Sunday, October 30, 2011

Double Wow!

Robert Spano returned to conduct the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra this week.  The program consisted of:
Rachmaninov- The Bells, for chorus, orchestra and Solo
Salonen- Nyx (an Atlanta Premiere)
Scriabin- The Poem of Ecstasy

This was another exciting ASO program.  The oldest piece was written in 1908 (the Poem).  Having a concert that included music from only the last two centuries is a treat for those of us who appreciate newer music.  But lest we get carried away, we must remember that both Rachmaninov and Scriabin were very late romantics, with the former being an unabashed romantic composer.  Scriabin was more avant garde, not only in his music, but also in his inspiration than his one-time classmate and contemporary.  Scriabin limited output was something of a mystic while Rachmaninov was something of a depressive, and their music reflects those two paths. 

“The Bells” is Rachmaninov’s masterpiece and is a large-scale work for orchestra, chorus, and soloists, and has as its text, Edgar Allan Poe’s poem of the same name.  The orchestra is augmented by an expansive percussion section, and an organ, which provides for some particularly chest-ratting pedal notes.  The soloists in this performance were two Russian singers and one Israeli of Russian extraction.  Tatiana Monogarova is a soprano and she sang the second section titled: “The Mellow Wedding Bells.”  She is a statuesque woman with a wonderful voice.  She is proof that all opera singers need not be plus-sized.  When Ms. Monogarova sat down after her solo, she wrapped herself in her scarf with a very feminine flourish.  It didn’t make her a better singer, but it was certainly elegant.  Sergey Romanovsky is a tenor who sang the introductory “The Silver Sleigh Bells.”  He too has a strong voice that only occasionally was overwhelmed by the orchestra and chorus (more about that later).  He is a trim person and is proof that all tenors need not be plus-sized.  The final soloist was bass Denis Sedov.  He has a wonderful deep voice that did not sound boxy.  He is very trim and tall.  He looked to be nearly a foot taller than Maestro Spano.  The Atlanta Symphony Chorus, under the direction of Norman Mackenzie, was in top form for this performance.  Their precision is nothing short of amazing- it is if they sing with one voice.  Because the chorus is so large, it has a tendency, at times, to overwhelm the soloists and even the orchestra.  This may be due to the rather smallish Symphony Hall auditorium, but if so, the size of the chorus should be reduced.  Nevertheless, this was a stunning performance that showcased so many of the great ASO instrumentalists.   There was no section of the orchestra that performed with less than near perfect precision, ensemble, and intonation. 

“Nyx” is a kind of modern tone poem composed by the renowned former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic /composer Esa-Pekka Salonen.  This piece was a co-commission of the ASO and other national and international orchestras and organizations.  The piece also requires a large orchestra and again showed off the tremendous capabilities of the ASO musicians.  It is sometimes difficult to review new works, since it’s often the first chance to hear the music.  Structure is more difficult to discern, as well as the overall impact of the piece.  There was no doubt, however, that Salonen is a master orchestrator- he knows how to showcase each instrument with music written to its strengths.  “Nyx” is a dynamic piece that relentlessly moves forward.  It never seems to lose momentum, which did not seem lost on Spano or the orchestra.  Fortunately Salonen is not one of those contemporary composers who feel the need to make their music immediately accessible and hummable.  This is not a composer who writes “smooth contemporary classical,” which to me is akin to talking about the bland brand of elevator music that has become known as “smooth jazz.”  “Nyx” can be melodic, but it also can be gritty and challenging.  It was a treat to hear, and the ASO was again on top of its game.

The final piece, The Poem of Ecstasy, is also written for a large orchestra.  Scriabin wanted this music to reflect the ecstasy of love, dreams, and art.  This is passionate music and it is not difficult to tell when the moments of ecstasy are represented.  While it has moments of dissonance, it is still a late romantic composition.  Using the classic Stokowski/Houston Symphony Everest recording of The Poem from decades ago, as a reference, I found the ASO/Spano performance to be clearly superior.  The Atlanta ensemble is more skilled and Spano’s interpretation seemed to amp up the emotionality of the piece quite a bit.  This was a sparkling and rousing performance.

These past two ASO concerts have been outstanding and they highlight some remarkable directions in the orchestra.  The first is that the string sections have increased significantly their tonal quality and also their precision.  Their phrasing is precise and in unison.  These sections are so much improved over the sometimes-ragged performances of just a few years ago.  The woodwinds remain one of the strongest sections of the orchestra, and the brass sections have greatly improved also.  There is no doubt that Music Director revels in contemporary works.  The intensity of his conducting increases when playing newer music and he seems more in control of his forces.  He is also to be credited for his support of contemporary music such as “Nyx.” 

When I attended the concert, the house was nowhere close to capacity.  My guess is that the lack of the easy-listening top ten classical composers kept patrons away.  But those who stayed appreciated what they were experiencing and gave repeated curtains calls after the Scriabin, as well as standing ovations after the earlier pieces.  These performances deserved those kinds of accolades and it was wonderful to see the audience be so receptive to such a program.  The ASO and Spano are taking “Nyx” to Carnegie Hall.  New Yorkers are in for a treat.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Do clones have souls?

The Atlanta Ballet presented a program consisting of “The Four Seasons,” and “Eden/Eden.”
The Vivaldi- composed “Four Seasons” piece was choreographed by James Kudelka.  Its program is not so original, this is, each season represents the phases of a person’s life, from birth (Spring) to decline and death (Winter).   Kudelka avoided making his work a serious melodrama.  At times, he had his dancers, both male and female, en pointe, holding their arms parallel to the floor, as if they were looking down at the earth from some vantage point in the sky.  His choreography briefly referenced modern street moves, which added a bit of humor.  The piece, while not particularly challenging for the viewer, as was last year’s “Rite of Spring,” was enjoyable and masterfully danced.  The live orchestra was a welcome addition.

“Eden/Eden” comprised the second half of the performance.  It was choreographed by Wayne McGregor and “… places the role of technology at the heart of an evolutionary and cautionary tale about the ethics of surrounding the human body.” The story deals with issues related to cloning and the notion that there are many Edens, that is, the place where life beings.  Steve Reich’s spoken libretto/ musical score was from his filmed-based opera “Three Tales.”  I am a fan of Reich’s repetitive hypnotic music, so it use by McGregor was particularly gratifying for me.  The staging was very effective.  It ranged from an opening scrim-projection of a light morphing into disconnected computer-like messages, to a traditional “Tree of Knowledge” in the first scene, and finally, to green lighting that recalled the iconic computer code from the “Matrix” movies.  The dancers appeared to be nude as they arose through the stage floor, and gradually added garments about toward the latter half of the piece.  The music, staging, and choreography combined to make a stark, challenging piece that attempted to address issues of the relationship between various states-of-being, such as whether human clones have souls.  (The film “Never Let Me Go” powerfully deals with this issue also.)  To the degree that dance can shed light on such issues, “Eden/Eden” did so for me.  It was stark and wonderfully choreographed and performed. 

The Atlanta Ballet dancers were wonderful in “Eden/Eden.”  The work challenged them and they were up to it. 

One side note- it seemed to me that the smaller male dancers were able to convey greater strength in their moves.   I noticed this particularly in “Eden/Eden” where the dancers were required to make semi-circular arm movements, with their shoulder as the pivot point.  Maybe it’s because shorter-limbed dancers have less space to cover, but their arm movements looked stronger and more controlled than those of the taller dancers.  I said it was a side note!


The Atlanta Symphony, conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya presented a concert with three familiar showcases for orchestra and soloist.  The program included:

Rimsky-Korsakov- Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34
Rachmaninov- Piano Concerto No. 2
Mussorgsky-Ravel-Pictures at an Exhibition

The piano soloist was Horacio Gutierrez. 

This is the kind of program that the Philadelphia under Ormandy would present.  Ormandy knew how to draw in the crowds and how to show off the skill of his wonderful musicians.  He scheduled such works repeatedly, apparently without reservation.  He knew that his orchestra was spectacular when playing such compositions pieces, which often require the use of a very large ensemble.  It was a pleasure to hear the ASO play these three works, which enabled it to demonstrate its skill. 

Gutierrez was masterful in the Rachmaninov.  He plays with a big, but not overwhelming sound.  For the most part, the balance between the soloist and orchestra was on target.  It was an immensely satisfying performance. 

Ravel’s orchestra of Mussorgsky’s Pictures is sometimes startling in the way that it showcases the sections of the orchestra.  Had it not been based on a familiar solo piano work, it might have been called a concerto for orchestra.  The piece pays homage to the paintings of Viktor Hartmann, a friend of Mussorgsky. Much of Hartmann’s work has been lost or destroyed, so we do not have them as a reference, but Ravel’s skill at orchestration made each of the ten paintings on which the piece is based come to life.

Each piece on the program highlighted various players in the orchestra.  Special recognition should go to David Coucheron, concertmaster; Laura Ardan, principal clarinet; Christina Smith, principal flute; Michael Moore, principal tuba; Elisabeth Remy Johnson, principal harpist; the entire percussion section; Mark Yancich, principal timpani; Christopher Rex, principal cello; and the English Horn player, whose name I could not locate in the ASO program. 

Miguel Harth-Bedoya is music director of the Fort Worth Symphony.   Like his counterpart at the Dallas Symphony, Jap Van Zweden, Harth-Bedoya strongly signals his intentions to the players.  He controls the dynamics with both his hands and face.  His baton provides a precise beat and he conducted the program from memory.  The ASO seems to respond well to leaders who take a strong hand, judging by their performance with Van Zweden last season and Harth-Bedoya this season. 

If I was CEO of an orchestra and I had to develop a short-list of candidates to become a music director, these two fine conductors would be on it. (This would only be the case, of course, if the current Music Director was being discussed as a candidate for a more prestigious post- say like in Boston.)   Van Zweden might not see the ASO as a step up from Dallas, but Harth-Bedoya might see it differently from his Forth Worth vantage point.
This was a great concert and the audience appreciated it, although in Atlanta, the audience seems to appreciate everything, given the number of standing ovations it is willing to give.  In this case, the SO was deserved.  

Friday, October 14, 2011

Photos of My Trip to China

Here are links to all of my photos: 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A worthwhile investment

“Melancholia” is a movie directed by Lars von Trier and stars Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbour, and Keifer Sutherland.  It’s the story of the reaction of two sisters to the impending collision of the earth with another planet.  Never mind the whole planet collision gimmick, but rather focus on the main characters.  Dunst plays Justine, a woman with a major depression.  She makes her wedding a fiasco with her hopelessness and helplessness.  She is anhedonic and, at times, almost catatonic.  She drives her new husband away at the conclusion of her wedding.    Justine’s sister Claire is together and strong.  Yet when faced with impending doom, their strengths become weaknesses and their weaknesses become strengths.
The cinematography is beautiful.  The soundtrack mostly relies on the beautiful Prelude to “Tristan and Isolde” by Wagner, but it is punctuated at times with a low rumbling.  It is very effective.

Dunst is superb.  If she doesn’t get nominated for one of the major awards, I will be greatly disappointed.  She understands depression and how devastating it can be.  Of course, it’s no coincidence that the name of the planet taking aim at earth is called Melancholia. 

This movie has yet to be released to theaters, but is having a preliminary showing OnDemand.  This is a great film, save the action taken by Sutherland’s character that seems contrived.  But it worth spending two hours to understand how our strengths and weaknesses are two-edged swords, depending on the circumstances.  

A poor investment

I am one of the few people who have gone to see the Taylor Lautner film-“Abduction.”  I went because it was filmed in Pittsburgh and I want to see how the hometown looks in a movie.  I have no idea why others would go.  The story is about how a young man finds out that his parents were not his birthparents and that somehow it relates to some international espionage thing.  I couldn’t really follow it but no matter.  Lautner seems like a nice person, but he simply doesn’t have the gravitas to enable him to carry an entire picture.  His voice sounds a bit boyish, but he does have great biceps, His girlfriend is played by Lily Collins.  She has hairy eyebrows and hair that has that needs-to-be-washed look. Her father is Phil Collins, but he wasn’t in the movie.  John Singleton was the director and he wasn’t in the movie either. Alfred Molina plays a heavy because he is heavy.

The house where Lautner’s character lives is located in the Mt. Lebanon suburb of Pittsburgh.  The house appears to be mid-century but is decorated with cheap round lights from IKEA.  Really.

A particularly funny portion of the movie involves the two lead characters taking a train from Pittsburgh to Omaha.  That would take just short of a week, given the train schedules of both cities.

The cinematography is pretty bad.  The colors are over saturated with little softening of the focus.  Thus, on close-ups, it’s plain to see that Lautner needs Pro-Activ, even when his skin is covered with makeup.

In one scene, our leads must swim into one of the famous Pittsburgh rivers.  After their dunking, they fall asleep on the shore of the river.  The next morning they wake up but now they are beside a rust colored stream.  Who is responsible for continuity? The two also are running through a wooded area and just at the margin of the shot are two discarded tires.   Couldn’t they have picked them up before the shot? 

So how does the ‘Burgh look?  Actually I didn’t think it looked so good.  Because of the style of photography I thought it looked sort of like Mr. Lautner’s complexion, that is, it needed bit of soft focus.   It’s fun to watch how filmmakers juxtapose areas in a city that are nowhere near each other, or how buildings that have one use are made to have another for the storyline.  I noticed also that many of the close-ups were angled to take advantage of the city’s great architecture.  I will give Singleton credit for that anyway. 

I realize that watching this movie cost me 2 hours that I will never get back. 

A work in progress.....

Mei-Ann Chen conducted the ASO in two concerts, October 6 and 8.  Ms. Chen has become something of the next great thing in conducting circles for several reasons: she is a woman in a male-dominated profession, she has turned around the fortunes of the Memphis Symphony, and she seems competent. 
The following comprised the program:
Abels- Gobal Warming
Ravel- Piano Concerto in G Major, with Terrence Wilson as soloist
Franck- Symphony in D Minor

The Abels piece was commissioned by the Phoenix Symphony Guild and was premiered by the Phoenix Youth Symphony.  The composer has some notion of how the music relates to global warming, as described in the ASO program, but it seems that he wrote the music and then came up with a title.  The piece has an Irish melody and then one from the Middle East.  These themes are swirled around and bounced from here to there.  But, to me, it should have been the soundtrack to a TV travel documentary.  It is uninspired music that seems better suited to the Verizon Amphitheater with its huge screen than to symphony hall.  I can see why its premiere was with the youth symphony rather than the Phoenix symphony.  It received a nice reception from the audience. 

The Ravel Concerto seems almost a transitional piece from his early impressionistic compositions to a harder edged-jazz influenced piece.  (Given Ravel’s penchant for rouge and satin robes, I am not sure how hard-edged he really could be, but I digress).  In fact, Frenchman Ravel was a fan of jazz, and felt that Americans simply did not appreciate their home-grown music.  Apparently he and George Gerswhin frequented jazz clubs in Harlem to take in the atmosphere and the music.  It’s probably worthy of note here that even today the French are bigger fans of jazz that Americans.  The soloist and orchestra were well-matched partners.  Chen and Wilson seemed to follow each other carefully so the performance came together well.  The second movement, which relies heavily on the pianist, seemed rather leaden to me.  Wilson does not have a big tone, but surprisingly he doesn’t have a particularly light tone either. 

The Franck piece is in the standard repertory, but is not heard all that often.  The last Atlanta performance was in 1994.  I like this piece and can remember hearing played by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy.  No doubt that it was a sumptuous performance.  For me now, the work seems a bit bloated and it could tolerate being edited down by about 10 minutes.  Chen was interesting.  At times, I could not tell what piece she was conducting since her baton movements had little to do with the music being played.  The ASO, being professionals, ignored her and went on, although the trumpets came perilously close to coming apart in the first movement.  Also, the final chord of the first movement was nothing short of disastrous.  No one was together.  I fault Chen totally for this, since her final baton instruction was indecisive.  The ASO perform wonderfully throughout.  Special recognition should go to the trumpets, trombones, woodwinds, violins and basses.  They sounded first rate especially in the finale. 

My conclusion is that Chen is a work in progress.

All too fmailiar....

Joshua Bell
On October 2, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, under Music Director Robert Spano, presented a program that included:

Golijov-  Sidereus, Overture for Small Orchestra
Tchaikovsky- Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, with Joshua Bell as soloist
Brahms- Symphony No.4 in E Minor

Golijov is one of Spano’s Atlanta School of Composers and “Sidereus” was Co-commissioned by the ASO. Like his counterparts in the Atlanta School, his music is listenable and does not challenge the ear.  I like his music better than what I consider to be the bland music of his colleagues.  “Sidereus” begins with a theme that seems somehow not just right.  The orchestra seems unraveled and not together, but as the music builds, by the middle of the piece, the whole business comes together in a pleasant piece.  The ASO did a fine job with the music and everyone seemed happy. 

Then came Joshua Bell.  No surprise here- he played the Tchaikovsky as if it were his second skin.  My guess is that he could be half conscious and play it well.  The ASO played a supportive role and acquitted itself quite well.  My only objection to the performance was that this concerto was played only last April in Symphony Hall by the ASO and Sergei Krylov.  With Bell’s extensive repertory, I wonder why it was necessary for us to hear this all-too-familiar work again.  I assume it was programmed in order to sell tickets.  I must admit I have grown so tired of this warhorse that even a great performance feels old and tired.  The audience, however, loved it.  There was applause after each movement, which gave Bell the chance to wipe his brow. 

The Brahms Fourth, while beautiful, is, for me, the weakest of this great composer’s symphonies.  There are times in it where the transitions between sections seem worn out and not of the highest order.  That aside, this piece provided ample opportunity for the best of the ASO to show through.  The trumpets, strings, and woodwinds sounded magnificent.  Spano’s interpretation did not provide new insights into the work, but it was a grand performance.  The audience applauded in between movements also. 

There was the requisite standing ovation at the end of the performance.  Atlantans are always courteous, if a bit over -exuberant.   But if this kind of programming and performances will pack the house, then I am all for it. 

My trip to China

My nine days in China were close to a perfect experience.  I was fortunate to have a tour that provided an individual tour guide and driver in the three cities I visited (Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai). I also gained insight into china, its history, and its current status.  I have a few overall observations about China:

The three cities I visited had a combined population of about 60 million people.  There were cars, motorbikes, regular bikes, and pedestrians all vying for limited street space.  It seems that the bikes and pedestrians are not required to follow the rules established for autos.  Going through an intersection requires great vigilance in order not to be hit.  I continually told my guides that I could not drive in China, and they could not understand how orderly driving in the US is. 

·         There are so many people that the Chinese tend to react to others either as not being there or as an obstacle to be removed.  One is a fool to stand in line and say “you first,” because then people would move in.  Queuing up means being aggressive toward others who inevitably want to move in front of the line. 

·         The Chinese tend to view their government much like we view ours.  Most of the time it doesn’t interfere in daily living, but it does want its cut of your pay. This is so different than what our government has portrayed for us.  There were no pointed rifles and no nationalistic slogans everywhere.   I only saw one portrait of Mao.  This is not the Red China that we have been propagandized to expect. There are few police to be seen, and the military presence is no greater that what I experience in the US.  There are cameras everywhere.  Since no one could possibly be watching the output of each camera, I assume they are there in case something happens and the video is needed for retrospective reviews.  I assume the same is true in the US, where the number of cameras has increased dramatically since 9/11.

·         Apparently 95% of Chinese subscribe to no religion; the 5% who do seem to practice their faiths without interference by the government. 

·         The three cities I visited seemed fairly wealthy, but the emerging middle class struggles with high prices and low salaries.  Of course, the poor struggle more.  Apparently, once outside of the major cities, poverty becomes more prevalent and evident.  The three cities I visited are generally very prosperous but signs of urban poverty are there if you look hard.  Most Chinese live in apartments- individual dwellings are rare.  Most of the apartments have automatic washers, but dryers are few.  As a result, even fairly high end apartments have clothes hanging outside on the balcony.

·         The oldest part of Beijing, the Hutang neighborhood, was almost destroyed in the rush to modernize.  The government has committed to remaining this neighborhood, especially since many elders choose to remain in it rather than to move into the high rises.  The residences are very small with a living room, small dining and kitchen, with bedrooms sometimes on a second floor.  There are common toilet facilities.  I had the chance to eat in the home of a Hutang family.  It was a highlight of the trip.  They were gracious and proud. 

·         The air in all three of the cities was seemed polluted, but Shanghai was better than the other two.
·         Beijing astonished me with its modernism, bold architecture, good urban design, and size.  I was not expecting the city to be as large as it is. 

Th  The area around the Olympic site was particularly striking.  It took about 2 hours to drive from the city center to where there were no tall buildings.  The traffic was terrible, and the distance seemed substantial.  The Great Wall was anything but a private affair.  There were hoards of people in and around the Wall. 

·         Shanghai is a jewel, especially at night when its buildings are lighted with some pretty impressive displays.  There a huge LED screens, as well as lighting systems that flash and dart light across buildings.  There are tourists boats outlined in neon in bright colors.  The boats themselves are styled as a dragon, a Mississippi River boat, a pirate ship, and many others.  I think, in the US, we would consider it too Las Vegas for an average city, but I found it to be exciting and exhilarating.  To see Chinese photographers lined up on the Bund with their cameras aimed across the river to capture the spectacular lights demonstrated to me how much they enjoy the city.

·         Especially in Beijing, the side streets have wonderful tree canopies.  The freeways are also lined with trees, shrubs and flowers.  In addition to barriers, the medians are landscaped with rose bushes, flowers, and shrubs.  The Chinese seem to get how important the landscape can be to provide calm in the midst of the city’s energy. 

·         I was really impressed with most of the architecture.  It is not nearly as garish as the buildings in other “new” cities, such as Dubai.  In fact, there were buildings like the Shanghai JW Marriott and the Central Chinese Television Building and new concert hall in Beijing that are stunning in their simplicity, and grace in spite of being very large. 

·         Clothing seems to be used mostly to cover the body.  It doesn’t seem to have the “status functions” as in the US.  Here we use clothing to cover but also to indicate our affiliations, e.g., social status, skaters, urban, preppie, etc.  Since everyone seems to dress the same in China, there is little differentiation of status, except in the business areas, where suits are typical.   Even with the high-end shops available, I didn’t see much high-end on the streets.
·         Chinese citizens are not allowed to own guns.  This protects them from each other and protects the government from them.  Apparently there is a fair amount of physical violence, however.  I saw two arguments in the street that were escalating to pushing and shoving- both with a crowd of watchers.
W   While not wanting to draw this too broadly, the Chinese culture seems to be somewhat asexual, at least in comparison to the US.  While we proclaim our Puritanism publicly, our TV shows, advertising, and music videos are full of sexually tinged content.  We leer at each other on the streets.  I did not see any of this in the three cities I visited.  I also didn’t see it in Bangkok.  I will admit, however, that I was solicited several times in Shanghai.  Apparently there are great massages to be had.

·         I was surprised that the cuisine in the three cities was very similar to what we call Chinese food in the US.  The dumplings are far superior in China, however.

·         My guides were outstanding.  They spoke English and had a sense of humor, which sometimes is very difficult cross-culturally.  They adjusted their presentations to my level of knowledge about China.  They didn’t treat me like an idiot. 

·         Several groups of young people on the Great Wall wanted to have their picture taken with me.  I think I was a curiosity, being so white an all.  There were other Caucasians available however.  Who knows?

·         Many of the historical sites, e.g., the Summer Place, the Forbidden City, were built in the same era, i.e., the Ming and Qing dynasties.  As a result they tend to look a lot alike- same architecture and coloring.

·         Even in Shanghai, elegant high rises can be located adjacent to old and often run down older areas. 
Th  There is some skepticism among young professionals about the value of being married.  Apparently, they feel that, given the difficulties of living in China, it might not be worth it.

·         There is widespread use of heroin in China.  The government supports methadone maintenance, but there is little in the way of recovery support services, including support for families.  There are self help programs only in the largest cities.  There were none in Xi’an, a city of 6 million.

·         I was surprised when one of my guides made a comment about America losing the Korean and Vietnam wars.  I guess that’s true from their perspectives.

China is a great country whose future seems poised for growth.  Their form of government is certainly more efficient than ours, if less democratic.  Maybe China’s mixed economy with enlightened leadership can pay benefits for the greatest number.  I guess we will see. 

So would I return to China?  Maybe, but likely only to spend more time with my guides.  As important as seeing the country is, I enjoyed getting to know my guides immensely and found them to be interesting and warm people.  

Moraine State Park, PA

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