The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet opens its new season in top form

September 24, 2018
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR SHARE IT (not just “Like It”) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

On Friday night in Mills Hall, in an all-masterpiece program that featured Classical, Romantic and Modernist works, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) opened its new season .

And it did so in top form. The Ear came away with one thought: You just can’t find better chamber music in Madison — and it’s free!

In the “Sunrise” Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4, by Franz Joseph Haydn, the Pro Arte exhibited the ideal Classical style with its balance, voicing and clarity.

The sunrise motif proved utterly convincing and evocative. Particularly noteworthy was how the group highlighted the dissonances in the Classical era’s slow movement. (Hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The interpretation offered more proof that when the work is consonant, you play for the dissonance; and when the work is dissonant, you play for the consonance.

In the short, non-stop Quartet No. 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108, by Dmitri Shostakovich, The Ear was impressed by how the Pro Arte teased out the remnants of late Russian Romanticism that creep into the mostly modernist works of Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

Also remarkable was how the Pro Arte highlighted the structure and counterpoint that Shostakovich, a devotee of Bach, brought to his modernism. This seemed a softer and more lyrical Shostakovich, less strident or percussive, than you often hear. And the approach worked beautifully to engage the listener.

And then came the grand finale done grandly: the late Beethoven Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132. The quartet unraveled the often perplexing and thick texture; the epic length; and the forward-looking compositional methods.

The Pro Arte used a low-key and restrained approach that only highlighted the heart-rending lyricism of the “Heiliger Dangesang,” or Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving, that the aging Beethoven composed when he had recovered from what he thought might be a fatal illness.

How fitting! The perfectly planned program started with one dawn by the teacher and ended with another dawn by the student.

Madison keeps getting more new chamber music groups, all very accomplished and all very good. But the Pro Arte Quartet — now in its 106th season of existence and its 78th season in residence at the UW-Madison — is still tops. As one fan said in near disbelief, “That concert was out of this world.” He wasn’t alone as the performance drew a prolonged standing ovation and loud bravos from the two-thirds house.

When it comes to chamber music, you just can’t do better than the Pro Arte Quartet. It’s that simple. With such quality and affordability, the Pro Arte should always be playing to a full house.

The Pro Arte Quartet will repeat the same program on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 7, at 12:30 p.m. for “Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen.” Admission to the Brittingham Gallery 3 performance space is free, and the concert will be streamed live. Go here for details and a link:

https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen-10-7-18/

And the dates and times — without programs — of future Pro Arte Quartet concerts can be found here: https://www.music.wisc.edu/pro-arte-quartet/

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Classical music: Autumn arrives today. What composers, works and instruments do you like to listen to in fall? The Ear favors late Brahms – specially the strings, the piano and the clarinet

September 22, 2018
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR SHARE IT (not just “Like It”) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Fall arrives today.

The autumn equinox will occur at 8:54 p.m. Central Daylight Time.

As the days get markedly shorter and the night longer, one’s mood often changes as do one’s listening preferences.

Many composers have written pieces about autumn, and you are sure to hear many of them on Wisconsin Public Radio or other media outlets.

But The Ear has his favorites.

Not for nothing is the late music of Johannes Brahms described as autumnal, both because it happens late in the composer’s life and because of its bittersweet sounds, its poignant harmonies and its melancholy melodies.

For The Ear, you will find it in most of late Brahms, especially in the slow movements. He loves the string music – the violin, the cello and especially the viola sonatas – as well as the clarinet sonatas and piano intermezzi.

Below are three samples.

Here is the slow movement from the Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, played by violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Daniel Barenboim:

Here is the slow movement of the Sonata in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1, for, in this case, clarinet or viola:

And here is a particularly moving piano intermezzo, Op. 117, No. 2, in B-flat minor, played by Arthur Rubinstein:

And should you still be unsure what music you like for the fall, here is a link to two hours of music for fall  — vocal and instrumental music by Antonio Vivaldi, Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn  Alexander Glazunov, Peter Tchaikovsky, Giuseppe Verdi, Edvard Grieg, Gustav Mahler and others — put together by Minnesota Public Radio:

Is there a special composer who evokes autumn for you?

What instruments most speak to you of fall?

Are there special works you like to listen to in autumn?

Leave your thoughts in the COMMENT section, along with a link to a YouTube performance if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra excels in deeply satisfying performances of works by Copland and Dvorak. On Sunday, you can hear FREE band and choral music at the UW

October 14, 2017
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ALERT: On tomorrow, Sunday, Oct. 15, there is FREE band music and choral music at the UW-Madison. The University Bands perform at 1 p.m. and the Choral Collage performs at 7:30 p.m., both in Mills Hall. Sorry, but The Ear has received no word on programs — no composers, no pieces, no conductors, no performers — and you won’t find that information even on the School of Music’s website. 

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 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 opening concert of the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by William Ballhorn) on Wednesday night was a deeply satisfying one.

The opener was Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, based on his incidental music for a 1939 play. The piece is less a work of music than of atmosphere, and deeply related to Copland’s own experiences growing up in New York City. To convey contrasting outlooks, Copland features a trumpet and an English horn as solo instruments.

These parts were played with confidence and feeling by MCO players Jessica Jensen and Valree Casey (below top and bottom, respectively, in photo by Brian Ruppert). The reduced string orchestra provided a smooth carpeting.

The main work was the Symphony No. 6 in D Major by Antonin Dvorak (below). Cruelly overshadowed in podium and audience tastes, this score has been badly neglected, but justly belongs with the composer’s last three symphonies as a worthy peer. (The Madison Symphony Orchestra did perform it a few seasons back.)

As I listened to the work, I recalled the comment that the early Dvorak supporter, Johannes Brahms, commented to colleagues as he got to know the Czech composer’s music, to the effect that “This kid has more ideas than all the rest of us put together.”

Dvorak’s outpouring of ideas, and his capacity for putting them to good use, is simply astounding. I particularly marveled at such qualities as I listened to the slow movement (which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom), with its beautiful manipulation of the simplest of basic material. I emerged from the performance feeling joy at being a member of the same species as the creator of this wonderful work.

One could certainly overlook some moments of rough ensemble here and there. Clearly, the players had come to love this music and give it their all. Indeed, the distinguished conductor Edo de Waart, who just retired as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra to become the music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) joined the orchestra in one rehearsal (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert), leaving the players not only delighted with him but that much more enchanted by the music.

The large audience caught the orchestra’s commitment and responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

One thought did occur to me. The acoustics of Middleton’s Performing Arts Center (below) have usually seemed to me quite admirable. This time, however, they struck me as rather dry, without some resonance and reverberation that would have added greater warmth of tone to the playing.

No matter, though. This was a performance I will long remember; and I have the greatest admiration for maestro Steve Kurr (below), both for his courage in taking on this challenging and under-appreciated masterpiece and for his clearly profound understanding of it.


Classical music: UW’s Pro Arte Quartet and new UW clarinet professor Alicia Lee perform a sublime all-Mozart program

September 30, 2017
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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 once a month on Sunday morning on WORTFM 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 University of Wisconsin-Madison’s acclaimed Pro Arte Quartet has begun its 2017-18 season amid uncertainties.

The most notable one is the current indisposition of cellist Parry Karp, whose injury to two fingers of his left hand has prevented him from playing for the immediate future.

Quartet members (below in a photo by Rick Langer) are, from left, David Perry and Suzanne Beia, first and second violins; Sally Chisholm, viola: and Parry Karp, cello.

But the group has pressed on bravely, offering an all-Mozart concert last Sunday night in Mills Hall.

The first of two works was the buoyant but challenging String Quartet in G Major, K. 387. Replacing Karp was a guest cellist, Jean-Michel Fonteneau (below right and bottom), who is familiar to Madison audiences from his many appearances with the San Francisco Trio for the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s summer concerts.

Fonteneau played elegantly and fitted into the ensemble quite smoothly. And the other three players performed with their accustomed precision and style.

But just one personnel change makes a difference. Clearly missing was the robust tone and firm foundation that Karp has imparted to the ensemble’s playing for so long.

If the G major Quartet is a Mozartean model of its kind, we move to Olympian heights with the Quintet in A for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581 — a chamber work (below) with only the tiniest number of peers in this scoring.

Joining the quartet this time was a new UW-Madison faculty member, clarinetist Alicia Lee (below).

Petite but totally confident, Lee brought to the string ensemble not the edgy aggressiveness so often heard from clarinetists but rather a glowing mellowness that balanced neatly with the string sounds.

The loveliest moments seemed to me to be the slower passages, and the exquisite slow movement was truly ethereal. (You can hear the Larghetto slow movement, played by clarinetist Anthony McGill and the Pacifica Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Preceding the concert was an announcement by Linda Graebner of the consolidation of the Pro Arte Quartet Forward Fund, which is seeking to raise an major endowment for the quartet.

Bolstered by that effort, then, the PAQ is some five years into its second century, determined from many sides to cope with its uncertainties.

NOTE: The Pro Arte Quartet’s next performance is this coming Thursday: a FREE performance at NOON in Mills Hall of the String Quintet No. 1 in G Major, Op. 111, by Johannes Brahms. Jean-Michel Fonteneau will again be the cellist and the guest artist is the internationally renowned violist Nobuko Imai (below). Imai will also give a FREE and PUBLIC master class in strings and chamber music on Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall.


Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS — the slow movement of the Violin Concerto by Gerald Finzi

August 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has long had a fondness for the works of the 20th-century British composer Gerald Finzi (below).

His work may be relatively tweedy and conservative, but it is unmistakably modern. It is very poignant and appealing, with accessible harmonies and beautiful melodies. He seems much like a British Samuel Barber.

Ever since he first heard it maybe 20 years ago, The Ear has loved Finzi’s pastoral Eclogue for Piano and String Orchestra, which was meant to be the slow movement of a piano concerto but ended up being an independent work. And, judging by how increasingly  often it gets played on Wisconsin Public Radio, the Eclogue seems to be a favorite among a growing number of fans.

But there are other works.

There is the Romance for Violin and Small Orchestra.

There is the Romance for String Orchestra.

There is the Concerto for Cello.

There is his Romance for Clarinet and String Orchestra as well as the Five Bagatelles for Clarinet and Orchestra.

And now The Ear has discovered the slow movement — appropriately marked “very serene” — of the Violin Concerto by Finzi, which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom.

It is performed by British violinist Tasmin Little (below, in a photo by Melanie Winning), who four seasons years ago turned in wonderful performances in Madison with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Sewell. She played Finzi’s rarely heard “Introit.”

If you want to hear the whole concerto, it is available for free on YouTube from a couple of different performers. And you can find many other works by Finzi on YouTube.

In any case, The Ear hopes the Violin Concerto gets programmed at a local concert.

This past summer, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society featured a song cycle by Finzi. Even so, we need to hear more music by Gerald Finzi in live performances.

Finzi was a modest and retiring man, publicity shy and not given to self-aggrandizement or self-promotion, who went underperformed and underappreciated during his lifetime. But he is an extremely welcoming and moving modern composer.

The Ear thinks he deserves a better place among other modern British composers who have become more popular, including Ralph Vaughan Williams (shown, below right, with Finzi), Benjamin Britten, Frank Bridge, William Walton and others.

Are there other Gerald Finizi fans out there?

What do you think about him?

And what is your favorite work by Gerald Finzi?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Next week, the Ancora String Quartet closes its 16th season with three concerts that contrast the German Romanticism of Beethoven and the French Impressionism of Saint-Saëns. This Saturday night, the Festival Choir of Madison sings about astrology and signs of the Zodiac

May 5, 2017
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ALERT: On this Saturday night, May 6, at 7:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison 900 University Bay Drive, the Festival Choir of Madison will perform a spring program of choral music linked to signs of the Zodiac and astrology, Sorry, no word on the specific program. Tickets are $15, $12 for seniors and $6 for students. For more information go to: http://festivalchoirmadison.org/concerts/a-musical-zodiac

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear received the following note to post from the Ancorans, who are  among his favorite musicians:

You are invited to join the Ancora String Quartet (ASQ), below in a photo by Barry Lewis) for the closing concert program of our 16th season.

The performance takes place next Saturday night,  May 13, at 7:30 p.m., at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below), 1833 regent Street. A champagne reception will follow.

French Impressionism and German Romanticism – Vive la difference! Whether you prefer Bordeaux or Riesling wine, you’ll enjoy our spring program.

On the program are the Quartet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 153, by Camille Saint-Saëns (below top) and the Quartet No. 12 in E-flat Major, Op. 127, by Ludwig van Beethoven (below bottom).

Saint-Saëns’ second quartet reveals the lyricism and witty invention that earned him the nickname “the French Mendelssohn.” (You can hear the quartet’s beautiful slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

We follow this up with the first of Beethoven’s late quartets, written shortly after he finished his Ninth Symphony. From its wistfully dreamy first movement to the ethereally mysterious coda in the last, Beethoven charts a new course.

Tickets will be available at the door, and are for general seating. Ticket prices are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and students, and $6 for children under 12.

Other performances of this program will take place earlier.:

The first is on Monday, May 8, at 3 p.m. at the Stoughton Opera House (below) in Stoughton. Admission is a free-will donation.

The other performance is on Friday, May 12, at 7:30 p.m. in the MacDowell Music Club in Janesville. The concert is FREE and open to the public.

Members of the quartet (below, from left, in a photo by Barry Lewis) are Wes Luke and Robin Ryan, violins; Marika Fischer Hoyt, viola; and Benjamin Whitcomb, cello. They represent professional experience playing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Madison Bach Musicians and many other groups plus teaching privately and in the University of Wisconsin System.

For more information, including individual biographies and concert schedules, go to:

http://ancoraquartet.com


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra takes The Ear over the rainbow and turns in an impressive season-closing concert that leaves him looking forward to the next season

May 3, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

To The Ear, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) just keeps getting better and better, each concert building on the last one.

Take the final concert of this season last Friday night in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

It proved typical WCO fare in the quality of the soloists and orchestra players and in the variety of the program.

WCO music director Andrew Sewell (below) continues to mold his group into the tightest of ensembles. You know you are hearing precision when the rests and silences become as important to the music as the sound. And when you are listening, you feel how relaxing it is to rule out worrying about raggedness.

Here’s a rundown:

The concert opened with a tried-and-true masterpiece, the “Le Tombeau de Couperin” by Maurice Ravel (below). Each of the five dance movements pays homage to a friend of Ravel who fell in World War I, the centennial of which, the gracious Sewell explained, is being marked this year. The Ear likes such tie-ins. (The Ear also loves the original piano version, which has a sixth movement, a fabulous toccata conclusion.)

The Symphony No. 2 in C Major by Romantic master Robert Schumann is not The Ear’s favorite Schumann symphony – that would be No. 4 – and The Ear thinks that Schumann’s orchestral writing is generally not up to his piano writing, his chamber music or his songs.

Indeed, long-form music was not Schumann’s strength, as his many miniature movements in his longer suites and his fragmentary esthetic attest. Perhaps it had to do with his mental illness; perhaps it was just his preference and temperament, much as was the case with his contemporary Chopin, who also preferred the miniature to the epic.

Still, the work proved enjoyable and moving, especially in the vivacious and energetic Scherzo that was executed so precisely and then in the poignant slow movement, which was beautifully shaped with the romantic yearning that Schumann (seen below, with his wife Clara Wieck Schumann) was peerless at expressing. (You can hear the third movement, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

And once again, the smaller size of the chamber orchestra — versus a full symphony orchestra — created transparency. Listeners got to hear inner voices and the interplay of parts in all sections of the orchestra that they might otherwise miss.

But the piece that everyone came to hear was the finale: The world premiere of a Two-Piano Concerto by American composer Thomas Cabaniss (below top). The WCO commissioned the piece with help from two local patrons (Jun and Sandy Lee) and the soloists, Michael Shinn and Jessica Chow Shinn (below bottom), who have ties to Madison.

The work and its three movements – “Surfaces,” “Disturbances” and “Revelation” — did not disappoint and received a rapturous reception from the large audience, which demanded and received a piano-four hands encore.

The concerto struck The Ear as perfectly fitting its title, “Double Rainbow.” You heard elements of Maurice Ravel and John Adams. But you did NOT hear the typical standout solo playing of, say, a piano concerto by Beethoven or Brahms, Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev.

This was a much more atmospheric ensemble work that shimmered and glittered, much like a rainbow. It almost seemed in many places similar to a Baroque concerto grosso, with the piano incorporated into the orchestral texture rather than standing out against it.

That is not to say the concerto, more mood than melody, wasn’t impressive. The score seemed very difficult, even virtuosic, and it certainly had moments that allowed the two soloists to show off their first-rate, Juilliard-trained chops.

Will this new concerto join other two-piano staples, such as the famous two-piano concertos by Poulenc and Mozart? It would take more hearings to be sure, but The Ear suspects not. It will surely get repeated hearings, especially from the Shinns, without becoming a go-to default piece in the two-piano repertoire. But he could well be wrong.

In any case, one would be hard put to find a better summary of the WCO approach to music-making than this outstanding concert that combined the old and the new, that mixed works from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries and performed them with technical precision and moving interpretation.

Bravos to all.

And all the more reason to look forward, after the WCO’s six summer outdoor Concerts on the Square from June 28 to Aug. 2, to the next indoors Masterworks season, both of which you can find here:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances


Classical music: The Willy Street Chamber Players offer an appetizing preview of its second summer season with masterful performances of string quartets by Mozart, Webern, Shostakovich and Philip Glass. Plus, the Pro Arte Quartet concert on Feb. 3 has been CANCELLED

January 26, 2016
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ALERT: The concert on next Wednesday night, Feb. 3, by the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s Pro Arte Quartet has been CANCELLED due to an injury of one of its players.

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 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. Barker also took the performance photo.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

The Willy Street Chamber Players have already awakened us to Madison’s East Side as a promising new locale of our musical life. And in presenting their program in A Place to Be, the old store converted into a conversation haven at 911 Williamson Street, they have given us further reminder of that area’s lively community life and activities.

On last Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the Willys offered an hour-long program, admission-free but by reservation. (I attended the Saturday performance.)

The small space was certainly the kind of intimate venue ideal for music by string quartet: indeed, it made for virtually an in-your-face confrontation.

Four members (below) of the Willys’ core ensemble were on hand. Violinists Eleanor Bartsch and Paran Amirinazari (alternating in second and first chairs), violist Beth Larson and cellist Mark Bridges made up a well-balanced string quartet.

Willy Street Chamber Players string quartet cr JWB

Their program of four works displayed anew the level of enthusiastic music-making these players have set for themselves, but also of their wide-ranging mix of repertoire.

The opening piece was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s beloved Serenade, Eine kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music). As first violinist, Bartsch – who won honors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music — set an exuberant tone for what became a newly fresh masterpiece.

The second work, Anton Webern’s early Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement), can sometimes seem too extended for its 9-minute length. But these players imparted a forward-moving pulse to its heavily Late Romantic character that made it a lovely experience. And I must say that Larson made me aware for the first time of just how significant a role the viola part has in holding together the dense texture.

The contemporary American composer Philip Glass (below) is inevitably typecast as the arch-exponent of minimalist repetition. His 9-minute String Quartet No. 2 “Company” certainly reflects such techniques, but its four short movements allow a dispersion of their effects without making them unwelcome.

I found myself impressed, too, at least by Glass’s awareness of the characters of the four instruments—their different ranges and potentials for interaction. (You can hear Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 2 performed by Brooklyn Rider in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Phlip Glass 2015

Finally, Dmitri Shostakovich’s 15-minute, four-movement String Quartet No. 1, dating from 1938, revealed a composer enjoying energy and affirmation, with only traces of the deeper, darker, more introverted writing that would come about in his subsequent 13 quartets. Particularly striking was the nostalgic second movement, largely dominated by the viola, the role of which Larson brought off to eloquent perfection.

These two concerts served as mid-season reminders of the projected second summer season by the ensemble (below), to come in July. Full announcement of its program details and other news will come in a week or so. But the teasing hints about the repertoire ahead sounded fascinating. I, for one, found my mouth watering at many of them.

Willy Street Chamber Players group color

So you are all on notice, then, that this exciting ensemble, bursting with youthful talent, will once again bring special novelty and artistry to another summer’s musical life.


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