Tuesday, 25 September 2018


Southbank Sinfonia - #ConcertLab
Southbank Sinfonia's #ConcertLab series is designed to explore and experiment with the concert genre, to ask questions of classical music's presentation, experimenting with lighting, layout and our very senses to bring fresh resonance to orchestral performance. 

For the next #ConcertLab Southbank Sinfonia's RushHour Concert on 27 September 2018 is rather later than usual, at 9pm. This is because they are waiting for darkness, because the event is all about combining music and projections to tell stories.

For Rush Hour #13: Atmospheres, at 9.00pm on Thursday 27 September at St John's Waterloo, the Southbank Sinfonia, associate leader Eugene Lee, is presenting a programme which comprises Ravel's Mother Goose, Copland's Quiet City and Dani Howard's Silver Falls, all accompanied by projections to create a vivid staging which brings out the story-telling elements in the music.

Tickets are free, so go along and find out what can be achieved. Full details from the Southbank Sinfonia website.

Jiri Belohlavek & the Czech Philharmonic in Janacek

Jiri Belohlavek - Janacek: Glagolitic Mass - Decca
Janacek Glagolitic Mass, Taras Bulba, Sinfonietta, The Fiddler's Child; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Prague Philharmonic Choir, Hibla Gerzmava, Veronika Hajnova, Stuart Neill, Jan Martinik, Ales Barta, Jiri Belohlavek; DECCA  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 September 2018 
Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A rugged, outdoors approach to Jiri Belohlavek's recording of the original version of Janacek's Glagolitic Mass

There has been a tendency to smooth out the awkward corners of Janacek's Glagolitic Mass to make it fit easily into the Western European tradition of choral/orchestral sacred works. Admittedly, this was a process started by the composer, whose revision of the mass following the 1927 premiere removed some of the more ruggedly awkward corners.

Like Sir Charles Mackerras (who recorded the mass with the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra for Chandos in 1993), Jiri Belohlavek opts for Janacek's original version on this new disc from Decca where Belohlavek conducts almost entirely Czech forces, with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, the Prague Philharmonic Choir and soloists, Hibla Gerzmava (soprano), Veronika Hajnova (alto), Stuart Neill (tenor, the only non-Czech), Jan Martinik (bass) and Ales Barta (organ). Recorded over a span of four years, in Prague's Rudolfinum, this double CD set also contains Janacek's Sinfonietta (dating from around the same time as the mass), the Rhapsody for orchestra Taras Bulba (written originally in 1915, revised in 1918 and premiered in 1921) and the 1917 tone poem The Fiddler's Child

Marking the Centenary of the Armistice in Leeds

Opera North - Silent Night
Marking the centenary of the Armistice, Leeds has a whole variety of events across the city with a collaboration between arts organisations, museums, local councils, historians and volunteers, with music by Kevin Puts, Benjamin Britten, and Will Todd, an immersive artinstallation and much more.

At Leeds Town Hall, Opera North is presenting a concert staging of Kevin Puts' opera Silent Night with Opera North Youth Chorus, and students from the Royal Northern College of Music. Not Such Quiet Girls, an Opera North and Leeds Playhouse co-production at the Howard Assembly Room tells the stories of women who volunteered on the front line, inspired by Helen Zenna Smith’s novel Not So Quiet, Radclyffe Hall’s war account in The Well of Loneliness, and the life of war artist and ambulance driver Olive Mudie-Cooke, , writer Jessica Walker and director Jacqui Honess-Martin combine staged scenes, film projections, music hall songs and forgotten rarities by early-20th century female composers.

The BBC Philharmonic, Leeds Festival Chorus, the City of Glasgow Chorus, Cantabile Choir and soloists Evelina Dobračeva, Andrew Staples and Benjamin Appl, will be performing Britten's War Requiem, whilst the Orchestra of Opera North, the company’s Youth Chorus, Young Voices and Children’s Chorus perform a new micro-opera, The Songs of War by Will Todd. Another collaboration brings the Orchestra of Opera North together with St Peter’s Singers and Sir Michael Morpurgo for War Horse: The Story in Concert. Marking the centenary of both the cessation of hostilities and the formation of the Royal Air Force, the Orchestra of Opera North performs Carl Davis’s live soundtrack for Wings, the barnstorming 1927 silent film.

The director of Leeds Lieder, Joseph Middleton joins Christopher Maltman for From Severn to Somme, charting the soldier’s odyssey from home into battle, and his death and epitaph, through songs by Butterworth, Gurney and Finzi, and works by composers from the other major nations involved in the War including Mahler, Mussorgsky and Schumann. For this year’s visit from the National Opera Studio, the young artists present Last Days, a beautifully staged passage from the gaiety of pre-war Europe to the apocalyptic impact of the war’s outbreak and beyond, devised and directed by Tim Albery.

Leeds Town Hall’s Sullivan Room will be transformed into a frontline field hospital for Sound&Fury's Charlie Ward, an immersive installation as part of Leeds International Film Festival. To boost morale, staff at these makeshift facilities sometimes arranged for Charlie Chaplin films to be shown for the bedridden, with the ward’s ceiling as the silver screen. For one soldier on Charlie Ward, the flickering images, whirring projector and Chaplin’s comic timing trigger complex emotions and memories, and the film show sets him on a journey into a personal no man’s land. Goodbye to all that?, a free exhibition at the University of Leeds’ Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery running until 31 January 2019, focuses on the experiences of the families in Yorkshire and beyond during the First World War. The lasting impact on their lives is explored through themes of grief, memory, disability, women’s rights and politics.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Opera Appreciation Talks

If you want to find out more about the operas you are listening to then opera singer Helen Astrid (formerly with English National Opera) is giving a series on the last Tuesday in each month in Teddington starting Tuesday 25 September 2018. 

Helen will use recorded music and visual aids interspersed with group discussions and simple analysis, to take opera from  the birth of opera in Italy during the late-Renaissance through to modern and contemporary opera.

Each session will focus on a different aspect of operatic history and by the end of the evening, you will have a more in-depth understanding, knowledge and enjoyment about opera!

Dates: 25 September | 30 October | 27 November 7.30[m-9.00pm

Tickets: £15 or £38 all three. Includes Wine Reception.
Venue: St Mary's Parish Hall, Langham Road, Teddington, London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames, TW11 9HF.

Further details from EventBrite.

New theatre, new season - Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre re-opens

The Royal Opera House's redesigned Linbury Theatre © Hufton + Crow, 2018.jpg
The Royal Opera House's redesigned Linbury Theatre © Hufton + Crow, 2018
Quite how the Royal Opera House's Open Up project will work in practise, only time will tell as we test the changes in earnest but the re-vamped Linbury Theatre has quite a striking programme of events announced for its first season. Things kick off in January 2019.

The first opera to be presented at the new Linbury is a new one, Gavin Higgins' The Monstrous Child, based on Francesca Simon's novel, and the latest in a series of contemporary operas aimed at younger audiences being commissioned by the Royal Opera. Directed by Timothy Sheader (artistic director of Regents Park Open Air Theatre and director of English National Opera's recent performances of Britten's Turn of the Screw in Regent's Park) the piece features Marta Fontanals-Simmons [see my interview with Marta] in the title role, Tom Randle, Dan Shelvey, Lucy Schaufer, Elizabeth Karani and Graeme Broadbent with conductor Jessica Cottis.

We move over 250 years earlier with the first performance of Handel's Berenice at Covent Garden since 1737 as a collaboration with the London Handel Festival. Sung in a new English translation by Selma Dimitrijevic, directed by Adele Thomas and conducted by Laurence Cummings, the performances feature Rachael Lloyd, James Laing, William Berger and Jette Parker Young Artists Jacquelyn Stucker and Patrick Terry.

For the annual Jette Parker Young Artists performance, Henze’s final opera, his reworking of Greek myth, Phaedra, is being performed in a new production by Jette Parker Young Artist director Noa Naamat with Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Edmund Whitehead.

Other opera performances include South African lyric theatre company Isango Ensemble, Belgian director Ivo van Hove and Muziektheater Transparant. The dance programme includes the National Dance Company of Wales, Alessandra Ferri, the Royal Ballet in a programme of new dance to new music including a new core by David Sawer, Ben Duke’s company Lost Dog, Yorke Dance Project, Canadian company Cas Public.

Vital & optimistic: Halle Children's Choir in Jonathan Dove's A Brief History of Creation

Jonathan Dove - A Brief History of Creation - NMC
Jonathan Dove A Brief History of Creation, Gaia Theory; Halle Children's Choir, Halle, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder, Josep Pons; NMC Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 September 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Creation and the Earth are the subjects for two substantial choral and orchestral works by Jonathan Dove

This new disc from NMC brings together two works by Jonathan Dove which depict the Earth and its creation, using quite a scientific point of view yet creating richly vivid works. A Brief History of Creation, with words by Alasdair Middleton, is a sequence of thirteen movements describing creation from the Big Bang onwards, performed in this live recording by the Halle Children's Choir, the Halle, conductor Sir Mark Elder. Gaia Theory is a three movement orchestral work which is performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conductor Josep Pons, again in a live recording.

A Brief History of Creation arose from a commission for the Halle Children's Choir, choir director Shirley Court, and Dove drew his initial inspiration from a James Turrell art installation. Alasdair Middleton's texts take us from the creation of the stars, through the elements and selected animals to man. Dove admits that the narrative has gaps, and that they chose things which would be fun to sing about such as dinosaurs, whales, elephants and a shark.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Somewhere for the weekend: Dresden Music Festival

Beethoven: Leonore - Dresden Music Festival - Ivor Bolton, Michael Kupfer-Radecky, Ann Kern, Dresden Festival Orchestra (photo Oliver Killig)
Beethoven's Leonore  at the 2017 Dresden Music Festival celebrates the re-opening of the Dresden Kulturpalast
Ivor Bolton, Michael Kupfer-Radecky, Ann Kern, Dresden Festival Orchestra (photo Oliver Killig)
The 2019 Dresden Music Festival takes place from 16 May to 10 June 2019. Under the artistic direction of Jan Vogler the festival's theme is Visions and a particular area of celebration will be the centenary of the Bauhaus. 

The festival opens on 16 May 2019 at the Kulturpalast when Ivor Bolton conducts the Dresden Festival Orchestra in a programme in Weber, Schubert and Schumann including Schubert songs arranged for voice and orchestra with the Dresden-born bass René Pape. Another intriguing highlight is a new Cello Concerto written for Jan Vogler, which will he will be premiering with the WDR Symphony Orchestra under Cristian Măcelaru. Written not by one composer but by three, the concerto will unite the talents of Sven Helbig (Germany), Nico Muhly (USA) and Zhou Long (China). And in a different vein, the festival finale will be provided by legendary guitarist Eric Clapton.

Bauhaus celebrations include the Bavarian Junior Ballet from Munich and the Berlin Academy of the Arts in Gerhard Bohner’s new version of Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet at the Dresden Theatre. Originally premiered in Stuttgartin 1922 with music by Paul Hindemith, the geometrically inspired ballet helped to spread the ethos of the Bauhaus. The Russian pianist Nikolai Tokarev will perform Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition accompanied by a video installation which reminds the audience of Kandinsky’s production at the Friedrich Theatre in Dessau in 1928 which Mussorgsky’s work inspired.

Further highlights include appearances of the Staatskapelle Berlin with Daniel Barenboim, the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia with Sir Antonio Pappano, the Vienna Philharmonic with Tugan Sokhiev, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with their new chief conductor Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla. Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress will be performed as part of Equilibrium Artists, a mentoring initiative for young singers created by soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan.

The 2019 festival, the 42nd, will be presenting 56 events at 22 performance venues, many venues historic in their own right.

Full details from the festival website, and read the coverage of past festivals on this blog.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Late Romantic: I chat to pianist Margaret Fingerhut

Margaret Fingerhut (Photo Andy Tyler)
Margaret Fingerhut (Photo Andy Tyler)
Pianist Margaret Fingerhut is making a rare London appearance next month when she joins Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva's London Piano Festival, where Margaret will be participating in the two piano gala. I recently met up with Margaret to find out what we can expect at the gala, and to talk about recent projects and her love for late Romantic piano music.

At the London Piano Festival (this year in its third appearance), Charles and Katya particularly like to invite pianists who are their friends to perform in the two-piano gala. Charles and Margaret have been friends for a number of years and in fact were once neighbours. 

Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson
Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson
With Charles, Margaret will be performing two pieces by Arnold Bax, these seemed a natural fit as the music of Bax has featured a lot in Margaret's life and Bax wrote some wonderful two piano pieces which have not so far been played at the festival, he wrote many of his two piano pieces for Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson (a British piano duo active in the 1930s and 1940s). 

Bax seems to have loved depicting water in his music and Poisoned Fountain for two pianos is incredibly atmospheric, and Margaret describes it as rather spooky and surprisingly advanced for its time (Bax wrote the piece in 1928, when it was premiered by Bartleet and Robinson). As a complement to this, Margaret and Charles will perform Bax's Hardanger which is an homage to Grieg.

With Katya, Margaret will be playing Poulenc, again a contrasting group of pieces. The light-hearted Capriccio, which was written in 1952 and dedicated to Samuel Barber (it is based on Poulenc's 1932 profane cantata Le bal masque) and L'embarquement pour Cythere (from 1951, based on music Poulenc wrote for the film Le Voyage en Amérique by Henri Lavorel), a piece which Margaret describes as very much an earworm, Finally they will play the gorgeous, nostalgic Elegie (dedicated to the memory of Marguerite de Polignac, daughter of the fashion designer Jeanne Lanvina), about which Margaret quotes Poulenc as saying 'music should be played with a cigar and a glass of cognac'!

Margaret has not, in fact, played much two-piano music, though what she has played she has enjoyed. Most of her collaborations have been with other instrumentalists and singers, in chamber music and song. And she feels such collaborations with other pianists are enjoyable because they are different.

Not that it is an easy task; coordinating with another pianist is quite difficult and she has heard performances where the collaboration has not worked at all. For two pianists to play together there is a need for there to be a great unanimity of touch, so that they play as one. When teaching at college, she has found that first-year students, in their chamber music option, sometimes choose two piano works thinking this is an easy option, which it certainly is not.

Charles Owen, Elena Langer, Katya Apekisheva, Lisa Smirnova, Danny Driver, Melvyn Tan, Ilya Itin at the 2017 London Piano Festival at Kings Place. ©ICA Media
Charles Owen, Elena Langer, Katya Apekisheva, Lisa Smirnova, Danny Driver, Melvyn Tan and Ilya Itin
at the 2017 London Piano Festival at Kings Place. ©ICA Media

Friday, 21 September 2018

Women of the Windrush Tell Their Stories

Passengers disembarking from the
Empire Windrush at Tilbury Dock, June 1948
As part of the Equator Festival at Kings Place on 22 September 2018, composer Shirley J Thompson is curating an evening commemorating the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the MV Empire Windrush in 1948 at Tilbury Docks. Women of the Windrush Tell Their Stories will feature the stories, narratives and memories of the women who came on the Windrush. Shirley J Thompson will be joined by guest artists and composers including Nadine Benjamin (soprano), Rachel Duckett (soprano), Zena Edwards (Mbira/Spoken Word), Gweneth Rand (soprano), Rebekah Reid (Violin & Electronics), Carroll Thompson (Vocalist) and Allyson Devenish (piano), artists themselves descended from the Windrush generation. This multi-media event will showcase a unique mix of music, including classical, electronic, mbira and reggae together with a spoken word element, thus exemplifying the diverse culture of the Windrush communities. An integral part of the event will be the film Memories in Mind: Women of the Windrush Tell Their Stories, which originally inspired Shirley J. Thompson to stage this event.

Between 1948 and 1973, some 524,000 people from the Commonwealth became residents in the UK and Caribbean people currently comprise 3% of Britain's population.

Shirley J. Thompson is an English composer, conductor and violinist of Jamaican descent, and her music was performed at the official Windrush commemoration service at Westminster Abbey earlier in the year.

Full details from the Kings Place website.

Decades - 1830-1840

Decades volume 3 - Vivat
Decades: volume 3, songs from the 1830s; John Mark Ainsley, Lorna Anderson, Alexey Gusev, Angelika Kirchschlager, Soraya Mafi, Malcolm Martineau; Vivat Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 September 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Songs from the 1830s, a valuable survey from the Mendelssohns and Loewe, through Meyerbeer and Berlioz to Alyabyev and Dargomyzhsky

With Volume 3 of Vivat's Decades: A century in Song we reach the 1830s, a period after Schubert's death and before Schumann launched into song. A landscape with fewer towering masterpieces perhaps, but one full of fascinating incident. So here we have songs by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Franz Lachner, Felix Mendelssohn, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Alexander Alyabyev, Alexander Varlamov, Hector Berlioz, Alexander Dargomyzhsky and Carl Loewe, performed by John Mark Ainsley, Lorna Anderson, Alexey Gusev, Angelika Kirchschlager and Soraya Mafi with Malcolm Martineau, artistic director of the series, at the piano.

We start with Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, whose voice we are leaning is different from that of her brother. Soraya Mafi sings three songs, Die Mainacht (Hölty),  Warum sing den die Rosen so blass (Heine, a poet whom Fanny knew personally) and Wanderlied (Goethe). From the first song, we can hear Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel's liking for chromaticism, even in a gentle melody, whilst Warum goes with a flowing lilt and Wanderlied combines a perky piano with characterful voice. All three are sung by Soraya Mafi with a nice simplicity yet attention to detail

Franz Lachner remains best known for adding recitatives to the Italian version of Cherubini's Medea, yet in his youth, he was a friend of Schubert's, and his songs deserve exposure. Here we have three, sung by John Mark Ainsley, all settings of Heine from Lachner's cycle Sängerfahre (Minstrel's Journey) including texts already set by Schubert but where Lachner shows himself to have his own personality. John Mark Ainsley shapes the phrases beautifully in all three, conveying emotion through music. Strophic songs require care, and Ainsely gives us some fine storytelling.

Juditha resurgens: William Vann on reviving Parry's 'Judith'

Judith slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1614–18
Judith slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1614–18
On 3 April 2019, William Vann (artistic director of the London English Song Festival, and music director of the Royal Hospital Chelsea) will be conducting a performance of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry's first oratorio Judith at the Royal Festival Hall, with soloists Eleanor Dennis, Kathryn Rudge, Toby Spence and Henry Waddington, the Crouch End Festival Chorus and the London Mozart Players. Amazingly, this will be the first full London performance of the piece since 1889 (there was a performance with piano at the Royal College of Music in the 1970s). Given that the revival of Parry's music has been gaining strength for some time, it seems strange that the oratorio has languished so much. I met up with Will recently to find out more about his quest to restore Judith.

He first became aware of the oratorio at a Vaughan Williams Society AGM when there was a talk on the origins of hymn tunes, including Repton ('Dear Lord and Father of all mankind') which was originally an aria from Parry's Judith, and the original aria was performed as part of the talk. Will became intrigued and wondered if anyone was performing it. That is when he found out how much the piece had languished, though not done in London since 1889 there were a lot of performances until the 1920s, then things tail off and the last major performance seems to have been in Wales in 1951.

Mahler distilled: Iain Farrington and Rozana Madylus in "On Angels' Wings"

Gustav Mahler in 1892
Gustav Mahler in 1892
On Angels Wings: Mahler, Beethoven, Wagner, Bruckner, Schumann, Klopstock, Strauss, Elgar; Iain Farrington, Rozanna Madylus; 1901 Arts Club Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 June 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A fascinating voyage round Mahler's second symphony in the second of Iain Farrington's Mahler piano recitals

Pianist and composer Iain Farrington is perhaps best known for his distillation of composer's larger scores for smaller instrumental forces, and perhaps his current concert series at 1901 Arts Club represents the ultimate distillation as he is exploring Mahler's ten symphonies and Das Lied von der Erde in a series of piano recitals, playing his own transcriptions of many of the Mahler symphonies.

For his second recital in A Mahler Piano Series at the 1901 Arts Club, on Wednesday 19 September 2018, Iain Farrington was joined by mezzo-soprano Rozanna Madylus for On Angels Wings, focused on Mahler's Second Symphony (written between 1888 and 1894, premiered 1895) with Iain Farrington's transcription of the original version of the Totenfeier movement (written 1888) from the symphony, traditional tunes which Mahler used in the symphony, music which influenced him with the first movement of Beethoven's Sonata in A flat major and Die Erlösung from Wagner's Parsifal (1882), a sequence of songs which related to the symphony, Mahler's Wo die schönenen Trompeten, Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt and Urlicht, Schumann's Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen and Klopstock's hymn Die Auferstehung, and a group of songs by Mahler's contemporaries on similar themes to the symphony, Wagner's Der Engel (1857, from the Wesendonck Lieder), Brahms' O Tod wie bitter bist du (1896, from the Four Serious Songs), Richard Strauss' Befreit (1898) and Elgar's The Angel's Farewell (1900, from The Dream of Gerontius).

In an age before computers and synthesisers, the piano transcription was an essential tool in a composer's armoury, composer pianists like Mahler would play their symphonies to selected people and in fact Mahler cut piano rolls of music from his symphonies. Mahler's younger English contemporary RVW would have a play through of his latest symphony in piano form with a trusted pianist before a small group of friends. So the idea of a Mahler symphony on the piano is more suitable than we think.

In the case of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, the size of the piece and the extra forces it uses (including chorus and off-stage brass) rather made it less than possible, hence Iain Farrington's decision to give us a recital around the subject. What was attractive about the programme was that if you knew Mahler's Symphony No. 2 then you found Iain's programme and spoken introductions fascinating and illuminating, shedding new light on the music, whilst if you did not know the symphony then the programme hung together as an entity in its own right, with the sequence of songs in the second half being particularly satisfying.

Iain is playing the Mahler symphonies in his own transcriptions, creating a more pianistic texture than the standard vocal score type transcriptions give us, making the pieces live on the piano.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

A pastoral delight: Mozart's Bastien und Bastienne in its original version from The Mozartists

Mozart as a child
Mozart as a child
Mozart Bastien und Bastienne, Haydn Symphony No. 49; Ellie Laugharne, Alessandro Fisher, Darren Jeffery, The Mozartists, Ian Page; Wigmore Hall Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 18 September 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Mozart's early singspiel in its original version, alongside music from the same year

Classical Opera and The Mozartists opened their 2018-19 season this Tuesday 18 September 2018 at the Wigmore Hall with a concert that culminated in a performance of Mozart’s pastoral comedy the one-act singspiel Bastien und Bastienne. Following the rediscovery of the 1768 autograph manuscript this was, it’s claimed, the first performance of the original setting since its premiere 250 years ago. Ian Page conducted The Mozartists with Ellie Laugharne and Alessandro Fisher as the titular Bastienne and Bastien and Darren Jeffery was the local quack Colas.

The programme kicked off with some musical context, a performance of Haydn’s Symphony No.49 also dating from 1768. From the opening portentous Adagio, Ian Page was determined to bring out the intensely expressive dynamics. Perhaps the sombre opening is the reason the work attracted the epithet ‘La passione’, but I didn’t buy the idea that overall this is a tragic piece, and certainly not as Robbins Landon would have it, depicting a “winding line of penitents”. The passion and vitality of Ian Page’s reading were exultant, there was an ebullience that belied the minor home key and the turbulent expressiveness that propelled us on to the magnificent Presto.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Compare, contrast and combine: Spitalfields Music's 2018 festival is launched

André de Ridder
André de Ridder
Spitalfields Music's 2018 Festival will be the second to be curated by conductor André de Ridder. Running from 1 to 9 December 2018 at venues in and around East London, the festival promises a series of experiences which bring early music and contemporary music together. The programme is full of cultural cross-pollination, events which synthesise old and new or which place old and new together in striking contrast.

The festival opens with Unknown Remembered, which fuses Handel's cantata La Lucrezia with a new commission from Shiva Feshareki inspired by the lyrics of Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures album. These will be combined with a video installation from Haroon Mirza to create an immersive experience in a former warehouse (now nightclub) in Hackney Wick.

If such cultural synthesis does not appeal, then there is the chance to hear Thomas Tallis' Lamentations in a programme from Tom Williams and the Erebus Ensemble which places Tallis alongside contemporary responses from Nico Muhly.  Colm Carey and the Odyssean Ensemble present William Byrd's motets in the historic Chapel Royal of St Peter Ad Vincula at the Tower, a programme which reflects Byrd's support for the struggle of Roman Catholics in Protestant England.

Soprano Mary Bevan joins lutenist Elizabeth Kenny for a recital of Purcell and his contemporaries, and for those brave enough to sample cultural cross pollination, the baroque recital is followed by a set from The Coveryard performing material by The Smiths and Purcell reworked.

The Riot Ensemble with Richard Reed Parry and Aaron Holloway-Nahum is performing a programme of Richard Reed Parry, Nicole Lizee and Christopher Mayo. Festival curator André de Ridder will be conducting the Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra in a concert which mixes Stravinsky's Firebird with music by Anna Meredith and Shiva Feshareki. The Fidelio Trio brings a programme of contemporary music for piano trio by Linda Catlin, Ann Cleare, Luke Styles and Christopher Fox.

Full information from Spitalfields Music

The other Cinderella: Bampton Classical Opera's revival of Isouard's Cendrillon

Isouard: Cendrillon - Nicholas Merryweather, Susanne Dymott, Benjamin Durrant, Jenny Stafford - Bampton Classical Opera
Isouard: Cendrillon - Nicholas Merryweather, Susanne Dymott, Benjamin Durrant, Jenny Stafford - Bampton Classical Opera
Nicolo Isouard Cendrillon; Kate Howden, Aoife O'Sullivan, Jenny Stafford, Nicholas Merryweather, Bradley Smith, Benjamin Durrant, Alistair Ollerenshaw, dir: Jeremy Gray, Chroma, cond: Harry Sever Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 September 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A Cinderella opera-comique from a French Maltese composer is an intriguing re-discovery from Bampton

Isouard: Cendrillon - Nicholas Merryweather, Kate Howden - Bampton Classical Opera
Isouard: Cendrillon - Nicholas Merryweather, Kate Howden
Bampton Classical Opera
Nicolo Isouard (1775-1818) is not a well known name and Bampton Classical Opera's performances of his opera Cendrillon this Summer were probably the work's UK premiere. The company brought the opera to St John's Smith Square on Tuesday 18 September 2018 in a production directed and designed by Jeremy Gray with costumes by Jess Iliff. Kate Howden played Cendrillon with Aoife O'Sullivan and Jenny Stafford as her step-sisters, Clorinde and Tisbe, Alistair Ollerenshaw as her step-father, the Baron, Nicholas Merryweather as Alidor, Bradley Smith as Prince Ramir and Benjamin Durrant as Dandini. Harry Sever conducted Chroma. The work was sung in an English translation by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray.

Isouard was of French-Maltese descent and studied in Malta, Paris, Palermo and Naples, eventually ending up in Paris where he wrote a series of operas, mainly opera comique with spoken dialogue. Cendrillon (1810) was one of his major successes. If the plot of the opera seems rather familiar (no fairy godmother, no step-mother, the step-sisters are not that ugly, the prince has a tutor and swaps places with his squire Dandini) this is because Rossini and his librettist lifted much of the plot for La Cenerentola from Isouard and Charles Guillaume Etienne's opera.

It is a charming, well made piece. Cendrillon, the prince, Clorinde and Tisbe each get solos but the main engine of the music is a series of duets, six in all, plus a trio and a quartet. Isouard's music is melodious and lyrical, with a nice line in melancholy for the title role. His depiction of the sisters is not that sharp, and at times they seem almost sympathetic. He uses two tenors, for the Prince and for Dandini, and whilst the Prince gets his own melancholy romance (about the inability to find a bride who loves him), Dandini is quite a lively character. Alidor remains a bit mysterious, involving himself, disguised as a beggar, in Cendrillon's life and apparently using magic to effect her transformation but that is never explained.

One of the problems with the work is that it simply is not La Cenerentola, and you rather missed the pace, liveliness and character of Rossini's opera. It might have been better if Bampton had chosen one of Isouard's other operas, so we had nothing to compare it to.

More than just Haydn: cultural revival at Schloss Esterházy, Eisenstadt

Haydn's Armida in the Haydnsaal, Schloss Esterházy at Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Haydn's Armida in the Haydnsaal, Schloss Esterházy at Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
The town of Eisenstadt in Austria is synonymous with two names, that of the princely family of Esterházy, whose eponymous Schloss dominates the old town, and the composer Joseph Haydn who worked for the Princes Esterházy for some forty years. Now owned by a private cultural foundation, Schloss Esterházy is the centre for a remarkable revival of musical activities in the form of an annual Autumn festival and a year round concert series, exploring the music of Haydn, his contemporaries and alongside that of more recent composers.

Despite vicissitudes and the splitting of the family estates between Austria and Hungary, Schloss Esterházy remained in the custody of Prince Paul (1901-1989) who, from 1920, husbanded the family's Austrian domains (the Hungarian ones were taken in land reform in the 1950s). He died without issue and left his estates to his wife Melinda (1920-2014), a Hungarian dancer who created a series of family foundations which now own and manage the estates for cultural benefit [the princely title has passed to a distant cousin, except of course neither Austria nor Hungary now recognise such titles].

The foundations, created in 2001, have some 300 employees involved in the winery, the estates, the extensive holiday accommodation, the Burg Forchstein, Schloss Esterházy, Schloss Lackenbach and the St Margarethen Quarry in which opera is performed.

Thus, as a museum, Schloss Esterházy is relatively young and though the house does not wear its history lightly (the 20th century saw many depredations) there is a liveliness to the way things are displayed. When I went round, on a very engaging English speaking guided tour, I was impressed with the way artefacts from the collection (there are some 1 million objects in the Esterházy collections) had been used to create a display linking to the theme of this year's Herbst Gold Festival, of which more anon, with statuettes of Napoleon and manuscripts of Haydn's masses. There was also an exhibition about Melinda Esterházy whose remarkable life across the 20th century was counterpointed by a desire to see the family legacy preserved in the cultural foundation.

Schloss Esterházy, Eisenstadt (Photo Roland Wimmer)
Schloss Esterházy, Eisenstadt (Photo Roland Wimmer)

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Nawr yr Arwr / Now the Hero

Detail of one of Frank Brangwyn's British Empire Panels at Brangwyn Hall in Swansea
Detail of one of Frank Brangwyn's British Empire Panels at Brangwyn Hall in Swansea
Nawr yr Arwr / Now the Hero is an immersive theatrical experience at The Brangwyn Hall, Swansea from 25 to 29 September 2018. Created by site-responsive artist Marc Rees, the work is part of the final 14-18 Now season and takes visitors through three intertwining narratives of war: from Celtic history, the First World War and today’s conflicts. Rees uses Frank Brangwyn's little-known British Empire Panels, originally commissioned by the House of Lords to commemorate the First World War, the paintings were rejected by Parliament as ‘too lively’ and they have been displayed in Swansea since 1934.

Counterpointing these is a new requiem originally commissioned by the late, twice Oscar-nominated, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, realised by composer Owen Morgan Roberts from an original collaboration with Jóhannsson. The requiem features a text by Owen Sheers and the work is sung by Polyphony, conductor Stephen Layton.

Commissioned by 14-18 NOW. Produced by Taliesin Arts Centre/Swansea University in partnership with the City & County of Swansea and Swansea International Festival and with the generous support of Arts Council of Wales, the Welsh Government, the City & County of Swansea, the Colwinston Charitable Trust, Swansea University and Heritage Lottery Fund – Awards for All

Full details from the 14-18 Now website.

Riveting and remarkable: Anna Prohaska & Eric Schneider in An der Front:

Anna Prohaska (Photo © Holger Hage / DG)
Anna Prohaska (Photo © Holger Hage / DG)
An der Front (Behind the lines; Anna Prohaska, Eric Schneider; Herbst Gold at Schloss Esterházy Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 September 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A collage of songs presenting the ordinary man and woman's view of war creates a vividly engaging evening

Herbst Gold is a music festival which takes place in September (this year 6 to 18 September) in Schloss Esterházy in Eisenstadt in Austria. The schloss is, of course, best known as the work place of the composer Joseph Haydn who worked for the Princes Esterházyfor over 40 years.

Empiresaal at Schloss Esterházy, Eisenstadt (Photo Lennard Lindner)
Empiresaal at Schloss Esterházy, Eisenstadt (Photo Lennard Lindner)
The theme of this year's festival was Krieg und Frieden (War and Peace) and as part of this theme soprano Anna Prohaska and pianist Eric Schneider brought their programme An der Front (Behind the Lines) to Schloss Esterházy's elegant 18th century Empiresaal on Thursday 13 September 2018. It was a remarkable programme, a collage of songs from the 16th to 21st century which charted the response of the ordinary men and woman to war, as participant, follower or girl left at home. These were songs about ordinary people's thoughts and feelings, rather than national concepts.

The music covered a wide range. In the first half we moved from folksong, Scots song, Michael Cavendish, Haydn & Beethoven, through Schubert, Wolf and Rachmaninov to Ives, Roger Quiller, Hans Eisler and Wolfgang Rihm. But this wasn't about style, and differences were juxtaposed so Joseph Haydn's arrangement of the Scots song Will ye go to Flanders was almost interrupted by the cacophony of Ives' In Flanders Fields. The angular anger of Wolfgang Rihm's Der Untergang impinged on the purity of Schubert's Sir Walter Scott setting Ellens Gesang I.

In the second half, we had longer ballads starting with Liszt's remarkable scene Jeanne d'Arc au Bucher (setting Alexandre Dumas) and working through Schumann, Poulenc and Mahler, ending with a pair of passionate Kurt Weill settings of Walt Whitmann.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Haydn at Eisenstadt: Armida at Herbst Gold festival Schloss Esterházy

Haydn: Armida - Ana Maria Labin - Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Haydn: Armida - Ana Maria Labin - Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Haydn Armida; Ana Maria Labin, Francisco Fernandez-Rueda, dir: Alessio Pizzech, Haydn Philharmonie, cond: Enrico Onofrio; Herbst Gold at Schloss Esterházy, Eistenstadt
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 September 2018 Star rating: 4.0
A rare opportunity to hear Haydn's Armida in a semi-staging in the hall where he regularly worked in Eisenstadt

Francisco Fernandez-Rueda, Enrico Onofrio, Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani
Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Festivals should generally aim to do something different, something that does not come the way of the ordinary concert or opera-goer. So it is a perfect fit that Herbst Gold, the festival in Eisenstadt, has begun a planned series of concert stagings of opera by Joseph Haydn (possibly Eisenstadt's most famous resident). We still do not see enough of these operas, and Haydn regarded them highly. And until performers, directors and audiences get used to his particular style, it will be difficult to understand them.

As this year's Herbst Gold festival had Krieg und Frieden (War and Peace) as its theme, the opera chosen was Armida based on Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata about the Crusaders at war in Jerusalem. On Friday 14 September 2018, Enrico Onofrio conducted the Haydn Philharmonie in the Haydnsaal of Schloss Esterházy, with Ana Maria Labin as Armida, Francisco Fernandez-Rueda (replacing the previously announced Julien Pregardien) as Rinaldo, Roberta Mameli as Zelmira, Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani as Ubaldo, Christian Senn as Idreno and Fernando Guimaraes as Clotaro.

The concert staging was by Alessio Pizzech; the cast was in costume with loosely Middle-Eastern style for Armida, Idreno, Zelmira and modern cricket-whites for the crusaders Rinaldo, Clotardo and Ubaldo (though Rinaldo had 'gone native' with his shirt unfastened and hanging out of his trousers). The cast performed on a small podium running in front of the orchestra, recitatives were done from memory with scores used for the more elaborate arias. Armida spent much time poring over her book of magic, in fact, her score - a neat solution.

Haydn: Armida - Christian Senn - Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Haydn: Armida - Christian Senn - Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Armida was premiered in the theatre at Esterháza in 1784 and was performed there over 50 times as well as being given in Vienna, Turin and Budapest. Schloss Esterhazy had no theatre, but it is known that Haydn produced operas for the prince in the Haydnsaal, so the festival's concert staging was most apt. To put the piece into context, Armida was premiered two years before Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro premiered at Vienna's Burgtheater whilst Gluck's equally ground-breaking Orfeo ed Euridice premiered at the same theatre in 1762 with the French version appearing in 1774.

The libretto for Armida is somewhat old-fashioned, the first act involves a traditional sequence of exit arias for the main cast members, and throughout the exit aria convention is still strong and there is little opportunity for ensembles in the way that Mozart introduced into his opera serias, Idomeneo (1781) and La Clemenza di Tito (1791). Where Haydn does push the boundaries is in his extended use of accompanied recitative, so that moments like Act Two Scene One have a very French feel, with long sections that are orchestrally accompanied. There are also significant orchestral interludes, with Haydn giving us some terrific music.

The issue of the libretto should not be landed entirely at Haydn's door, he was writing exclusively for Prince Esterhazy and it was the prince's taste which would have been paramount.

840: New Music for Cello and Piano

840: New music for cello and piano
Cellist and inter-disciplinary artist Anton Lukoszevieze will perform new works for solo cello by Christian Wolff, Darya Zvezdina, James Luff and Michael Winter, as well as Laurence Crane’s gem from 1985, Five Preludes for Cello and Pianom at St James' Church, Prebend Street, Islington, N1 8PF on Friday 21 September at 7:30pm as part of the concert series, 840, curated by the composers Alex Nikiporenko and James Luff, which is dedicated to providing a platform for new experimental and minimal music.

The programme will also feature Anton’s own What we really want to do is serve happiness, Linda Catlin Smith’s beguiling Ricercar and Alex Nikiporenko's 86 Permutations of Melancholia based on a magic square that appears in an engraving by Albrecht Dürer.

Full details from the 840 website.

From Haydn and Elgar to Rap and Grime: Matthew O'Keeffe and Brixton Chamber Orchestra

Matthew O'Keeffe and members of Brixton Chamber Orchestra
Matthew O'Keeffe and members of Brixton Chamber Orchestra
When doing an interview for this blog earlier this year, it turned out that the interviewee was a near neighbour as we both live in Brixton, and during the interview, the subject of the Brixton Chamber Orchestra came up. Now, I have to admit that I had not heard of the ensemble, but the upshot was that last week I found myself on Brixton Hill have coffee with Matthew O'Keeffe, a young musician who lives in Brixton, and in fact grew up there, and who has founded the Brixton Chamber Orchestra.

members of Brixton Chamber Orchestra
members of Brixton Chamber Orchestra
Matthew did a music degree at King's College, London, studying conducting with Peter Ash, and is planning to do a Masters Degree. He runs a number of different ensembles, the choir Scherzo, Lunch Break Opera and the Brixton Chamber Orchestra. Scherzo is a 10-voiced consort of young professional singers, coming together with the idea of singing full-voiced, making a rich sound. Whilst Lunchbreak Opera is a group which presents chamber opera in the City in bit-size lunchtime portions.

Brixton Chamber Orchestra is based around a group of around a dozen young professionals, all in their early to mid-20s and many are people that Matthew has played with, many went to the Centre for Young Musicians at Morley College. The idea behind the Brixton Chamber Orchestra is, however, more than just another band of young people coming together, Matthew wants the orchestra to be rooted in the local community, taking advantage of the wide variety of venues which Brixton has to offer, both the obvious and the not so obvious. And the group mixes things up with a very varied repertoire. They have recently held auditions, and have found some excellent local amateur players who have joined the group. Ultimately Matthew would like an ensemble of around 16 or so performers.

One of their recent gigs was Rockin' on Electric Avenue when they played in Brixton market. With the idea of making people stop and listen, the music was all arresting from hornpipes, and Dvorak's Slavonic Dances to Harry Belafonte and Sinatra, everything with a strong beat. Matthew is realistic about attracting audiences, understanding that every event needs a hook to get the audience into the room, but his approach is often imaginative. He originally started arranging when we worked with an a cappella vocal quartet, and now the Brixton Chamber Orchestra includes a wide variety of repertoire.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Yerkesh Shakeyev - Waves from Heaven

Yerkesh Shakeyev - Waves from Heaven
Yerkesh Shakeyev Waves from Heaven; London Symphony Orchestra / Gavin Sutherland, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Richard Balcombe, London Metropolitan Orchestra / Andy Brown
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 June 2018
A move into orchestral music by a Kazakhstani song writer is bound to delight

Listen to this disc blind, I am sure you will be delighted. It is a collection of fourteen pieces (most around five minutes in duration) which I can only describe as light music. Carefully and imaginatively, finely crafted and will a melodic fluency which will charm, easy on the ear yet not negligible. The music varies between rather film-soundtrack moments, to intense melancholic lyricism to passages which put a real smile on your face and would not be out of place on the BBC Radio 2 programme Friday Night is Music Night. With the blending of genres and the crossing of boundaries, good light music is rather rare to find.

In fact, this is a disc of music by the Kazakhstani composer Yerkesh Shakeyev. Born in 1962 he has moved from bard songs and pop hits to neoclassicism. With this album Waves from Heaven Shakeyev seems to have made the move into orchestral music. The pieces are performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under conductor Gavin Sutherland, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Richard Balcombe and the London Metropolitan Orchestra under conductor Andy Brown.

One detail of the production does, however make you wonder quite how much of what we are hearing is Shakeyev. Whilst Shakeyev is a highly experienced song-writer with a long career behind him, all the music on this disc is credited to arrangers, with Dmitry Varelas, Toby Young and John Lenehan sharing the arranging honours, and Lenehan providing the piano solo on the two tracks that he has arranged.

I have to confess to having only the haziest idea where Kazakhstan is, or what the country's music is like. But this is one of those disc which really does manage to cross boundaries, and I enjoyed it immensely. All the more so as much of it seems to have a winning smile, or wistful melancholy behind it.

Yerkesh Shakeyev (born 1962), arr. Dmitry Varelas, TobyYoung, John Lenehan - Waves from Heaven
London Symphony Orchestra / Gavin Sutherland
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Richard Balcombe
London Metropolitan Orchestra / Andy Brown
Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, 2016
Available from Amazon.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Music, puppets & poetry: Goldfield Productions' Hansel & Gretel - a nightmare in eight scenes

Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in 8 scenes - Goldfield Productions (Photo Still Moving Media courtesy Cheltenham Music Festival)
Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes - Goldfield Productions
(Photo Still Moving Media courtesy Cheltenham Music Festival)
Goldfield Productions' Hansel & Gretel (a nightmare in eight scenes) debuted in July this year at the Cheltenham Music Festival and is currently touring the UK. It is an intriguing show, mixing poetry, chamber music, puppetry and shadow play in a modern interpretation of the traditional Hansel and Gretel story. The artistic director of Goldfield Productions is Kate Romano, and I recently met up with her to find out more about Hansel & Gretel.

Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in 8 scenes - Clive Hicks-Jenkins's artwork
Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in 8 scenes
Clive Hicks-Jenkins's artwork - Goldfield Productions
The show is based on a poem by Simon Armitage which re-imagines the story and music has been provided by Matthew Kaner, an emerging composer who was embedded with BBC Radio 3 last year. The event mixes live table-top puppetry with projected shadowplay, and there is a storyteller in the form of Adey Grummet, the whole directed by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. It is a compact piece, lasting just 60 minutes with five instrumentalists, narrator, five instrumentalists and two puppeteers.

Kate, who as well as being artistic director plays clarinet in the Goldfield Ensemble which accompanies the show, describes the piece as dark and quirky, but suggestive rather than in your face. The setting is a war torn country with hints of things such as the family being refugees. It is not a show for children, it is aimed at 12 and over, but that said Kate comments that they have had kids come to it and they loved it.

The idea for the show arose when Kate came across Clive Hicks-Jenkins' drawings, inspired by Hansel and Gretel, and it helped that Clive already had an association with Simon Armitage. So they started with the idea of Simon writing the poem, Matthew Kaner writing the music and creating a portable, flexible piece.

Friday, 14 September 2018

In search of the Great American Opera, the strange case of Samuel Barber's Vanessa

Rosalind Elias and Eleanor Steber in the original 1958 Met Opera production of Vanessa. Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archive
Rosalind Elias and Eleanor Steber in the original 1958 Met Opera production of Vanessa.
Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archive
Samuel Barber's Vanessa is a strange piece, yet remarkably strong. I saw it twice this summer at Glyndebourne [see my review of the premiere] and the second time it did not pall, partly thanks to the strong performances and partly through the way director Keith Warner's production mined the works unspoken depths.

Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Virginie Verrez (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016
Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Virginie Verrez
(c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016
The work was premiered at the Met in New York in 1958. It was Barber's first large-scale opera. Though three years younger than Barber, Benjamin Britten had already written Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Gloriana, Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring and Turn of the Screw, whilst Francis Poulenc's Carmelites premiered in 1956. And there is an inevitable tendency to compare Barber's work to that of these composers, rather than taking it on its own terms. Much of the critical reaction to Glyndebourne's production of Vanessa has tended to emphasise that the piece simply wasn't what was expected from a composer writing in the 1950s.

Whereas Benjamin Britten and Francis Poulenc's works use libretti which have strong links with the Western European literary elite, Giancarlo Menotti's libretto for Vanessa can come over as rather novelettish and its strongest links seem to be with Hollywood films of the period (Hitchcock's Rebecca, from 1940, seems a particular link). And like these films, the distinctive style has a tendency to dominate, whilst the complexity which lies underneath is easily obscured.

At Santa Fe Opera in 2016 [see my review] the opera was played straight, as Hollywood noir without many of the undercurrents. It has taken Keith Warner's production at Glyndebourne to give the piece depth, a process which seems to have started with Rodula Gaitanou's 2017 production at Wexford which brought out the Tchekovian influences [see the review on Bachtrack]. Warner's production hinted at the issues of incest, miscegenation and abortion, things which helped explain the torrid atmosphere.

Not that the piece is perfect, far from it. When the first Erika, Rosalind Elias, pointed out to Samuel Barber, rather dauntingly, that her character was the only major one without an aria, he came up with 'Must the Winter come so soon'. This is a stunning number which has been a recital staple ever since,  but it is very much in Barber's Knoxville, Summer 1915 style and works well as a stand-alone piece yet in context it seems apropos of nothing and even holds up the action. Yet at the ends of Act One and Act Two Erika has strong scenes which cry out for expansion. But it is in these scenes that Barber moved furthest away from his chosen medium, American lyricism, and clearly he shied away from going too far.

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