The Well-Tempered Ear

Did Beethoven and his Fifth Symphony foster racism, exclusion and elitism in the concert hall? The Ear thinks that is PC nonsense. What do you think?

September 19, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Controversy has struck big among classical music critics and fans — just in time for the Beethoven Year that will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth this December. Plans call for celebrations by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, and others. 

At question is what seems yet another fallout and dust-up from the Black Lives Matter movement and the current struggle to foster social justice and racial equality.

In some ways, it all seems inevitable.

Now the history-denying advocates of cancel culture are suggesting that Beethoven (below) and his music – especially the popular Fifth Symphony (you can hear the famous opening in the YouTube schematic video at the bottom)  –  fostered white privilege and the rise of racism, sexism and homophobia in the concert hall.

That seems like quite an accusation for a single composer and a single piece of music that was premiered in 1808.

The assertion is food for thought. But not much.

In the end The Ear finds it a stretch and a totally bogus argument. He thinks that Beethoven attracted far more performers and audiences than he repelled. Others, including famed critic Norman Lebrecht in his blog Slipped Disc and a critic for the right-wing newspaper The New York Post, agree:

https://slippedisc.com/2020/09/beethovens-5th-is-a-symbol-of-exclusion-and-elitism/

https://nypost.com/2020/09/17/canceling-beethoven-is-the-latest-woke-madness-for-the-classical-music-world/

The Ear also thinks it is political correctness run amok, even for someone who, like himself, advocates strongly for diversity of composers, performers and audiences – but always with quality in mind — in the concert hall.

Just because Beethoven was such a great creative artist is hardly cause to blame him for the inability of other artists to succeed and for non-white audiences taking to classical music. Other forces — social, economic and political — explain that much better.

Yes, Beethoven is a towering and intimidating figure. And yes, his works often dominate programming. But both musicians and audiences return to him again and again because of the originality, power and first-rate quality of his many works.

Beethoven himself was deaf. That would certainly seem to qualify him as inclusive and a member of an important category of diversity.

No matter. The writers are happy to blame Ludwig and his work for exclusion and elitism. They argue that people of color, women and LGBTQ people have all felt alienated from classical music because of Beethoven’s legacy.

Of course, there is elitism in the arts. People may be equal, but creative talent is not.

And clearly, Beethoven was a towering and intimidating figure – more for the quality of his music than for the simple fact that it exists. Such exclusion and elitism have to do with other factors than the composition of the Fifth Symphony.

If The Ear recalls correctly, when he died Beethoven was given the largest state funeral up to that time for a non-royal, non-politician or non-military person.

And how do you explain that Beethoven’s music, so representative of Western culture, appeals deeply to and attracts so many Asians and Asian-Americans, and became both banned and symbolically central to those opposed to Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China?

But these days being provocative can become its own reward.

You can read the analysis and decide about its merits for yourself, then let us know what you think in the Comment section.

Here is a link to the opinion piece in Vox Magazine, a free online journal: https://www.vox.com/switched-on-pop/21437085/beethoven-5th-symphony-elitist-classism-switched-on-pop

What do you think about the idea that Beethoven played a large and seminal role in fostering an elitist and exclusive culture in classical music?

Did you ever feel alienated from classical music because of Beethoven or know others who have?

What is your favorite Beethoven composition?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: It’s clear to The Ear: It will be at least another full year before audiences in the U.S. can safely attend live concerts. What do you think?

August 11, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

All the signs point to the same conclusion: It will be at least the fall of 2021 before we can safely attend concerts again – if we are lucky.

These past two weeks, The Ear answered questionnaires sent out by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top), which has already canceled the season through January, and the Wisconsin Union Theater (below bottom is Shannon Hall).

If you read between the lines, both questionnaires seemed to suggest the same two things: that the entire 2020-21 concert season will be canceled or postponed; or else that it will feature virtual online performances — for ticket prices (perhaps called a “donation”) that have not yet been announced and may not be acceptable to a lot of any group’s core audience.

Perhaps you disagree. If so, The Ear would like to hear in the comment section what you think and why you think it.

Here is what The Ear, who has talked with other season subscribers and various musicians, has seen and heard.

The United States has now surpassed 5 million coronavirus infections and 163,000 Covid-19 deaths with no sign of slowing down and many signs of accelerating. One widely cited model now predicts 300,000 deaths by this Dec. 1.

Plus, too many Americans refuse to wear masks or to maintain social distancing or to shelter at home to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Add in that we will be fortunate if enough vaccines are found to be safe, efficient and approved for use by Jan 1.

Then – despite federal government’s “Warp Speed” development or fast-tracking of the search for vaccines — there is the time needed to manufacture enough of them.

Then it will take considerable time to distribute them equitably, which other countries and public health agencies around the world demand.

Then, if we hope to reach herd immunity, it will take time to convince enough people to get the vaccine, especially with the growing number of anti-vaxxers.

Then those who do get vaccinated will have to wait a month for the second shot that will be required.

Then we wait a few weeks to see if and how much the vaccine really works – if it is safe and prevents infection or at least lessens the damage of the disease if you do get infected.

Plus, it sees unreasonable to think all of these steps will go without a hitch. So maybe a few more weeks or even months should be added.

Add up the math, and the conclusion seems clear: Performing arts events, like sports and other large in-person gatherings, seem increasingly likely to be canceled or reconfigured for a full year.

Concerts are already taking place in China, and other countries in Asia and Europe seem likely to catch up soon. But music lovers in the U.S. will be lucky if they get to attend a live concert with 100 or 500 or 1,000 or 2,500 other people before the fall of 2021 – at least a full year away. Maybe more.

The Ear could well be wrong. Maybe you see a different conclusion, which we would all love to hear. Perhaps international readers will share estimates about when concerts will begin in their country.

One way or another, we will learn a lot more about how the new music season is being planned and changed in the next three weeks.


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Classical music: Madison Opera’s virtual Opera in the Park goes online for FREE this Saturday night and stays up until Aug. 25. Listen to it indoors or outdoors

July 23, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Madison Opera’s Opera in the Park isn’t in a park this year — as it has been in past years (below) — but it will be available for people to enjoy for free in their backyards, in their living rooms or anywhere else with an internet connection.

The digital concert will be released on this Saturday, July 25, at 8 p.m. CDT, and can be watched on Madison Opera’s website, www.madisonopera.org/digital, where you can find complete information and, soon, a complete program to download.

The annual free concert has moved online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a newly created program of opera arias and more.

Digital Opera in the Park features: soprano Jasmine Habersham; soprano Karen Slack; tenor Andres Acosta; and baritone Weston Hurt. (The last two will sing the justly famous baritone-tenor duet “Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Habersham (below) makes her Madison Opera debut with this unique performance, and will sing Susanna in the company’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro next April.

Slack (below) debuted with the company in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, and will be part of the company’s digital fall season.

Acosta (below) sang Timothy Laughlin in Gregory Spears’ Fellow Travelers with Madison Opera this past February.

Hurt (below) debuted as Germont in Verdi’s La Traviata last season and is part of the company’s digital fall season.

The four singers will be joined by several important local artists. They include violinist Suzanne Beia, the assistant concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the concertmaster of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the second violin of the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet.

There will also be a fleet of eight pianists. They include MSO music director and Madison Opera’s artist director John DeMain (below top, in a photo by Prasad) and the UW-Madison graduate and composer Scott Gendel (below bottom). The two will play multiple numbers, including DeMain accompanying Beia on the beautiful “Meditation” from Thaïs.

Each singer recorded their arias with an accompanist in their home cities, and chorusmaster Anthony Cao (below top) both accompanies and conducts the Madison Opera Chorus (below bottom) in a virtual “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore.

The evening will be hosted by Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith and by WKOW TV’s Channel 27 News co-anchor George Smith.

“Reimagining Opera in the Park in the pandemic era has been a challenge, but one we have happily embraced,” says Smith (below in a photo by James Gill). “Our wonderful artists were game to record themselves in their home towns, to sing duets with each other through headphones, and to share their artistry with our community in a new way. Over 40 choristers joined a Zoom call to get instructions, and then they recorded their parts of the ‘Anvil Chorus.’”

“While in some ways this concert has required more work than our live Opera in the Park in Garner Park, it is always a pleasure to present beautiful music for everyone to enjoy.”

Digital Opera in the Park features music from Verdi’s Il Trovatore, now canceled in live performance but originally slated to open Madison Opera’s 2020-21 season; Jerry Bock’s She Loves Me, which the company performs in January; and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, which will be performed in April.

The program also includes selections from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, Richard Strauss’ Arabella, Verdi’s Don Pasquale, Puccini’s Tosca, Massenet’s Hérodiade and Thaïs, Rossini’s William Tell, Pablo Sarozabal’s zarzuela La Tabernera del Puerto, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, and more.

The concert will be available beginning at 8 p.m. CDT on this Saturday night, July 25, and will remain online until Aug. 25, allowing for both repeated viewing and flexibility for people who are unable to watch on the first night.

While Digital Opera in the Park will be free to watch, it would not be possible without the generous support of many foundations, corporations and individuals who believe in the importance of music. Madison Opera is grateful to the sponsors of Opera in the Park 2020:

  • Presenting Sponsor: the Berbeewalsh Foundation
  • Sponsors: the John and Carolyn Peterson Charitable Foundation, Full Compass Systems, the Raymond B. Preston Family Foundation, University Research Park, Colony Brands, Johnson Financial Group, MGE Foundation, National Guardian Life, Wisconsin Arts Board, Dane Arts and the Madison Arts Commission.
  • Media Sponsors: WKOW, Madison Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, Magic 98, and La Movida.

RELATED EVENTS include:

OPERA ON THE WALL | JULY 25, 2020 | ONLINE

Madison artists Liubov Swazko (known as Triangulador) and Mike Lroy have created artwork around our community, including beautiful murals on State Street storefronts.

In an act of artistic cross-pollination, they will create an artwork that comes from their personal response to Digital Opera in the Park, offering a rare glimpse of visual artists responding to musical artists. Their creative process will be filmed in the Madison Opera Center, and shared online starting on July 25.

The finished artwork will be displayed in the Madison Opera Center. Go to Swazko’s website at triangulador.com (one work is below) and Lroy’s website at mikelroy.com to see their past work.

POST-SHOW Q&A | JULY 25, 2020, IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING THE INITIAL STREAM

Join Kathryn Smith and the Digital Opera in the Park artists for a post-concert discussion, including an opportunity to ask questions. Details on format and platform will be available closer to the date.

 


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Classical music: The Library of Congress has commissioned new music about the coronavirus pandemic. You can listen to the world premieres from this Monday, June 15, through June 26

June 13, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The U.S. Library of Congress (LOC, exterior is below top and interior is below bottom) has started a new artistic project relevant to a public health crisis in both a historical era and the current times.

The LOC has commissioned 10 different short works, experienced in 10 different performance videos recorded at their homes — that pertain to the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19 from American composers and performers.

It is called The Boccaccio Project after the Renaissance poet Giovanni Boccaccio (below), a 14th-century Italian writer who wrote “The Decameron,” a series of stories told by 10 people who fled from Florence, Italy, to find refuge in the countryside during the Black Plague.

The musical works will start being premiered on weekdays this coming Monday, June 15, at the Library of Congress website. The works will also be broadcast on social media including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The website, which now has a complete list of performers and works, will soon have a complete schedule of world premieres, running on weekdays from Monday, June 15, to Friday, June 26. Then the manuscripts will be transferred to the LOC archives.

Here is a link: https://loc.gov/item/prn-20-038/

Many of the names will be unfamiliar to the general public. But an excellent story about the background and genesis of the project, including music samples, can be found on National Public Radio (NPR), which aired the story Friday morning.

Here is a link to that 7-minute story (if you listen to it rather than read it, you will hear samples of the music): https://www.npr.org/2020/06/12/875325958/a-new-library-of-congress-project-commissions-music-of-the-coronavirus-pandemic

And here are some of the participants, who are noteworthy for their ethnic and geographic diversity:

Flutronix (below) includes flutist Allison Loggins-Hull, left, and composer Nathalie Joachim.

The work by composer Luciano Chessa (below top) will be performed by violist Charlton Lee (below bottom), of the Del Sol Quartet:

And the work by Damien Sneed (below top) work will be performed by Jeremy Jordan (below bottom):

The new project strikes The Ear as a terrific and timely undertaking — the musical equivalent of the photographic project, funded and staffed by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during The Great Depression of the 1930s. That project yielded enduring masterpieces by such eminent photographers as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.

But several questions arise.

How much did the project cost?

Will the general public be able to get copies of and rights to these works to perform? One assumes yes, since it is a public project funded with public money.

And will this project give rise to similar projects in other countries that are also battling the pandemic? New art – literature, films, painting, dance and so on — arising from new circumstances seems like something that is indeed worth the undertaking.

Listen to them.

What works stand out for you?

What do you think of the project?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: COVID-19 pandemic forces more major changes for Concerts on the Square and a cancellation by the Mosaic Chamber Players

June 11, 2020
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ALERT: The Ear has received the following note from Jess Salek — the founder, director and pianist of the Mosaic Chamber Players: “Just a note to mention that the concert scheduled for this Saturday, June 13, is cancelled due to COVID-19. We are doing our best to stay positive during this difficult time for local arts groups, and we will resume our music-making as soon as is safe. Please be well!”

By Jacob Stockinger

Major changes are in store for the annual Concerts on the Square, which were already postponed with a change of dates, day and time, according to television WKOW-TV Channel 27 (you can hear the TV news report in the YouTube video at the bottom):

Here are details:

MADISON (WKOW) – The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO) has unveiled a new plan for its 2020 Concerts on the Square series (below), which involves replacing the four postponed concerts with two drive-in performances.

Additionally, they’re planning for two live concerts at Breese Stevens Field if playing outdoors is deemed safe in late summer.

The revised approach was necessary to keep attendees safe, while adhering to state and county requirements that don’t allow for large gatherings, according to a WCO news release.

The WCO will follow Forward Dane Health Guidelines to determine if the live concerts can occur. A decision will be made in late July.

“We were optimistic in April that if we only delayed the start of Concerts on the Square to late July that we could still hold live performances downtown,” said Joe Loehnis (below), the WCO’s CEO. “But as the pandemic continues to affect us all in ways we never could have foreseen, we’ve decided to take creative steps now that will allow us to still share music with our community.”

The new plan for Concerts on the Square looks like this:

  • The first four shows (July 28 – Aug 18) have been postponed until the summer of 2021.
  • The WCO, in partnership with the Madison Mallards, will host two “drive-in” concerts on June 24 and July 22 (more information below). Each concert also will be live-streamed on https://wcoconcerts.org and https://pbswisconsin.org for free.
  • The final two Concerts on the Square will be live concerts at Breese Stevens Field on Aug. 25 and Sept. 1.
  • The WCO’s annual “runout” concert to Portage this summer has been canceled.

Drive-in Concerts on the Square

The two drive-in concerts will feature rebroadcasts of the most popular Concerts on the Square performances, thanks to a partnership with PBS Wisconsin.

The WCO expects to be able to have 115 vehicles at each concert. The goal is to make it accessible to as many people as possible without risking health and safety.

The basics for each program are:

Location: Warner Park, 2930 N. Sherman Ave., Madison
Cost: $25 per car 
Time: 7-8 p.m.; 8:45-9:45 p.m. (two showings each night to allow more people to attend)
Additional information: To purchase tickets, visit: 

 

 

June 24 – “S Wonderful” with Amanda Huddleston, soprano, and Andrew Clark, tenor. Songs include: “The Sound of Music” Medley, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Armed Forces Salute” and “1812 Overture.” (2015 Performance)

July 22 – “Film Night,” featuring concertmaster Suzanne Beia. Songs include: “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Pink Panther,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Schindler’s List” and “E.T.” (2019 Performance)

“With two showings each night, we’re trying to make the concerts as accessible as possible,” Loehnis said. “Community partnerships are so important right now, and because of PBS Wisconsin and the Mallards, we’re able to bring this idea to life. We are grateful for these partnerships.”

Breese Stevens concerts are planned for late summer. If Dane County has entered Phase III of its Forward Dane plan by late August, 250 people will be allowed to gather for outdoor events.

For that reason, the WCO is planning to host two live Concerts on the Square at Breese Stevens.

The WCO will provide an update later in July on progress for this opportunity. Those shows currently are scheduled for Aug. 25 and Sept. 1.

The WCO also is considering how it could broadcast the live performances to other venues such as the Alliant Energy Center, Warner Park or Madison parks, where others could view the concerts safely.

“We’re still working through the logistics, and we’re realists – understanding that the situation changes almost daily,” Loehnis said. “But we also want to be forward-thinking and we’re going to keep pushing ahead unless we don’t believe a live show can be held safely.”

To keep up-to-date with performance schedules, community members can sign up for email updates on the WCO website or follow the orchestra on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=wisconsin%20chamber%20orchestra&epa=SEARCH_BOX) and Instagram.

 


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Classical music: During global protests against racism, a longtime fan of the Madison Symphony Orchestra writes a letter to ask for more diversity and African-American composers

June 9, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

During the ongoing global protests and demonstrations against police brutality, racism and white privilege, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) will hold its annual meeting next Tuesday, June 16, at 3:30 p.m.

The meeting is NOT open to the public — as erroneously stated in an earlier version — but just to season subscribers (not single ticket buyers) and members of MSO boards. The meeting will be virtual and held online via Zoom.

During the meeting, a statement about diversity and inclusion will be read, according to the MSO. 

If you have questions, you can call Alexis Carreon at (608) 257-3734.

With both the symphony and current events in mind, a longtime MSO subscriber has written the following letter to Manager of Individual Giving Jeff Breisach.

Please read the letter and then let us know what you think.

Do you agree or disagree?

What else would you like to say about the role of MSO in adapting to concerns about racism, injustice and privilege?

Do you have any suggestions?

“Dear J. Breisach:

“Please share my following concerns with those planning the annual meeting of the Madison Symphony Orchestra:

“In light of the recent historic events, I hope MSO will add an item or two to deal with the economic and racial injustice prevalent in Madison, as well as elsewhere in our nation.

“Specifically:

  • Empty seats should be made available as Rush Seats ($1 or $5) the day of the concert to open our halls to those facing economic disparity. Such disparity rests on a long history of racism and poverty injustice in our town and in our land. Our hall should always be full and should have a more multi-ethnic, multi-age audience than is currently the case. As our audiences stand, we are one of the most racially and economically privileged events in Madison. That must stop.
  • We need more racially diverse composers included in our regular programming–at the very least during the month of February, but even better throughout the year. And I’m not just thinking of “Porgy and Bess” tunes. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (below top) also comes to mind as a composer we need to hear more often. Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges — Joseph de Boulogne (1745-1799, below bottom) — is another. (Editor’s note: You can hear the Romance for violin and orchestra by Coleridge-Taylor in the YouTube video at the bottom.) There are more. Having a local black chorus in for Christmas is not enough!

“It is time for MSO to acknowledge its history of white privilege and take some steps to more widely acknowledge the richness of a diverse local audience and classical music history.

Sincerely,

Carol Troyer-Shank

“PS: I have been a MSO ticket holder in the economically denigrated balcony for more than 20 years.

“PS2: The architect and designers clearly thought about making more money — not about safety of attendees — when they designed a balcony to squeeze in more people instead of to allow ease of movement for lower-cost ticket holders. Shame on them! So, of course, all those seats should be filled every time. Even at $5 a ticket, the MSO would gain enormous improvement in their local image.”

 


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Classical music: The Met just canceled its entire fall opera season. Can local groups be far behind?

June 3, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The question has weighed on The Ear ever since local groups started announcing their new concert seasons.

Will audiences – especially older and more vulnerable ones — be ready to risk venturing into crowds of 500, 1,000 or 2,000 people without an effective treatment or vaccine for global pandemic of the coronavirus (below) and the growing number of deaths from COVID-19?

Now such suspicions have been supported or even confirmed by news that the world-famous Metropolitan Opera (below), at Lincoln Center in New York City, has just canceled all of its live fall productions.

It cited concerns about the safety of both the public and the performers. And its reasoning makes sense — even though it is estimated that the Met will lose up to $100 million. It is hard or impossible in concert halls and on stages (below is a photo of the Met’s stage) to use masks and maintain social distancing.

All in all, it sounds all too familiar, similar to the reasons given for cancellations this past winter and spring, and even this summer.

Here’s a link about the Met cancellation, with lots of details and quotes, in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/01/arts/music/metropolitan-opera-cancels-season-virus.html

Locally, it seemed like the show might go on when many groups – despite the public health crisis growing worse — went ahead and started announcing their fall seasons or even an event this summer, as in the case of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square, which were postponed by a month.

After all, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Middleton Community Orchestra and the Madison Bach Musicians have all announced new seasons — as did the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear about the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s new “Ode to Joy” season in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The UW-Madison – the biggest presenter of live concerts in the Madison area with some 300 events a year – has wisely not yet announced its concert season, let alone how it will hold lessons and classes.

The Ear suspects that more cancellations are in the making, especially when it comes to mass gatherings such as concerts, movies, plays and sports events.

Indeed, it seems like many of the groups even took possible cancellations into consideration when it came to planning programs; cutting back on expenses and staffing; and using local or regional guest artists, who might be less expensive and less difficult to cancel, rather than long-distance imported ones.

Even if a vaccine is perfected by Jan. 1, it will take a while to produce enough of it, then to administer it and then to have it take effect.

But perhaps those suspicions and speculations are overly cautious or too pessimistic.

What do you think will happen to the fall concert season?

Will going online and streaming new or past concerts once again be a substitution?

Has the pandemic changed your own habits — perhaps waiting to purchase single tickets rather than renew a season subscription? Or your plans for the fall season, perhaps even the entire season?

The Ear wants to hear.


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