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April 23, 2014

Snapshot: Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free

New York City Ballet dances Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free in 1986. The score is by Leonard Bernstein:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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Almanac: George Meredith on caricature

"In fine, caricature is rough truth."

George Meredith, The Egoist

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April 22, 2014

The kid is alright

With the Broadway season thundering to a close, The Wall Street Journal has given me an extra column this week to cover all of the shows that are opening in time for the Tony Awards eligibility deadline. In today's paper I review the Broadway premieres of The Cripple of Inishmaan, Violet, and The Velocity of Autumn. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Granted that it's always a pleasure to see one of Martin McDonagh's plays performed on Broadway, why mount "The Cripple of Inishmaan" there just five years after the Atlantic Theater Company imported a flawless all-Irish staging by Galway's Druid Theatre that should have moved uptown but didn't? As the millennials say, because Daniel Radcliffe. In the absence of the presence of the former Harry Potter, this production of Mr. McDonagh's bitingly black 1996 comedy about the not-so-small cruelties of village life would never have transferred from London's West End to the Cort Theatre, no matter how good it might be--and it's very good. But so, too, is Mr. Radcliffe. He is, in fact, that rarest of birds, a child movie star who decided to turn himself into an adult stage actor, worked at his craft with modesty and dead-serious determination and has become an accomplished performer...

_68254703_cripple2.jpgIf you don't know "The Cripple of Inishmann," you won't have any doubts about Michael Grandage's production, in which Mr. Radcliffe plays a severely handicapped teenage boy who can no longer stomach the good-humored but thoughtless teasing of his neighbors (it says everything about them that they all casually refer to him as "Cripple Billy") and so removes himself to Hollywood to seek success in what the Irish call "fillums." Mr. Radcliffe is so far inside his character that it actually took the audience a few tantalizing seconds to realize who he was when he made his first entrance on Saturday night....

If, on the other hand, you were fortunate enough to watch the Druids at work, you'll see at once what's missing this time around. Mr. McDonagh's play is also a take-no-prisoners satire on the sentimental clichés of stage-Irishness, and Mr. Grandage, instead of emphasizing them ("Oi have me drunkard mammy to look after") in order to make them self-evidently ludicrous, has mostly chosen to play them straight...

The Roundabout Theatre Company has revived "Violet," the 1997 Brian Crawley-Jeanine Tesori musical about a North Carolina girl with an axe-scarred face (Sutton Foster) who rides a Greyhound bus to Oklahoma in the hope of being made beautiful by an Oral Roberts-type televangelist. It's a sweet, unpretentious little show that doesn't really belong on Broadway, but the wondrous Ms. Foster pours the whole of her soul into it, and her performance is radiant and true in all ways but one: She is the opposite of plain.

1.165821.jpgYes, the animating premise is that Violet's inner beauty makes her outwardly lovely for those with eyes to see, but one grows tired of seeing pretty people cast in stage and screen roles that require them to pretend to be unattractive--especially when the script specifies, as is the case here, that the character's disfigurement be invisible to the audience. Why not find an ordinary-looking but charismatic performer who can act beautiful?...

Eric Coble breaks the U.S. record for clichés per minute in "The Velocity of Autumn," his new cranky-codger two-character comedy. Near-senile old lady? Check. Estranged gay son with unfinished emotional business? Check. Hackneyed plot? Check. (Mom wants to go on living in her Brooklyn house, but the kids want to put her in a nursing home, so she barricades the front door, brandishes a Molotov cocktail and tells them to bring it on.) Tap-the-tendon punch lines interspersed with ephiphanic moments of pseudo-poetry? Check, check and octuple check....

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

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Lookback: how I became a critic

From 2004:

A reader wrote to ask if I'd consider posting a list of books and other works of art that had served as "turning points" in my life as a critic. I've never drawn up such a list, though I once wrote an essay for the New York Times Book Review called "I've Got a Crush on You" (it's in A Terry Teachout Reader) in which I talked about several authors whose styles I'd emulated at different times in my life. But what gave me the idea to become a critic--and what inspired me to become the kind of critic I became?...

Read the whole thing here.

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Almanac: Macaulay on caricature

"The best portraits are those in which there is a slight mixture of caricature."

Thomas Babington Macaulay, "Machiavelli"

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April 21, 2014

A vision of joy

237_27922287192_3645_n.jpgAl Hirschfeld, who adored jazz, drew Louis Armstrong for the first time in 1939 and continued to do so repeatedly throughout his long and productive life. One of the last occasions was in 1990, thirteen years before Hirschfeld's death, when he did a portrait of the trumpeter called "Satchmo!" It is, in my opinion, the best of all possible Armstrong caricatures, one in which the joyous public figure whom the whole world loved is portrayed with a near-abstract simplicity of line that is not merely witty but beautiful.

I like "Satchmo!" so much that I used it as the last illustration in Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, accompanied by the following caption:

Many now feel ill at ease with the old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing entertainer portrayed in this 1990 caricature by Al Hirschfeld, but there was nothing false about Satchmo's unselfconscious smile.

Hirschfeld later turned "Satchmo!" into a limited-edition color lithograph that I saw when I went to the Margo Feiden Galleries six years ago to secure permission to reproduce the original drawing in my book, an experience that I blogged about here. I was bowled over by its richness and depth--it looked almost three-dimensional--and longed to buy a copy on the spot and add it to the Teachout Museum. Alas, the timing was financially unpropitious, and in due course I put the wild idea of owning a Hirschfeld out of my head.

That notion came back with full force, however, not long after Satchmo at the Waldorf opened in March. A fair amount of time had gone by since Mrs. T and I last added anything to our collection, and it seemed to both of us that the moment had arrived. I took a cab to the Margo Feiden Galleries last Thursday and returned home a few hours later with a pencil-signed copy of "Satchmo!" under my arm. I dropped it off at our framer over the weekend. We'll hang it in our New York apartment as soon as we decide on the right spot.

I can't imagine a more suitable way to celebrate the New York opening of Satchmo at the Waldorf, can you?

* * *

%285%29%20BEERBOHM%20PERCY%20GRAINGER%20xx.jpgLongtime readers of this blog will recall that "Satchmo!" is the second caricature to make its way into the Teachout Museum. It was preceded by a drawing of Percy Grainger by Max Beerbohm, which I acquired in 2004 and about which I blogged here and here:

Max makes a point of saying that a caricature should be executed in "the most beautiful manner," and while it's true that his Grainger caricature is very funny--especially the society ladies clustered around the piano, who range in size from wasp-waisted to preposterously portly--it's also quite beautiful indeed. The composition is cunningly balanced, the line deft and clear, the light touches of watercolor wash miraculously subtle.

I mention this because I recently learned, purely by chance, of the existence of an art gallery in London that deals in Beerbohm caricatures. While none of them is of anyone who is still widely remembered, many are striking in their own right. So if, like me, you love Max's work and long to hang a piece of it on your wall, go here to peruse the inventory.

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Just because: Buster Keaton on This Is Your Life

Buster Keaton is the guest on a 1957 episode of Ralph Edwards' This Is Your Life::

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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Almanac: Max Beerbohm on caricature

"The most perfect caricature is that which, on a small surface, with the simplest means, most accurately exaggerates, to the highest point, the peculiarities of a human being, at his most characteristic moment in the most beautiful manner."

Max Beerbohm, "The Spirit of Caricature"

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April 18, 2014

All Hart

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column, I review three New York openings, Act One, Of Mice and Men, and The Library. Here's an excerpt.

* * *

Moss Hart's "Act One" is the best Broadway memoir ever written, the stirring story of how a dirt-poor Bronx boy who grew up in a slum became a name-above-the-title playwright. The second half, which tells how the then-unknown Hart contrived to collaborate with George S. Kaufman, the Neil Simon of his day, on a 1930 comedy called "Once in a Lifetime" that made him rich and famous, is the stuff theatrical dreams are made of. Countless stage-struck youngsters have read it and resolved, however fleetingly, to do as he did.

6.198395.jpgIt's surprising that none of them ever tried to turn "Act One" into a play, but the failure of Dore Schary's lead-footed 1963 film version doubtless explains why so beloved a book took so long to find its way to the stage. Now James Lapine, who is to Stephen Sondheim what Hart was to Kaufman, has shouldered the task, both as writer and director. Unlike Schary, though, he's chosen to adapt all of "Act One," starting not with "Once in a Lifetime" but with Hart's sad childhood. The result is a thrillingly well-staged play that runs for two hours and 40 minutes but feels much shorter. Not only is "Act One" light on its theatrical feet, but it has the open-hearted impact of a melodrama--one that has the advantage of being true.

Part of what makes "Act One" so potent is that Mr. Lapine disdains all irony in describing Hart's rise to fame. His was an old-fashioned American-dream-come-true tale, and it doesn't embarrass Mr. Lapine in the least to dish it up on a pageant-like scale reminiscent of the spectacular stage version of "Nicholas Nickleby." (It would also have made a great musical.) "Act One" is played out on a triple-decker revolving stage designed by Beowulf Boritt that catapults the 22 members of the cast from the Hart family's tenement apartment to Kaufman's Manhattan townhouse with cinematic speed....

It isn't surprising that "Of Mice and Men" works better on the stage than the page. John Steinbeck always envisioned his dialogue-intensive book as (in his phrase) "a play that can be read or a novel that can be played," and the fable-like tragedy of George (James Franco), an itinerant California farm worker, and Lennie (Chris O'Dowd), the simple-minded, pitifully innocent near-giant with whom he travels from job to job, gains immeasurably from theatrical presentation. The trick is to do it simply, and Anna D. Shapiro's staging leaves nothing to be desired in that department. Todd Rosenthal's windblown set is as plain as a tumbleweed, and the supporting cast, led by the matchless Jim Norton (he plays Candy, the aging field hand whose dog gets shot), leads us to the inescapable disaster with hard authenticity.

If only Mr. Franco, one of Hollywood's top teen heart-throbs, had had the modesty to realize that Broadway is the wrong place to make your professional stage debut! While he doesn't embarrass himself, his acting is flat and unmodulated by comparison with that of his infinitely more accomplished colleagues...

Steven Soderbergh, who claims to have given up making movies, has now directed an Off-Broadway play by one of his cinematic collaborators. Scott Z. Burns' "The Library" is a fictional docudrama about the aftermath of a high-school shooting. The premise is juicy: One of the survivors (Chloë Grace Moretz) is accused by another survivor (Daryl Sabara) of having told the shooter where several of her fellow students were hiding. And Mr. Burns doesn't fall into the trap of preaching a ripped-from-the-headlines sermon: While the last scene does get a bit portentous, "The Library" steers clear of banal point-making. But he never breaks through the smooth quasi-factual surface of the desperate situations that he portrays, and so "The Library," for all its evident seriousness of purpose, feels more like an unusually well-written "Law & Order" episode than a full-fledged play.

Though he has next to no stage experience, Mr. Soderbergh already has a firm grasp of the demands of his new medium...

* * *

Read the whole thing here.

The theatrical trailer for the 1963 film version of Act One:

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Almanac: Paul Hindemith on teaching

"Myself, I cannot compose all the time. I don't get ideas just sitting around waiting for them. They come from somewhere, and I get them teaching."

Paul Hindemith (quoted in the Harvard Crimson, Nov. 29, 1949)

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April 17, 2014

So you want to see a show?

Here's my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

BROADWAY:
Bullets Over Broadway (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, nearly all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)
A Raisin in the Sun (drama, G/PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Rocky (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
The Heir Apparent (verse comedy, PG-13, closes May 4, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON OFF BROADWAY:
London Wall (serious comedy, PG-13, newly extended through Apr. 26, reviewed here)

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Almanac: Paul Hindemith on creation and irrationality

"The ultimate reason for his humility will be the musician's conviction that beyond all the rational knowledge he has amassed and all his dexterity as a craftsman there is a region of visionary irrationality in which the veiled secrets of art dwell, sensed but not understood, implored but not commanded, imparting but not yielding. He cannot enter this region, he can only pray to be elected one of its messengers."

Paul Hindemith, A Composer's World: Horizons and Limitations

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April 16, 2014

Snapshot: Glenn Gould plays Hindemith

Glenn Gould plays the fugue from Paul Hindemith's Third Piano Sonata:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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Almanac: Paul Hindemith on composition

"The road from the head to the hand is a long one while one is still conscious of it. The man who does not so control his hand as to maintain it in unbroken contact with his thought does not know what composition is. (Nor does he whose well-routined hand runs along without any impulse or feeling behind it."

Paul Hindemith, The Craft of Musical Composition

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April 15, 2014

First time's a charm

061633B.jpgI first heard the music of Benjamin Britten in 1975, a year before he died. I was a sophomore music major at William Jewell College, a school not far from Kansas City. Some long-forgotten magazine piece--probably a review in High Fidelity or Stereo Review, to both of which I subscribed--had made me curious about him, so I drove to a mall in Independence and bought an LP whose first side contained a performance of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings by Peter Pears, Barry Tuckwell, and the London Symphony Orchestra. Britten himself was the conductor. The recording was made in 1963, twenty years after the piece was written, and hearing it for the first time that evening was one of the most consequential musical encounters of my youth.

The Serenade starts off with a mysterious-sounding unaccompanied horn solo, followed by a setting of part of The Evening Quatrains, a lyric by Charles Cotton, a near-forgotten seventeenth-century English writer. Britten cut the poem in half and called his shortened version "Pastoral":

The day's grown old; the fainting sun
Has but a little way to run,
And yet his steeds, with all his skill,
Scarce lug the chariot down the hill.

The shadows now so long do grow,
That brambles like tall cedars show;
Mole hills seem mountains, and the ant
Appears a monstrous elephant.

A very little, little flock
Shades thrice the ground that it would stock;
Whilst the small stripling following them
Appears a mighty Polypheme.

And now on benches all are sat,
In the cool air to sit and chat,
Till Phoebus, dipping in the West,
Shall lead the world the way to rest.

Pastoral.jpgRarely in my life have I been so instantaneously overwhelmed as I was by "Pastoral," though a few more years would go by before I attained sufficient musical sophistication to be able to fully understand why it had hit me so hard. It doesn't look like much on the page, just a simple tune shared by the singer and horn player, accompanied by four-part string chords. Yet those deceptively uncomplicated-looking chords are anything but straightforward. Here as in his other middle-period masterpieces, Britten used tonal harmony with a piquant freshness and sense of surprise that were all his own.

"I need more chords," Aaron Copland complained to Leonard Bernstein toward the end of his composing career. "I've run out of chords." To listen to "Pastoral" is to realize that there will always be enough chords. All you have to do is know where to look.

These opening bars remind me of something that Britten said a year after he recorded the Serenade:

What is important in the arts is not the scientific part, the analyzable part of music, but the something which emerges from it but transcends it, which cannot be analyzed because it is not in it, but of it. It is the quality which cannot be acquired by simply the exercise of a technique or a system: it is something to do with personality, with gift, with spirit. I quite simply call it--magic: a quality which would appear to be by no means unacknowledged by scientists, and which I value more than any other part of music.

Back then I was still grabbing at classical music with both hands, and few weeks passed without my making a major discovery of some kind or other, most of which turned out before long to be...well, something less than major. But I was certain that my discovery of the magical "Pastoral" was more than just another passing fancy. It spoke to me, as did the rest of the Serenade, with a directness and immediacy not unlike the miraculous sensation of falling in love at first sight (something that had yet to happen to me). I knew beyond doubt that whoever Benjamin Britten was, his music would henceforth play an important part in my life--and so it did, and does.

m2LZ7ZDxHyjK_rhZ2rKrO2g.jpgYears later Britten's 1963 recording of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings would become one of the very first compact discs that I bought. Not only do I still have that CD, but I played it for Mrs. T last night, and she was as thunderstruck by her first hearing of the Serenade as I was thirty-nine years ago.

"Why haven't you played this for me until now?" she asked.

"I guess I just didn't think to," I replied with a touch of embarrassment. "But I'm glad I finally got around to it."

* * *

Ian Bostridge,
Radovan Vlatkovic, and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra perform the prologue and "Pastoral" from Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings:

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Lookback: why authors should always be modest

From 2004:

I finished my breakfast and strolled over to the neighborhood Barnes & Noble to see whether A Terry Teachout Reader was on sale yet. It wasn't in New Non-Fiction, so I climbed the stairs to the arts section in search of something to read. There I found three copies of the Teachout Reader shelved under Jazz/Blues, meaning that no one at Barnes & Noble had bothered to look at the contents of my book. Only a year ago, I was basking in the red-carpet treatment at that very same store, including an evening reading and deluxe placement for The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken. Now I'm relegated to Jazz/Blues (though at least I got what booksellers call "face-out" placement, meaning that the front of the dust jacket is visible). As Robert Mitchum says in The Lusty Men, "Chicken today, feathers tomorrow."...

Read the whole thing here.

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Almanac: Paul Hindemith on technique

"The true work of art does not need to wrap any veil of mystery about its external features. Indeed the very hallmark of great art is that only and above the complete clarity of its technical procedure do we feel the essential mystery of its creative power."

Paul Hindemith, The Craft of Musical Composition

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April 14, 2014

Inner direction

Apropos of the off-Broadway transfer of Satchmo at the Waldorf, Laura Lippman recently said something that caught my eye: "I think you have to have such confidence to be a theatre critic and write a play. He's really opened himself up."

rowlandson24.jpgThis reminds me of an oft-quoted passage from Boswell's Life of Johnson:

His tutor, Mr. Jorden, fellow of Pembroke, was not, it seems, a man of such abilities as we should conceive requisite for the instructor of Samuel Johnson, who gave me the following account of him. "He was a very worthy man, but a heavy man, and I did not profit much by his instructions. Indeed, I did not attend him much. The first day after I came to college I waited upon him, and then staid away four. On the sixth, Mr. Jorden asked me why I had not attended. I answered I had been sliding in Christ-Church meadow. And this I said with as much nonchalance as I am now talking to you. I had no notion that I was wrong or irreverent to my tutor." BOSWELL: "That, Sir, was great fortitude of mind." JOHNSON: "No, Sir; stark insensibility."

As it happens, I did give some thought to what Laura said in the weeks and months before The Letter, my first operatic collaboration with Paul Moravec, opened in Santa Fe in 2009. In fact, I wrote a piece about it for the Los Angeles Times in which I pointed out that "I'm submitting myself for approval--not just from my fellow critics but from the people who read my reviews each week" and admitted to finding the experience "both terrifying and exhilarating. I've never set foot inside a casino, but I can't help but think that this must be what it feels like to place a big bet."

That, however, was strictly retrospective, at least as regards my colleagues. It simply didn't occur to me to think about what the critics would say about The Letter while I was writing it, much less to suppose that it was somehow courageous of me to offer myself up to them as a potential target. Nor did I think about it at all with regard to Satchmo at the Waldorf before the show came to New York--and that was solely because I knew that the reviews of Satchmo would necessarily have an effect on the length of its run. Until that finally became an issue, I never thought about them at all.

The truth is that I rarely spend much time thinking about what other people think of me. Of course I want my friends to like me, and I try to conduct myself in such a way as to earn their liking and their trust. But when it comes to my work, my internal compass was set long ago, and whether or not it's accurate, I don't feel that I have much choice in middle age but to follow it. I think what I think, and I trust my eye and ear. Were it otherwise, I couldn't function: I'd always be second-guessing myself.

This doesn't mean that I didn't take the counsel of my collaborators on Satchmo at the Waldorf with the utmost seriousness, just as I take very seriously the suggestions of my editors at The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and elsewhere. When it came to Satchmo, I knew that I was doing something that was new to me, and that I'd be a fool not to listen closely to the experienced professionals with whom I had the good fortune to collaborate, and do what they suggested if it made sense to me (which it usually did).

critic-Ratatouille-300x300.jpgWhen it comes to reviews, on the other hand, I try to take the advice that I give to others, which is the same advice given by André Previn in No Minor Chords: "It is perfectly correct to disregard all the bad reviews one gets, but only if at the same time, one disregards the good ones as well." As Dr. Johnson told Boswell on another occasion, there's an end on't. Sure, I love getting good reviews, but I do my best not to take them to heart. As for the pans, of which I've gotten my share over the years, I ignore them. Either way, nobody has ever said anything about me in print, good or bad, that I can quote from memory. (You might be surprised to know how many artists can rattle off a perfectly remembered phrase from a bad review that came out a decade ago.)

David Mamet, I gather, takes his reviews way too seriously, though he's capable (or was) of being funny about it. When New York held a "Best of Anything" contest back in the Eighties, he entered the following as "Best Review": "I never understood the theater until this night. Please excuse everything I've ever written. When you read this, I'll be dead. Signed, Clive Barnes." That made me laugh out loud when I first read it, and it still makes me smile. Even so, I've never felt that way about a critic--not yet, anyway.

One last remark from the ever-relevant Dr. Johnson: "It is advantageous to an author that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck only at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends." Anybody who gets reviewed should keep that wise counsel firmly in mind.

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Just because: Paul Hindemith conducts Brahms

Paul Hindemith conducts the Chicago Symphony in a 1963 performance of Brahms' Academic Festival Overture:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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Almanac: Paul Hindemith on inspiration

"If we cannot, in the flash of a single moment, see a composition in its absolute entirety, with every pertinent detail in its proper place, we are not genuine creators."

Paul Hindemith, A Composer's World: Horizons and Limitations

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