The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Joel Thompson’s “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” is an eloquent and timely testament to Black victims of racism. It deserves to be performed in Madison and elsewhere

July 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

A reader recently wrote in and suggested that fellow blog fans should listen to “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” by the Atlanta-based American composer Joel Thompson (below).

So The Ear did just that.

He was both impressed and moved by the prescient piece of choral and orchestral music. It proved both powerful and beautiful.

The title alludes to the Bible’s depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but also to the musical setting of it that was composed by Franz Joseph Hadyn in the 18th century. But it stands on its own as a much needed and very accomplished updating, especially with the “last word” or phrase “I can’t breathe.”

It is hard to believe the work was written five years ago, and not last week or last month. But it couldn’t be more relevant to today.

It shows how deeply artists have been engaging with the social and political issues of the day, particularly the role of personal and structural racism in national life, and the plight of young Black men and women who face discrimination, brutality and even death at the hands of the police and a bigoted public.

The work was premiered by the Men’s Glee Club at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in 2015. This performance comes from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

The SSO and featured guest University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Men’s Glee Club, led by conductor Eugene Rogers  (below) – who directs choral music and teaches conducting at the UM — premiered a 2017 commissioned fully orchestrated version of “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.” You can hear it in the YouTube video below.

It is an eminently listenable and accessible, multi-movement work honoring the lives, deaths and personal experiences of seven Black men.

The seven last words used in the work’s text are: “Why do you have your guns out?” – Kenneth Chamberlain, 66; “What are you following me for?” – Trayvon Martin, 16; “Mom, I’m going to college.” – Amadou Diallo, 23; “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” – Michael Brown, 18; “You shot me! You shot me!” – Oscar Grant, 22; “It’s not real.” – John Crawford, 22; “I can’t breathe.” – Eric Garner, 43.

The Ear thinks that once live concerts begin again after the coronavirus pandemic is contained, it should be programmed locally. It could and should be done by, among others, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Choir; or the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra and Choral Union; or the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the Festival Choir of Madison; or the Wisconsin Chamber Choir.

They have all posted messages about standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the protesters against racism. But will words lead to commitment and action?

It will be interesting to see who responds first. In addition to being timely, such a performance certainly seems like a good way to draw in young people and to attract Black listeners and other minorities to classical music.

Here is a link if you also want to check out the almost 200 very pertinent comments about the work, the performance, the performers and of course the social and political circumstances that gave rise to the work — and continue to do so with the local, regional, national and international mass protests and demonstrations.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdNXoqNuLRQ&app=desktop

And here is the performance itself:

What do you think of the work?

How did you react to it?

Would you like to see and hear it performed live where you are?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: This afternoon is your last chance to hear native son Kenneth Woods conduct the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot. Here are two reviews, one a rave and the other very positive

March 8, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear native son and guest conductor Kenneth Woods and guest Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers).

Woods (below), once a student in Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) and a student at Memorial High School, has established an international reputation by leading the English Symphony Orchestra, the Colorado MahlerFest and the British Elgar Festival, and by making many highly praised recordings.

At 26, Pouliot (below in a photo by Jeff Fasano) is a rising star, thanks to winning a major competition in Montreal and other prizes. (You can hear him play “Lotus Land,” composed by Cyril Scott and arranged by Fritz Kreisler, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The program is: Symphony No. 96 “Miracle” by Franz Joseph Haydn; the Violin Concerto in E Minor by Felix Mendelssohn; and “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life) by Richard Strauss.

For more background and program notes, information about purchasing tickets ($19-$95) and The Ear’s detailed interview with Woods about growing up in Madison, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/03/02/classical-music-accomplished-native-son-kenneth-woods-returns-this-weekend-to-conduct-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-in-music-by-haydn-mendelssohn-and-richard-strauss-he-talks-to-the-ear-about-what/

The opening performance on Friday night received excellent reviews. Here are two major ones:

Here is the rave review that veteran critic Greg Hettmansberger (below) wrote for his blog “What Greg Says,” which is well worth following:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2020/03/07/a-healthy-orchestra-in-strong-hands/

And here is a largely positive review for The Capital Times newspaper written by freelancer Matt Ambrosio (below), who received his doctorate in music theory from the UW-Madison and now teaches at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin:

https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts-and-theatre/soloist-blake-pouloit-brings-mso-audience-to-its-feet-with/article_d559c040-87d8-506d-8120-ae77b0d5481b.html/

You can be a critic too.

If you heard the concert, what did you think?

The Ear wants to hear

 


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Classical music: The Madison Bach Musicians will perform its ninth annual Baroque Holiday Concert this coming Saturday night

December 1, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

On this coming Saturday night, Dec. 7, the Madison Bach Musicians will present its ninth annual Baroque Holiday Concert (below, in  2014, in a photo by Kent Sweitzer).

The concert, using period instruments and historically informed performance practices, is again at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Ave., near Camp Randall Stadium. A pre-concert lecture by MBM founder and director Trevor Stephenson is at 7:15 p.m. followed by the concert at 8 p.m.

Advance-sale tickets are $35 at Orange Tree Imports and the Willy St. Co-op (East and West). Online advance-sale tickets are available at https://madisonbachmusicians.org. Tickets at the door at $38 for general admission and $35 for seniors. Student Rush tickets are $10 at the door and go on sale 30 minutes before the lecture.

The program features masterworks by Bach, Handel, Purcell and Torelli which, in their appealing Baroque way, explore the fusion of celebration, reflection and ultimate renewal often felt as the year’s end approaches.

MBM welcomes baroque trumpet virtuoso Kathryn Adduci (below), who will show how wonderfully vintage brass resounds in the magnificent Old World acoustics of the church.

Other performers are: Ariadne Lih, soprano (below); Lindsey Meekhof, alto; Ryan Townsend Strand, tenor; Michael Hawes, bass; Christine Hauptly Annin and Nathan Giglierano, violins; Micah Behr, viola; James Waldo, cello; and Trevor Stephenson, harpsichord.

Here are a couple of fun facts, provided by Stephenson, about each piece on the program.

Sound the Trumpet, by Henry Purcell (1659−1695, below)
1. This piece was composed in 1694, the year before Purcell died at the age of just 36. It is part of a birthday ode — Come Ye Sons of Art, Away! — for Queen Mary II of England, wife of King James II.
2. There is no trumpet in it at all, but the two voices implore the trumpet to play and they emulate trumpet-style writing with long, swelling notes mixed in with brilliant decorative flourishes.


Trumpet Concert in D major 
by Giuseppe Torelli (1658−1709, below)
1. Torelli was one of the most prolific trumpet composers of all time.
2. The baroque trumpet has no valves and is designed to play in one tonality at a time. Favorite baroque keys were D major and C major.

Comfort Ye and Every Valley from Messiah, by George Frideric Handel (1685−1759, below)
1. After the instrumental Overture to Messiah, this Recitative and Aria are the work’s first sung pieces.
2. Handel was 56 years old when he composed Messiah in 1741 in London; the work was premiered, however, in Dublin in 1742, much to the chagrin of Handel’s librettist Charles Jennens.

Cantata BWV 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (Exult in God in Every Land), by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685−1750, below)
1. Composed around 1730, this is one of the very few Bach cantatas requiring only one singer.
2. In Bach’s Leipzig church, where the work was probably first heard, the soloist would have been either a male falsettist (or castrato) or an exceptionally skilled boy soprano.

Contrapunctus XIX and Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (Before Thy throne I stand), from The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080, by J.S. Bach
1. According to Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel (CPE), this fugue is the last piece his father wrote — though scholars hotly contest this claim.
2. In measure 195, Bach’s own name appears suddenly as a musical motive: B (B-flat in the German scale) – A – C – H (B natural) and the fugue has no ending but simply trails off in measure 239.

Grosser Herr, o starker König (Great Lord, O Powerful King) from Christmas Oratorio,BWV 248, by J.S. Bach
1. It features dance-like melodic figures in dialogue between trumpet and solo bass voice. (Heard in the YouTube video at the bottom.)
2. Text celebrates the birth of the savior, which makes the powers of the Earth irrelevant.

Cantata BWV 196, Der Herr denket an uns (The Lord thinks of us),by J.S. Bach
1. With its textual focus on blessings (from Psalm 115), the work is likely a wedding cantata.
2. Written probably when Bach was only 22 years old, the work is absolutely perfect in its structure and easy concision; its high-energy but quiet final cadence has a curiously modern, neo-Classical charm that might have made Stravinsky smile.

Chorale: Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe (What joy for me that I have Jesus),from Cantata, BWV 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life)by J.S. Bach
1. The famous opening figure in the strings is really just Bach’s ingenious obligato lead-in to a chorale tune that parishioners in his church would have instantly recognized.
2. This work has enjoyed tremendous popularity as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” since it was arranged for one and then two pianos in 1926 and 1934 respectively by English pianist Myra Hess. It has since been arranged for myriad combinations of instruments and voices.


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Classical music: The Madison Early Music Festival will present a Grand Tour of musical styles to mark its success after 20 years. The “tour” starts this Saturday, July 6, and runs through Saturday, July 13. Part 1 of 2

July 5, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

A big anniversary deserves a big celebration – and that is exactly what the organizers of this year’s Madison Early Music Festival (below, the All-Festival Concert in 2018) have come up with.

Co-artistic director Cheryl Bensman-Rowe recently wrote about the festival in a Q&A interview for this blog. Here is Part 1 of 2:

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the Madison Early Music Festival. Can you briefly summarize the progress of the festival over all those years and how you – through audience size, participants, media coverage – measure the success it has achieved?

How successful is this year’s festival compared to the beginning festival and to others in terms of enrollment, budgets and performers? How does this of MEMF’s reach nationally or even internationally compare to previous years?

What can you say about where the festival will go in the coming years?

As the 20th Madison Early Music Festival approaches, we have looked back at how far we have come from 1999 when we were a little festival of 60 participants and faculty. We have grown to our current size of 140 faculty members and participants — fellow lovers of early music.

Last year, we had the largest group of participants when 120 students enrolled. MEMF now attracts students of all ages, from 18 to 91, amateurs and professionals, from all over North America and Europe.

Our success is due to the help and support of many individuals and outside organizations. We could not manage MEMF without the amazing staff at the Division of the Arts at UW-Madison. They help with everything from printed materials, website design and management, social media, grant writing, fundraising, proofreading and on-site assistance at all of our events and more.

Paul and I (below) work with Sarah Marty, the Program Director of MEMF, who keeps things organized and running smoothly throughout the year.

Also, we are grateful to our dedicated MEMF Board, donations from many individuals, grants, and the generosity of William Wartmann, who created an endowment for the festival, and after his death left an additional $400,000 for our endowment. It takes a village!

Not only have we become an important part of the summer music scene in Madison, but we have contributed to the national and international early music community. The 2019 concert series will be featuring artists from California to New York, Indiana to Massachusetts, and from Leipzig, Germany.

We hope to have many old and new audience members join us for this exciting celebration of our 20th year. For future seasons our motto is “To infinity and beyond!” as we continue to build on our past successes.

What is new and what is the same in terms of format, students, faculty members and performers?

This year we have a new program, the Advanced Voice Intensive, which provides an opportunity for auditioned advanced singers who are interested in a capella vocal music from the Renaissance – singing sacred polyphony and madrigals to improve their skills as ensemble singers.

Twenty singers from all over the country will be joining the inaugural program to rehearse and perform music from Italy, England and Germany.

At the end of the week they will sing in a masterclass with the vocal ensemble Calmus (below) on Thursday, July 11, at 11:30 a.m. in Morphy Recital Hall. On Saturday, July 13, they will perform in a FREE concert with the popular Advanced Loud Band ensemble in Morphy Recital Hall.

Here’s the link for all the information about MEMF: https://memf.wisc.edu/

All concerts include a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m. and the concerts in Mils Hall begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $90 for an all-event pass; each individual concert is $22, for students $12. Tickets are available for purchase online and by phone at 608-265-ARTS (2787) with a $4 service fee, or in person at the Campus Arts Ticketing Box Office @ Memorial Union.

We also have two Fringe Concerts this year featuring new vocal ensembles from Wisconsin. On Monday, July 8, at 7 p.m. at Pres House, Schola Cantorum of Eau Claire (below), a 12-voice ensemble directed by UW-Madison graduate Jerry Hui, will perform “Mystery and Mirth: A Spanish Christmas.”

And on Wednesday, July 10, at 7 p.m. at Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Avenue, the Milwaukee-based Aperi Animam (below) perform “Libera Nos,” a program of sacred vocal music.

The Fringe Concerts are FREE with donations accepted at the door.

Why was the theme of “The Grand Tour” chosen for the festival? What is the origin of the conceit, and what major composers and works will be highlighted?

We decided to celebrate the 20th anniversary by choosing a theme that would be broader than previous years and portray what people might experience when they are 20 years old – traveling abroad on a gap year.

We were also inspired by Englishman Thomas Coryat, aka “The First Tourist.” He published his travelogue Crudities in 1611, an amusing and thorough account of his five months of travel throughout Europe. This tradition of the Grand Tour of Europe continued through the 17th and 18th centuries, especially when wealthy young aristocrats finished their formal schooling.

Several of the concert programs this summer feature quotes from different travelogues, including Coryat’s, as an organizational concept. If you search all over Europe, you find an American at Versailles learning courtly manners, and a fictional Englishman, born in 1620, sending postcards from the Grand Tour.

We will also have a stop at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris with the silent film version of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and a musical tour of sacred vocal music and madrigals. This theme allowed us to include music from many different time periods from all over Europe — a rich Grand Tour of musical offerings!

The opening concert on this Saturday, July 6, features Dark Horse Consort returning to Madison with Wanderlust, their newly created program for MEMF’s Grand Tour theme.  The program follows the misadventures of an English gentleman as he embarks on a continental Grand Tour adventure in search of love and fulfillment.

Our hero’s travelogue includes springtime consort songs by Alfonso Ferrabosco and William Byrd; Erasmus Widmann’s beguiling German dances dedicated to women; the wooing songs of the Italian gondolier; and sultry Spanish airs.

On Sunday, July 7, Alchymy Viols (below) performs “American at Versailles,” an original ballet masque of French baroque music, dance and drama written and choreographed by Sarah Edgar, featuring Carrie Henneman Shaw, soprano; Sarah Edgar, director and dancer; and guest soprano Paulina Francisco. The American on the Grand Tour encounters the exotic world of French baroque manners, dress, dance and love.

TOMORROW: Part 2 explores the rest of the festival next week, including a rare book exhibit and the All-Festival finale on Saturday night


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Classical music: The future of Western classical music is in Asia – specifically China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Why is that?

May 25, 2019
3 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s not just about Lang Lang.

The signs are everywhere.

They were present at a recent piano recital by elementary school, middle school and high school students that The Ear attended.

You see it at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and at top music schools, including the Curtis Institute of Music, across the U.S. and Western Europe. And you see it in youth groups such as the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (below).

Western classical music recording labels, such as Deutsche Grammophon and Sony Classical, are looking to develop new markets and so are signing more Asian musicians, such as the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and Shanghai String Quartet, and releasing more Asian performances. (Below is the Taiwanese-Australian, prize-winning violinist Ray Chen, who is also a master at using social media to build his meteoric career.)

All these items point to the same conclusion: The future of Western classical music looks more and more likely to be found in Asian culture and in Asia  – specifically in China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. (Next season, prize-winning South Korean pianist Joyce Yang (below) returns to Madison, where she first gave a recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater, to solo with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Consider some of the following:

There are, The Ear read somewhere, now more piano students in China than in all of Europe, North America and South America combined. And he is reading about more and more concert tours of China and other Asian countries by Western performers — even while in the U.S. the number of pianos in homes are on the decline.

Increasingly the winners of major international competitions — such as the Chopin competition, the Van Cliburn competition, the Tchaikovsky competition, the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium competition and the Leeds competition – come from Asia or are Asian. (Below, in a photo by Simon Fowler, is American pianist George Li, who immigrated from China as a child and attended Harvard and the New England Conservatory before winning a silver medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition. His concert career is now blossoming fast.)

In recent years, China has been building a lot of first-rate concert halls, opera houses and music schools. And the famed Juilliard School in New York City will open its second campus this fall in Tianjin, near Beijing.

China has certainly come a long way from the days of the Cultural Revolution when people could be imprisoned for listening to Beethoven, who is now a cultural icon in China — as you can hear at the bottom in the YouTube video of Li Jing Zhan conducting the orchestra at the Chinese National Opera in Beethoven’s No. 7. (Below is the striking new National Center for the Performing Arts in China.)

https://www.interlude.hk/front/culture-construction-chinas-new-concert-halls/

Nineteen of the 24 final competitors, ages 13-17, in the second Van Cliburn Junior Competition – which starts in Dallas, Texas, on May 31 and ends on June 8 – are Asian, Asian-American and Asian-Canadian, all with astonishingly impressive credentials and experience. It will be streamed live and free. Take a look and listen:

https://www.cliburn.org/2019-cliburn-junior-competitors/

Why this Asian shift is happening remains somewhat of a mystery to The Ear, although he had been thinking about for a long time.

Then he came across a op-ed column confirming the prevalence of Asian classical musicians. It was written by the American concert pianist and teacher Inna Faliks (below), who teaches at UCLA and who wrote convincingly about her recent concert experiences in China in The Washington Post.

Read it and see what you think, and tell us whether you agree:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-future-of-classical-music-is-chinese/2019/03/22/2649e9dc-4cb5-11e9-93d0-64dbcf38ba41_story.html?utm_term=.7f149e0f8eb9

Why are Asians so interested in Western classical music and music education? And why do they respect it or even revere it so much?

Does it have to do with the “tiger mom” phenomenon of strong parental pressure to succeed and achieve?

Is it largely a function of population?

Is it because of the collective teamwork required to make a lot of chamber music and orchestral music, or with the intense and instructive teacher-student relationship?

Is it because the cultural depth and seriousness in Western music education – ing contrast to the increasingly pop culture of the West – that prepares students well for the training and intellectual discipline required in other educational fields and careers, including the STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)?

Is Asia simply fascinated by Western culture the same way that Western culture was fascinated by the exotic Asian cultures – especially in China and Japan — during the 19th century and earlier? Or is the West increasingly ignoring its own culture. (The Ear can’t recall any classical musicians performing at President Donald Trump’s White House. Can you?)

How do you see the situation and react to it? And what do you think about the causes and effects?

Please leave your reactions and thoughts in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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