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Hélène Grimaud Plays Bach Chaconne

by Anne French

Today is J.S. Bach's Birthday, for me the most important birthday in the history of western music. I hardly know where to begin in choosing a proper post as tribute to the Master.  This performance by Hélène Grimaud of Bach's famous D-minor Chaconne is one of my favorites, and Ms. Grimaud seems to be positively inspired!
2 years ago | |
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by Anne French

Gabriel Fauré
One of the greatest masterpieces of choral literature, Gabriel Fauré's Requiem, will be the centerpiece of Sunday afternoon's concert at Glendale First United Methodist Church. The work is at once glorious, yet quietly emotional and spiritually introspective, making it an ideal musical expression for the lenten season. Performed will be the 1893 version of the piece, written for choir, chamber orchestra and organ, the latter performed by Ladd Thomas.

Conducting will be Nancy Sulahian, who has directed the church's Cathedral Choir since 1996. A 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Ms. Sulahian is an active concert soloist who also directs the 1000-voice choir at Disneyland's annual Christmas Candlelight Procession. She says of the Fauré work, " seems he conceived the piece as a prayerful personal expression of faith....It feels like the right choice for this concert."

The ambitious program also includes Fauré's Cantique de Jean Racine, Op. 11 and Ave Verum, Op. 65, No.1, three motets by Charles Villiard Stanford, and two motets of Anton Bruckner.

The Sunday, March 25 concert commences at 4:00 p.m. at Glendale's First United Methodist Church, 134 N. Kenwood St. Admission is free. For more information, call 818-243-2105 or log onto
2 years ago | |
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by Douglas Neslund

Six years ago, Los Angeles Opera approached the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels located kitty-cornered to LA Opera's home in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with a concept of bringing opera to the general non-opera-going public. Cathedral policy forbids ticket sales, so performances must be supported by foundations, corporations and individuals who underwrite the costs associated with performances, with primary support coming from the Dan Murphy Foundation.

To a jam-packed Cathedral in two performances this weekend, a second go-around of "The Festival Play of Daniel" was presented, conducted by Maestro James Conlon, and performed by a large aggregation of young people filling choral, orchestral, dancing and acting requirements set forth by choreographer Leslie Stevens to music originating in the early 13th century but wonderfully orchestrated by the enormously talented director Eli Villanueva, who also provided the English translation from the original Latin. The monks would have been greatly impressed.

Originally brought to life in the 1960s by Noah Greenberg and his New York-based Pro Musica, the work was expanded by Mr. Villanueva and crew to include scads of performers in the Cathedral's open spaces, with five appropriately decorated and beautifully illuminated panels framing a temporary stage topped by as regal a throne as any king should desire.

No fewer than 12 soloists were featured:
  • Angel..........................................Caleb Barnes
  • King Belshazzar........................Erik Anstine
  • Queen.........................................Tracy Cox
  • Daniel.........................................Ben Bliss
  • King Darius...............................Alexey Sayapin
  • Habakkuk..................................Ashley Faatoalia
  • Sage #1/Counselor...................Robert MacNeil
  • Sage #2/Counselor...................Sal Malaki
  • Sage #3/Counselor...................Vincent Robles
  • Noble #1/Messenger................Daniel Armstrong
  • Noble #2/Messenger................Johnathan McCullough
  • Noble #3/Advisor.....................Museop Kim
All soloists brought their considerable individual talents to the corporate festivities, especially Ben Bliss in the title role, Daniel Armstrong (both Mr. Bliss and Mr. Armstrong impressed in the recent Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performance of Bach's Magnificat), and a 20-year old countertenor on stilts, Caleb Barnes, who seems to have an annual contract for these Cathedral performances. Mr. Anstine and Mr. MacNeil are to be singled out for exceptionally beautiful voices.

It would be futile to list everyone, but outstanding work was rewarded with polished and exemplary performances by the Cathedral's own choir, directed by Frank Brownstead, the Colburn Children's Choir, directed by Mikhail Shtangrud, and the Pueri Cantores of San Gabriel Valley Children's Choir, directed by Patrick Flahive, among so many others. The Celebration Ringers of Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena provided a celestial touch.

The youth orchestra, supplemented by ten professionals from the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra, came from Hamilton High School's Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra (coordinated by Jim Foschia) and the Colburn String Orchestra (co-directed by Margaret Shimizu and Rebecca Frazier. All musicians played beautifully under Maestro Conlon's baton, and even offered their celebrated maestro a gratuitous "Happy Birthday" as an ad hoc encore that was joyously joined by performers and audience alike.
2 years ago | |
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by Douglas Neslund

Finding an intimate space in Zipper Concert Hall in Colburn School opposite Walt Disney Concert Hall, The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra recently offered the first in a series called “Baroque Conversations,” a brilliant concept of period education sandwiched around a concert, with each item introduced with humor by oboist extraordinaire Allan Vogel. Providing instrumental contributions were Margaret Batjer, violin; Patricia Mabee, portative organ and harpsichord; Armen Ksajikian, cello; Andrew Shulman, cello; David Shostac, flute; Janice Tipton, flute and soprano; and Allan Vogel, oboe. All participants are well-established musicians, and played with delightful elegance and appropriate period ornamentation.

Guest artist Elissa Johnston, soprano, collaborated in six Bachian selections, favoring rich tone and nuanced expression over textual considerations, making the published texts in the evening’s program helpful. Ms. Johnston’s soaring soprano excels in the upper atmosphere, although low-lying notes tended to get lost in the accompaniment. Ms. Johnston’s program:
  • From Cantata No. 199: “Stumme Seufzer, stille Klagen”
  • From Cantata No. 208: “Schafe können sicher weiden”
  • From BWV 508 (Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach): “Bist du bei mir” (which was actually composed by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel)
  • From Cantata No. 115: “Bete aber auch dabei”
  • From BWV 248 (Christmas oratorio): “Flößt, mein Heiland”
  • From Cantata No. 68: “Mein gläubiges Herze”
The above items ranged widely in emotion, from grief to consolation, from release to conviction, from light-hearted (and witty) satisfaction to joyful expression and banishment of complaint. The requisite “echo” voice in "Flößt, mein Heiland" was performed by Ms. Tipton, in what might have been her professional vocal debut. Mr. Ksajikian adroitly maneuvered his four-string cello around the five-string demands of "Mein gläubiges Herze," all at presto speed.

The delightful recital, which was well appreciated by a nearly full house, opened with a graceful Gavotte and Gigue from Mystery Sonata No. 13 (“Pentecost”) by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, whose music, Mr. Vogel opined, may well have been heard by the very young Johann Sebastian Bach. This was followed by brilliant keyboard artistry by Ms. Mabee performing Bach's own Toccata in D Minor (BWV913). Bach’s Trio Sonata in G major (BWV 1038) provided an excellent contrast in four movements midway through Ms. Johnston’s offerings. All parties to the recital met onstage to close with Bach’s final composition, “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit” (BWV 668a), which was preceded by Canons from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079.
2 years ago | |
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by Anne French

I am going through a Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) phase, appreciating his keyboard works played on piano rather than harpsichord for the most part. And after considerable listening to what's available on YouTube, I return to pianist Mikhail Pletnev more often than not. This Sonata in F Sharp Minor, K.25, L.481 is one I do not remember hearing before. It seems like a wonderful way to begin the last day of the first weekend of March (although it's mostly lamb, and very little lion). Enjoy!
2 years ago | |
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By Douglas Neslund
Ambassador Auditorium is an odd bird – it is a church, but it used to be a concert hall. Or was it the other way around? It looks and has the feel of a concert hall, has been refurbished since its abandonment in bankruptcy by the Worldwide Church of God. It retains its handsome appearance and at least from a seat in the first one-third of the orchestra, its clear, unpretentious acoustical properties become apparent.
On Saturday night, it was Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s turn to perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s 1733 version of Magnificat in D major (BWV 243), with a little preview of his earlier Magnificat in Eb major (BWV 243a), in addition to a Magnificat setting by Orlando Di Lasso, a Gregorian chant on the title theme, and the Franz Schubert setting of “Deposuit potentes” as contrasting flavors to the main entrée on the evening’s menu.
First of all, those unfortunates who have never experienced an LACO performance will not understand aforehand that in context, “performance” means “lecture plus concert, plus post-concert Q&A.” And what a wonderful combination it was! Maestro Jeffrey Kahane is truly a master teacher, spending two-thirds of the evening explaining music and style to a Pasadena audience perhaps not entirely aware that they were in fact attending a master class.
The Chamber Orchestra, the University of Southern California Thornton Chamber Singers (prepared by Jo-Michael Scheibe), and five young but very professional soloists gave the master teacher perfunctory and absolutely sound studio perfect assistance. The care that was obviously taken to demonstrate what Bach (as well as the other composers) did with the text of the Magnificat and why, was riveting. For instance, we heard a portion of the opening movement with strings only, a second time with strings and flutes, then again with strings, flutes and double-reeds, and finally a fourth time a tutti with trumpets and timpani. This allowed the audience to hear the wondrous layers of music that so often fail to be appreciated on their own terms.
The soloists for the evening were sopranos Charlotte Dobbs and Zanaida Robles (who also sang with the Chamber Singers), mezzo-soprano Janelle DeStefano, tenor Ben Bliss and baritone Daniel Armstrong. Ms. Dobbs is the only soloist not associated with a local university, having been born in Boston and educated at Julliard, Curtis and Yale. All sang with plangent tone and keen attention to the text. It could not have been easy for them to pop up and down during the various demonstrations, and yet have a full 30-minute performance after intermission, yet they handled the challenge with grace and supportive panache.
The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has performed the Magnificat on three prior occasions, first with second music director Gerard Schwartz and thereafter by guest conductors Thomas Somerville and John Alexander, but this evening was the first for Maestro Kahane with his wonderful band.
Superlatives do not do justice to the pure excellence and joy with which this ensemble plays. They virtually define the term “ensemble.” During the lecture portion of the evening, it would have been easy for a performer to forget an upcoming bit to play, but despite scattered, rapid requirements, no one missed an entrance, much less a beat. One could point to the fact that all LACO players are also session musicians, that is, they earn their livelihoods playing in recording sessions for movies, television and the like, but when they play as an ensemble, they are doing it with pure joy, and it shows.
Finally, just before intermission, Maestro Kahane, stepping off the podium toward the audience, related a very personal story that had to resonate with those in attendance who were Christians, including the Auditorium owners – a story of a man in dire need, and his own reaction in helping him. The master teacher said, “That is the meaning of ‘Esurientes implevit bonus’ (He has filled the hungry with good things).” In addition to his marvelous musical gifts, Jeffrey Kahane is a mensch.
2 years ago | |
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by Douglas Neslund

If you love your music full-born, delivered not in individual notes but in eight-part chords in a wall of glorious sound, then you were in hog’s heaven Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall as our superlative Master Chorale performed Anton Bruckner’s expansive Mass No. 2 in E minor, and after intermission, his Os justi meditabitur sapientiam and Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.

Seldom within recent memory has the Chorale lived in the fortissimo realm of dynamics quite as much as on this occasion. The singers were obviously relishing the opportunity, and the sound produced throughout was stunning, beautiful, balanced and well-blended. If there were a fly in the ointment, it would be Disney Hall’s tendency to add sizzle when the music exceeds a mere forte, which characteristic in chamber concerts might be desirable. One wonders if strategically placed hanging banners would help mitigate that sizzle, and deliver the pure, wondrous choral banquet we have grown to expect in the Grant Gershon era.

Bruckner’s Mass was composed within the ideals of the St. Cecelia Society concept of music serving the Eucharist, not the performers. Hence, no soloists were employed. Since the premiere of the work took place al fresco, he wrote instrumental parts for wind and brass, which were overwhelmed for the most part in the Master Chorale concert. Another characteristic of the Mass was Bruckner’s alternation or combining of women’s and men’s choruses. Thus, the opening Kyrie began softly in the women’s sections, a beautiful prelude to the same material in the men’s sections. Bruckner’s music is essentially homophonic, but his striking harmonic shifts betray the first impression of a Renaissance composer and reveal his true Romantic idiom and origin.

Bruckner’s Os justi – a familiar eight part a cappella chorus in the Lydian church mode, where the fourth step of the scale is raised one-half step – begins softly, but soon builds to a tremendous pile of glorious notes suffused with chain suspensions that create ongoing tension-release cycles as it melts back down to piano dynamic. This musical idea is repeated at the motet’s ending; a good idea merits repetition! But between these mountains Bruckner seems to have lost inspiration, as the music wanders aimlessly and without memorablity.

Maestro Gershon didn’t allow applause as the final sounds of Os justi disappeared, but launched immediately into Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, one of the composer’s most-performed works. Accompanied by a large contingent of brass, woodwinds and lower-voiced strings, as well as two pianos and timpani, the Master Chorale easily handled the syncopations and irregular entrances and at times almost appeared to be transformed into another instrumental element. There is never a moment in the three movement Symphony of Psalms where one senses that Stravinsky loses a tight focus and willing invention of new sound combinations. It was an altogether lovely performance, carefully and lovingly nurtured by Maestro Gershon.
2 years ago | |
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by Rodney Punt

Word has come that the great German baritone, Thomas Quasthoff, has ceased his singing career.

Quasthoff's performances were riveting. Southern California audiences will miss his visits to both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, among other venues.
My first encounter with Quasthoff came unexpectedly, on a visit to Germany.

I was in Munich in the early 1990's and noticed a playbill for a lieder recital at the Herkulessaal, featuring a baritone new to me. A man named Thomas Quasthoff was to sing, among others, the Heinrich Heine songs from Franz Schubert’s Schwanengesang. I bought a ticket and took my place in the middle of the hall. An elderly couple entered my row and sat next to me. When Quasthoff walked on stage, I was shocked at his short stature and obvious disabilities. He had to climb on a platform next to the piano just to get his head above its height.

And then he sang – supremely, with deep resonance and a huge range, a voice even throughout the register and full of genuine expressive power. When he got to the Schubert songs, their significance became apparent: ‘Der Atlas’ tells of a man who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders; The ‘Doppelgänger’s malevalent shadow follows the man everywhere. I began to sob silently, or so I thought. The elderly German next to me asked in English, “Are you an American?” Struggling to control myself, I responded that I was. He said, “That man on stage, he is my son.”

Many consider Quasthoff the greatest lieder singer of our time. His absence from the stage is a major loss to the art of singing. Fortunately he has left us an outstanding library of recordings that range from art songs to jazz standards. LA Opus wishes Mr. Quasthoff many productive years ahead as a teacher and lecturer on the art of music.
2 years ago | |
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LACO does the six concertos of J.S. Bach
Review by Rodney Punt

Johann Sebastian Bach compiled what are today called the Brandenburg Concertos as showpieces and probable calling cards for employment with the Margrave of Brandenburg. The provincial Saxon Kapellmeister put everything he knew of musical brilliance into their design, borrowing from and enhancing his earlier compositions to impress the Prussian royalty at its Berlin capital. Never performed, alas, the concertos languished for over a 100 years until a 19th-century revival finally and firmly established Bach’s preeminence in Western music’s firmament. Once rediscovered, the Brandenburgs' evergreen popularity has never waned.
The six concertos contain nineteen movements for various soloists and ensembles, each with its own sound-world, colors, and rhythms. Fast movements are upbeat and energetic, almost frenetically so, and bubble with an irresistible thrust. Slow movements and minuets contrast, often with exotically sensuous atmospheres.
Having performed the Brandenburgs some fifty-two times in its history -- the latest last Sunday at UCLA’s Royce Hall -- the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has a special affinity to these works. As has been their procedure in recent years, the customary ordering of the six concertos, not likely conceived by Bach to be performed all at once, was altered to good effect. In the original ordering, the first two works are in the key of F, the next two in G, and the last two in D and B-flat respectively. By switching the second one, with its piccolo trumpet solo, to the final position, the set wraps up with its most brilliant piece and has the bonus of beginning and ending in the key of F, lending a facsimile of cyclical logic to the tonal scheme. Also, an earlier work of Bach's was interpolated after the third concerto's enigmatic two-chord second movement.

Time was when LACO represented the sine qua non in the performance practice of the Brandenburgs. In the years since LACO’s founding in 1968, however, music scholarship has led to more historically informed early music practice, whittling away at repertoire once LACO’s exclusive province. Locally, the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra now claims bragging rights as Southern California’s purist of pure early music ensembles, with their catgut strings, host of odd-looking antique instruments, and sonic textures so lean they are sometimes more seen than heard.

LACO’s approach to last Sunday’s performance embraced the spirit of early-music practice while retaining the more practical aspects of modern performance, and the orchestra can at the very least claim mastery in execution if not the ultimate in style. Musical forces were pared down; period instruments were mixed with modern -- steel in lieu of cat-gut strings, cellos for violas da gamba, modern woodwinds with the antique harpsichord. At times balances suffered, as with the huge-in-size but lite-in-sound theorbo that could clearly be heard only when paired with just one other instrument.
Impeccable virtuosity, however, is the great virtue audiences have come to expect from these musicians whose day jobs are in Hollywood’s film studios. And they got it. Violinist and concertmaster Margaret Batjer led most of the concertos, enforcing brisk tempi and crack ensemble work; other soloists led the rest. Most musicians stood as they performed, aiding sound projection in acoustic-friendly Royce Hall.

The first concerto’s Adagio found Batjer’s violin weaving delicious arabesques in the air like Moorish smoke-rings. The seasoned concertmaster embraced the first and the fourth concertos’ virtuosic movements at such a breakneck pace she traded some tone for the fireworks. No matter; the feat was impressive. Batjer then ceded other violin solos to two of her colleagues: Josefina Vergara employed in the fifth concerto the minimal vibrato and the generally drier tone associated with Baroque authenticity, while Jacqueline Brand produced a lovely, honeyed tone in the limpid second concerto.

Impressive as the violin solos and ensembles were in most of these works, special mention is due the contributions of the lower strings -- cellos, bass, and especially the violas led by soloists Victoria Miskolczy and Robert Brophy -- who gave a near perfect execution of the richly lush sixth concerto, which features no violins. Among its many felicities were the last movement’s sparkling syncopations.

The featured woodwinds -- two veterans and one newcomer -- were impressive in their own star turns. David Shostac on flute in three concertos scored points for both luminescence and endurance, while oboist Allan Vogel in the second concerto proved he has lost none of his storied and beguiling agility. In her company debut in the fourth concerto's duo with Shostac, flutist Brook Ellen Schoenwald was far more than just a worthy echo.
The horns were in an agreeable posture and accurate throughout the evening. Patricia Mabee provided informed harpsichord continuo with an opportunity to shine bright in the fifth concerto's extensive solo cadenza. She took full advantage of her encyclopedically swirling passages. David Washburn nearly stole the show with the last-played second concerto’s blazing piccolo trumpet work in the two outer movements, sending the audience out in the cold night with a warm glow.
In the passion they conveyed in these favorite works, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra ceded not an inch to its rival upstarts in or out of town.
Incidental: The powers that be at Royce Hall’s concession counter have apparently concluded that tea bags and hot water are just too difficult any longer to stock. On a particularly cold night, in a particularly cold hall, the warm beverage of choice was either coffee or nuttin’. Also not available were freshly baked cookies of fond memory, only the cheap-package types with mysterious embalming preservatives.

Ah, Progress.
Rodney Punt can be reached at source: Wikipedia Commons
2 years ago | |
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Machaidze, Grigolo make Roméo et Juliette smoulder

by Joseph Mailander

Here came a production that everyone in town who enjoys opera knows has everything going for it: our present LA Opera run of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. It has splendid red-hot soprano Nino Machaidze (above) as Juliette, off of her fabulous in-town spring romp in the flighty buffa of Il Turco in Italia. It has smouldering hot tenor Vittorio Grigolo preening, dancing, and dry-humping as buff Romeo, singing for his life. It has one of Ian Judge's now-patented whirling dervish stagings, with action, action, and action, twisting emotions, and more fun things to look at than most Grammy broadcasts. And it has global superstar Placido Domingo vigorously bobbing his grey mane in the pit, pumping the adroit orchestra with now musical, now historical sensibility. What could go wrong?

Nothing. Nothing goes wrong. It all comes off as you expect it would: shocking, whirlwind, fantastic, and playing this way to big big appreciative crowds at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

A few sopranos have much enchanted LA audiences over the past decade, but Nino Machaidze is my own personal favorite. She hits every note and hits it with energy, makes most baritones sound like whisperers next to her, and far from a caged bird, stirs with every emotion every time she's called to do so. She's beautiful and poetic and her fill-the-house phrasings give her full license to the title of nuova regina della lirica and a few titles in English I haven't thought of. She's a special thing that happens to a place at a special time, and she's happened to LA twice now in the past six months, and it's been all wonderful, all the kind of performance that makes you want to see someone more than once a run.

Someone has to dare to stand next to her, and why not Tuscan-bred Vittorio Grigolo, as much a specimen as a singer, a Roméo who is quite the Romeo. He takes a ballerina's spin on hearing that Juliet will love him; he turns this production's skeletal but sumptuous steampunk set into his personal jungle gym, climbing ladders, hopping fences, approaching Juliette's balcony as though shooting through a floor exercise. When love is a waltz in the first act, he can barely contain himself. It continues through the curtain calls; he's singing, but he's also exhibiting athleticism at every point, sometimes shirtless in a very good way, sometimes convincing enough in Juliette's bed to fetch an X.

No, there's not much not to like here. The production is staged intriguingly, and for about an hour you might even think the stars of the show are the pulleys in the rafters as they lift and lower countless tealights, chandeliers, velvet curtains, mirrors...a panoply of mood hidden in the fourth story, waiting for showtime. Something I didn't favor that the pulleys leave hanging through the balcony scene are two gigantic rhizomes, a little too inviting of Round-Up for me to appreciate. I get it--two family trees with deep roots--but they didn't add anything. Everything else, though, far more subtle, does add, and, like the production itself, is perpetually fun to watch.

Give a thunderous nod to Maestro Placido, who may now have seen this opera more than any man or woman presently on earth has, and who spends more time watching the singers himself than any conductor I've observed. He can--he knows these scores backwards and forwards--he probably knows this one better than Charles Gounod ever did by now. He has a special look as a conductor--he doesn't ask for more, because when he simply looks at you, you are prompted to give more. He's obviously very pleased by now with where the orchestra is, and he pulls in the singers he wants.

Down the program, Museop Kim is a more-than-serviceable Mercurtio; he brings some comic relief to this taut and often engagingly stupid romance-cum-brawl. I also saw a stand-in, Renee Rapier, as the taunting boy Stephano; this is a role that doesn't do much for me, but she certainly went puckish enough to make it work better than it does for me ordinarily.

Try to get a ticket--but if you saw Machaidze in Turco, you probably already have anyway.

This Roméo et Juliette is an original LA Opera production. Remaining performances are on Saturday, November 12, 2011, at 7:30pm; Thursday, November 17, 2011, at 7:30pm; Sunday, November 20, 2011, at 2pm; Saturday, November 26, 2011, at 2pm. Ticket info here.
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