in terms of feeling like you could find your own path. By the time I was in high school, I pretty much knew music was that path.

How did your experiences in Madison help prepare you for that career?

I learned so much about rehearsing from Jim Smith. In his first year, we worked on Dvorak’s 8th Symphony pretty much all year. Every week, he opened our ears to new facets of the music. I’ve never forgotten that.

I went off to Indiana University to do my Bachelor’s degree, but returned to Madison for a Master’s, when I studied cello with UW-Madison professor Parry Karp (below top).

Those were wonderful years for me. I learned an enormous amount from Parry as both a cello teacher and chamber music coach (and especially as a person).

I played in fantastic chamber groups, did lots of wacky new music and had solo opportunities. UW Symphony Orchestra conductor David Becker (below bottom) even gave me my first meaningful chance to rehearse an orchestra when he had me take a couple of rehearsals on the Copland Clarinet Concerto.

And I played in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. I came away from that time with both new skills and new confidence.

What does returning to your hometown to conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra mean to you?

It’s both very exciting and a little surreal. Under the leadership of John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the MSO (below bottom, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) has come so far since the time I was in it. And the new hall is such a treasure for all of Wisconsin – it’s practically a different orchestra.

I still have many friends and former mentors in the orchestra and it’s going to be wonderful to see them all and make music together again after so long.

But it’s more than a homecoming. It’s a chance to celebrate where we’ve all been and what we’ve all done the last 20 years or so. My musical life has mostly been in the UK for a long time, so to re-connect with my musical roots here is rather magical.

What are your major current and upcoming projects?

The English Symphony Orchestra (below) represents the biggest chunk of my musical life. This year we’re celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday and the orchestra’s 40th anniversary.

The ESO has a special commitment to new and unknown music, and right now we’re in the midst of something called the 21st Century Symphony Project, which involves commissioning, premiering and recording nine new symphonies by diverse composers. It’s one of the most ambitious commissioning projects I’ve ever heard of, let alone been involved in.

I’m also excited about this year’s Colorado MahlerFest in Boulder, where we’re focusing on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” this May, which will crown a week of music exploring themes of color and visual art with music by Wagner, Messiaen and British composer Philip Sawyers.

Is the MSO program special to you?

I must say that it was incredibly generous of John DeMain to offer me such a fantastic program. Not every music director is gentleman enough to let a guest have Ein Heldenleben.

What would you like the public to know about your approach to music and about the specific works by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss?

Haydn’s music is maybe the richest discovery of my adult life. I didn’t get it as a kid, largely because most performances I heard were so dull.

His music is so varied, and his personality so complex, one mustn’t try to reduce him down to a simplistic figure. The late symphonies, of which this is one of the finest, are inexhaustible sources of wisdom, beauty, humor and sanity.

The Mendelssohn is really an astonishing piece. I’ve probably conducted it as much as any piece of music, with so many different soloists, all of whom had hugely different temperaments, personalities, sounds and approaches.

I’ve played it with some of the greatest violinists in the world and with young students. Somehow, whoever is playing, it always leaves me, and the audience, smiling. I’m pretty sure we can continue that streak with Blake Pouliot (below, in a photo by Jeff Fasano).

The Strauss is a rich, personal, wise, funny and moving work. It’s always a challenge, particularly bringing out all the astonishing detail in the score, but it’s also a real joy to perform. If the Mendelssohn always leaves me smiling, the Strauss always leaves me smiling with a tear in my eye.

 


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Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra and conductor Kyle Knox brightened a soggy spring with early Beethoven and Elgar. On Tuesday night, an organ and cello concert takes place in Overture Hall.

April 15, 2019
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ALERT: On  this Tuesday night, April 16, at 7:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, organist Greg Zelek and guest cellist Thomas Mesa will close out the season of Concert Organ performances sponsored by the Madison Symphony Orchestra. The program includes music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Claude Debussy and Charles-Marie Widor. For tickets ($20) and more information about the program with detailed biographies of the performers, go to:  https://madisonsymphony.org/event/thoms-mesa-greg-zelek/

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 veteran and well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

The early spring concert on last Wednesday night by the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) at the Middleton Performing Arts Center that is attached to Middleton High School was comparatively short – it had no intermission — and was devoted to only two composers.

The first was Edward Elgar (below, in 1910), whose early orchestral works included a good deal of music drawn from his youthful sketchbooks. Notable in that category were two suites, given the joint title of The Wand of Youth.

From the eight sections of the First Suite (1907), six were played, and from the six sections comprising the Second Suite (1908), four were given. All these movements are colorful and evocative little miniatures, reflecting early imagination, often touching, but many quite boisterous.

The other composer was Ludwig van Beethoven (below), as represented by his Symphony No. 2. This shows the young composer moving quite distinctly beyond the stylistic world of Haydn and Mozart into the rambunctious new symphonic idiom he would go on to create. (You can hear Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic play the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The guest conductor this time, Kyle Knox – the recent University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who is the music director of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and the associate conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — chose to give the music a “big orchestra” approach.

For both the suites and the symphony, the lighter and cleaner textures of a chamber orchestra would seem best. But with an orchestra totaling some 91 players, Knox chose to go for volume and sonority.

His tempos, especially in the Beethoven were notably fast. As the largely amateur orchestra followed loyally, there was some raw playing at times.

Still, the MCO asserted strong character, which made a very happy impression on the audience and brightened an evening of soggy weather.


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Classical music: This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra spotlights three of its principal players in music by Prokofiev, Debussy and Vaughan Williams along with works by Schubert and Gershwin

March 7, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below in a photo by Peter Rodgers) will once again perform a program that highlights its principal artists as soloists.

 The program for “Orchestral Brilliance: Three Virtuosi” begins with Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished.

Then the featured artists appear: concertmaster Naha Greenholtz performs Sergei Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 for Violin; principal clarinetist JJ Koh follows with Claude Debussy’s Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra; and principal tubist Joshua Biere concludes with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra. For more biographical information about the soloists, see below.

The program finishes with George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday, March 8, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, March 9, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, March 10, at 2:30 p.m.

Details about tickets ($18-$93) are below.

“Our March concerts shine the spotlight on our own brilliant musicians that make up the Madison Symphony Orchestra,” says music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). “It is important to me on the occasion of my 25th anniversary with the symphony to share this celebration in a special way with these artists, who make my musical life such a pleasure.”

Franz Schubert (below) began composing his “Unfinished Symphony” in 1822, but left the piece with only two movements despite living for six more years. For reasons that remain unclear, the score was shelved until 1860 when the owner finally realized he possessed a gem. He approached conductor Johann von Herbeck with assurances of a “treasure” on par “with any of Beethoven’s,” and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony had its premiere in 1865.

The Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63, by Sergei Prokofiev (below) is more conventional than the composer’s early bold compositions. It starts off with a simple violin melody and recalls traditional Russian folk music. The graceful violin melody flows throughout the entire second movement, and the third movement’s theme has a taste of Spain, complete with the clacking of castanets. (You can hear David Oistrakh play the gorgeous and entrancing slow second movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Composed between December 1909 and January 1910, the Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra by Claude Debussy (below) was written as one of two test pieces for the clarinet examinations at the Paris Conservatory. The piece is described as dreamily slow at the start, followed by a duple meter section that moves the music along until the joyous final section.

The Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams (below)
was written in 1953-54 to mark the 50th anniversary of the London Symphony Orchestra.

“An American in Paris” by George Gershwin (below) is one of the popular composer’s most well-known and most beloved compositions. Written in 1928, it evokes the sights and energy of the French capital in the 1920s. As Gershwin explains, the work’s purpose is to “portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere.”

ABOUT THE SOLOISTS

Naha Greenholtz (below, in a photo by Chris Hynes) is concertmaster of both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Quad City Symphony Orchestra. Additional performance highlights include guest concertmaster appearances with the Oregon Symphony, Calgary Philharmonic, National Ballet of Canada, Omaha Symphony and Memphis Symphony, among many others. Additionally, she performs frequently with the Cleveland Orchestra both domestically and abroad. Greenholtz has also held positions with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, joining the latter as Associate Concertmaster at age 21.

JJ Koh (below) joined the Madison Symphony Orchestra as principal clarinetist in 2016. In addition, he holds a position with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. Prior to joining the MSO, Koh was a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. He is a founding member of the Arundo Donax Reed Quintet, and a winner of the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition. As principal clarinetist of KammerMahler, Koh participated in a world premiere recording project, which featured chamber versions of Gustav Mahler’s Fourth and Ninth Symphonies.

Joshua Biere (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) joined the Madison Symphony Orchestra as principal tubist in 2013. He also holds the principal tuba chair with the Kenosha Symphony and regularly performs with the new Chicago Composers Orchestra. Biere has also performed at the Grant Park Music Festival (Chicago), and with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. An established chamber musician, Biere is also a highly sought-after clinician and teacher, maintaining a studio of well over 35 tuba and euphonium students.

CONCERT AND TICKET DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. One hour before each performance, maestro John DeMain will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticketholders.

The MSO recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts are available online: http://bit.ly/mar2019programnotes

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: http://madisonsymphony.org/orchestral
through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.
  • Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $15 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush
  • Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 10 vouchers for 18-19 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Presenting sponsorship provided by the Kelly Family Foundation. Major funding provided by Madison Magazine, Louise and Ernest Borden, Scott and Janet Cabot, and Elaine and Nicholas Mischler. Additional funding provided by von Briesen & Roper, S.C., and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra concerts this weekend feature three local debuts — by a woman conductor, a Grammy-winning cellist and an immigrant composer

October 17, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Three local debuts will take place this weekend in the three “Epic Romance” concerts by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below).

Renowned Canadian guest conductor Tania Miller will lead the MSO while music director John DeMain makes his debut at the Liceu Theater in Barcelona, conducting the opera Candide in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth.

Grammy Award-winning American cellist Zuill Bailey will make his Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) solo debut in Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

And Canadian composer Michael Oesterle will be performed for the first time in Madison when his work Home” opens each concert.

The second half of the program is Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 2912 State Street, on Friday, Oct. 19, at 7:30 p.m.; on Saturday, Oct. 20 at 8 p.m.; and on Sunday, Oct. 21, at 2:30 p.m.

Here are more details:

Canadian Conductor Tania Miller has distinguished herself as a dynamic interpreter, musician and innovator, on the podium and off. She has been praised for “energy, grace, precision and restraint.” She has appeared as a guest conductor in Canada, the United States and Europe with such orchestras as the Bern Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Symphony, Oregon Symphony and the Vancouver Symphony, among others.

Over a 14-year tenure as the Music Director of the Victoria Symphony in Canada, Miller (below) gained national acclaim for her passion and commitment to the orchestra and community. Recipient of the 2017 Friends of Canadian Music award from the Canadian League of Composers for her acclaimed commitment to contemporary music in Canada, Miller has been an example of the impact of commitment and dedication to an orchestra and to the future of orchestral music through creative innovation and vision.

You can hear Tania Miller discuss women conductors in the informative YouTube video at the bottom.(But please be forewarned: YouTube was having major technical issues and glitches last night that affected all their videos on this blog, not just this one. If it doesn’t load when you try, wait and then try again.) 

Zuill Bailey (below), described by Classical Net as “easily one of the finest cellists today,” has been featured with symphony orchestras worldwide, including Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, Israel, Cape Town, and the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz, Austria. Bailey has also appeared at Disney Hall, the Kennedy Center, the United Nations, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.

In 2017, Bailey won a best solo performance Grammy Award for his live recording of “Tales of Hemingway,” by composer Michael Daugherty. His celebrated “Bach Cello Suites” and recently released Britten Cello Symphony and Sonata CD with pianist Natasha Paremski immediately rose to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard magazine Classical Chart.

His Cello Concerto was the last notable work by Sir Edward Elgar (below), composed in 1919 in the aftermath of World Ear I. Upon regaining consciousness following a 1918 tonsillectomy, Elgar immediately asked for pencil and paper and wrote down the melody that would become the first theme in this concerto.

Despite today’s renown as a crowd favorite, the piece did not achieve wide popularity until the 1960s, when a recording by Jacqueline du Pré caught the public’s attention, and it became a classical favorite.

Michael Oesterle’s “Home” had its world premiere in November 2017 with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra and conductor Tania Miller.

The piece is an homage to the great geographical ebb and flow of humanity, also known as the immigrant experience. Oesterle (below) notes, “I wrote it through the filter of my personal impressions as an immigrant, and with the realization that this subject is humbling in its breadth.”

Composed between May and August 1888, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 was first performed in St. Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theatre with Tchaikovsky below) conducting.

Unlike its two predecessors, there is no known program for the Fifth Symphony, save for a recurring main theme heard throughout all four movements. Over the years this theme has become known as the “fate” motive; its original ominous character undergoes various metamorphoses, emerging triumphant in the score’s concluding pages.

ABOUT ATTENDING

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. One hour before each performance, Madison Symphony Chorus Director and UW-Madison director of choral activities Beverly Taylor (below) will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket holders.

The MSO recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts are available online: http://bitly.com/oct2018programnotes

Tickets can be purchased in the following ways:

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/ax through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.
  • Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $15 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush
  • Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
  • Subscribers to 5 or more symphony subscription concerts can save up to 50% off single ticket prices. More information is available about the season at: https://madisonsymphony.org/18-19
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 10 vouchers for 18-19 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Find more information, go to madisonsymphony.org

Major funding for the October concert is provided by: Mirror 34 Productions and National Guardian Life Insurance Company. Additional funding is provided by John A. Johnson Foundation, a component fund of the Madison Community Foundation, Barbara J. Merz, Selma Van Eyck, and the Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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Classical music: The reviews are in! This afternoon is your last chance to hear the critically acclaimed violin virtuoso Gil Shaham and the Madison Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff

January 21, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It has been 17 years since the internationally renowned, award-winning American violin virtuoso Gil Shaham (below) performed in Madison, and that was a recital with his pianist-sister Orli Shaham at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

This weekend he was back for three performances with the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain in an all-Russian program that featured one of the greatest violin concertos: the Violin Concerto in D major by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. (You can hear Gil Shaham performing an excerpt from the finale of the Tchaikovsky concerto in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Both the critics and audiences loved him.

This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 201 State Street is your last chance to hear Gil Shaham in the Tchaikovsky, along with the “Love for Three Oranges” Suite by Sergei Prokofiev and the Symphony No. 3 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Tickets are $18-$90.

For more information about tickets, the performers and the program, go to the website:

https://www.madisonsymphony.org/shaham

Here are two reviews that you can read as a preview if you haven’t yet gone or as a chance to measure your own impressions against the critics’ if you went to the performances on Friday and Saturday nights.

Here is the review that John W. Barker, a frequent guest critic for this blog, wrote for Isthmus:

http://isthmus.com/music/violin-virtuosity/

And here is the review that Jessica Courtier wrote for The Capital Times:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/music/gil-shaham-makes-familiar-tchaikovsky-sound-fresh-with-mso/article_c4b11e50-92bb-5082-8c35-cbe1b0a3a554.html

What did you think of Gil Shaham’s performance?

Of the playing by the Madison Symphony Orchestra?

The Ear wants to hear.


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