May 29, 2010

Too much work, too much travel, preparations for the release of my new book, and a recurrent, annoying sinus infection are the main causes of my blog-negligence since early January.  It's impossible even to summarize, at this point, all of the musical events I've attended during these months, but I can at least touch briefly on the ones that I've found most memorable, starting with the most recent and working my way backwards, more or less.

The New York Philharmonic's riskiest undertaking of the season - three performances of Ligeti's opera, Le Grand Macabre, under the baton of Music Director Alan Gilbert - paid off magnificently. The extraordinarily high level of preparation of orchestra, chorus, and solo singers, combined with the brilliant design and staging of Doug Fitch and his Brooklyn-based Giants Are Small production company, created a truly memorable experience.  I've never been much of a Ligeti fan, but Gilbert's handling of this score, as of the same composer's violin concerto, which he performed with soloist Christian Tetzlaff and the Philharmonic a couple of years ago, have made me admit to myself that this was an authentic master and that I have a lot of rethinking to do.  Not only the shock value but also the wit and irony of Macabre, an absurdist comedy, came off in full, and the whole experience was viscerally gripping.  The fact that all three performances were sold out - and to audiences that looked ten or even twenty years younger, on the average, than one sees at most Philharmonic concerts - proved that the risk was well worth taking.  To Gilbert, orchestra president Zarin Mehta, and everyone else involved: thank you, and congratulations!

The Philharmonic has recently been a source of great interest for other reasons, too.  A Stravinsky festival under the baton of Valery Gergiev was a fairly bold stroke on the part of the powers that be, because there are still plenty of subscribers who seem to believe that Igor S., whose 128th birthday is coming up on June 17th, is a young firebrand whose music will disturb them unduly.  As a matter of fact, much of Stravinsky's music is still disturbing - but so is the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, if you really listen to it and don't let it merely wash over you.  I was able to catch five of the seven festival programs, and I was particularly happy to hear Les Noces, the Symphony of Psalms, Oedipus Rex, the Symphony in C, and the Capriccio for piano and orchestra with the virtuosic Denis Matsuev as soloist.  Gergiev often doesn't elicit from orchestras the jagged rhythmic bite that Stravinsky demands - at least to my way of thinking.  There is plenty of power and intention, but he gives us emphasis instead of edge, as Bernstein used to do in his Stravinsky performances.  Nevertheless, it was great to hear all these wonderful pieces within a short period, and beautifully played.  I hope that the adventurous Maestro Gilbert will insert some of Stravinsky's later, infrequently performed works in the Philharmonic's future programming.  Some of the most brilliant and moving twelve-tone music ever written is by Stravinsky, following his late-in-life conversion to Schoenberg's system, but how often do we get to hear Threni or the Requiem Canticles?

In March and April, Riccardo Muti conducted what are likely to be his last concerts with the Philharmonic for a long time to come, as a result of his assumption of the music directorship of the Chicago Symphony this coming fall.  I was unable to hear his final program, but I did hear exemplary performances of Hindemith's Symphony in E-flat (an often bombastic piece), the Franck Symphony, and, above all, a beautifully collaborative Brahms D minor Piano Concerto with Andras Schiff.

Schiff made an unusually long and welcome stopover in New York this season, playing, in addition to three performances of the fearfully demanding Brahms concerto, a number of exceptionally fine Haydn concerts at the 92nd Street Y and a Mendelssohn-Schumann recital at Avery Fisher Hall.  Every one of these events confirmed his ever-growing stature as one of the most intelligent and involving pianists of our time.

In late April and early May, the wonderful Belcea Quartet appeared three times in the city - once playing Beethoven, Szymanowski, and Bartok at Washington Irving High School and twice playing Szymanowski on programs otherwise occupied by the pianist Piotr Anderszewski (about whom I don't understand all the fuss) and others, at Carnegie Zankel.  There are several outstanding string quartets active today, but, with the exception of the Emerson, I know of no other group  that plays as consistently brilliantly and profoundly as the Belcea in such a vast gamut of repertoire.  Listen to their recently released (by EMI) two-CD Schubert album: the great G Major Quartet contains some bold, questionable, and even shocking interpretive choices, especially in the first movement, but I've never heard a more searching performance of this work.  And no less impressive are the "Death in the Maiden" Quartet and the almost unbearably moving String Quintet in C (with Valentin Erben of the Berg Quartet playing second cello).

In Providence early in May, where I was visiting friends and participating in pre- and post-concert talks, I heard a highly accomplished performance of the Beethoven Ninth by the Rhode Island Philharmonic under its conductor, Larry Rachleff.  I had never heard the orchestra before and didn't know what to expect; I was very pleasantly surprised.

During another trip - this one to Los Angeles, to participate in a "Recovered Voices" conference jointly sponsored by UCLA's Center for Jewish Studies and the OREL Foundation - I appreciated the opportunity to hear a concert of chamber music by Erwin Schulhoff (the String Sextet is a gem), excellently performed by members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and the US premiere of Franz Schreker's nearly century-old opera Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized) - an LA Opera production conducted by James Conlon, who has been indefatigable in his promotion of valuable works by composers who were suppressed by the Nazi regime. I don't think that Die Gezeichneten is likely to enjoy great popularity: the lush orchestration and intense vocal lines quickly become too much of a good thing, and the libretto meanders. Nevertheless, it was great to have the opportunity to see and hear this work passionately conducted by Conlon, expertly directed by Ian Judge (with ample and highly effective use of projections by Wendall K. Harrington), and performed with real conviction by lead singers Anja Kampe, Robert Brubaker, Martin Gantner, James Johnson, and Wolfgang Schoene as well as all their colleagues in the smaller roles.

For me, the highlights of the second half of the Met season were provided by one Giuseppe Verdi: a revival of Giancarlo Del Monaco's production of the great Simon Boccanegra and a new production of the early Attila.  Attention, in Boccanegra, was focused on Placido Domingo's Met debut as a baritone, in the title role, and to my mind the success could hardly have been greater.  Domingo's vocal and emotional mastery of the part was complete, as was his domination of the stage action.  Will anyone who was present ever forget the fearful power of his acting in the Council Chamber scene or the real - never maudlin - pathos that he brought to the final scene?  Adrienne Pieczonka was an excellent Amelia/Maria and Marcello Giordani did better as Gabriele Adorno than he has done in several other recent Met roles; James Morris (Fiesco) was the weakest link in the chain but had some good moments.  Every bit as important as the above, however, was the excellent chorus under Donald Palumbo and the marvelous orchestra under the magisterial baton of James Levine, who gave the finest interpretation of this opera that I have ever heard.

Attila, written more than a decade before Boccanegra, is a whole different kettle of fish - full of energy and brilliant bits but by no means consistently great.  Yet in the hands of Riccardo Muti, who, at the age of 68, was making his Met debut, the performances were a wonderful experience, notwithstanding a ridiculous, indeed virtually futile, production by Pierre Audi.  Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role, Violeta Urmana as Odabella, and baritone Giovanni Meoni as Ezio were all excellent, and tenor Ramon Vargas held his own.  Once again, the Met chorus and orchestra proved themselves to be beyond reproach; if there are any finer opera choruses and orchestras in the world, I haven't heard them.
May 29, 2010 5:48 PM | | Comments (3)
January 9, 2010

Well, well... Imagine a production of Carmen with almost nothing in it that makes you cringe, at least stage-wise: no cutie-pie touches, no unlikely-looking protagonists flinging themselves unconvincingly around the stage, no over-the-top local color, no excessive pulling out of the Fate stop (except at the very end - but I'll get to that in due course).  Instead, everything in the Met's new production is in its logical place, so that the whole opera makes sense as theater.  Okay: the jagged, blood-red crack in the front-drop elbows us in the ribs a little too strongly, and the 1930s setting neither adds to nor detracts from the overall effect.  But director Richard Eyre and set and costume designer Rob Howell have created an atmospheric, thoroughly convincing production of this much-abused work.

Elīna Garanča is a true artist, and she puts all of her artistry into the title role.  She does not have the most sensual mezzo-soprano sound - there have been duskier Carmens in living memory - but the singing is so fine and the character so finely communicated in every way that it doesn't matter.  Eyre has made Carmen a vulgar girl who spits bits of food on the ground, wipes her mouth on her forearm, and looks as if she doesn't bathe as often as she should, yet Garanča puts the gypsy's animal energy and bursting-at-the-seams sexuality across unmistakably.

Why does Roberto Alagna want to submit himself to the terrible strain of singing Don José?  He acts capably, his French pronunciation is excellent (French is his native language), and he copes well with the less demanding passages in the role.  But in the tough spots, such as the first-act duet with Micaëla and the big aria, "La fleur", in Act II, his sound is grating, at times verging on a howl.  Nor were Barbara Frittoli (Micaëla) or Mariusz Kwiecien (Escamillo) at their best - at least at the performance I attended (January 8); both are fine singing actors, but Frittoli's voice was sounding a little frayed at the edges, and Kwiecien had trouble in the lower register as well as some intonation problems in Act III.

The conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, needs to take some anti-vitamin pills to keep him from jumping maniacally around the podium and gesticulating madly.  He is definitely not of the less-is-more school of conducting.  The orchestra musicians must watch him only when absolutely necessary, otherwise they would all suffer from motion sickness.  (Remember Sir Adrian Boult's observation, to the effect that some conductors' "picturesque habit of walking about and miming the music [...] will appeal to some of the less sophisticated members of our audience.  But it doesn't make matters easier for the players and singers, and I am inclined to think that it is only when he has complete control of himself that a conductor can hope to control other people.")  Nevertheless, the ensemble work was good, although there were a few weird tempo choices, e.g., an insanely fast opening to the prelude to Act I, an extremely slow "Je dis" in Act III (this may have been Frittoli's choice, but she didn't always seem comfortable with it), and some wayward, and not always successful, pushing and pulling in the entr'acte-prelude to Act IV.

The only real blot on the staging, to my mind, comes at the very end of the opera.  Following Carmen and Don José's final confrontation, which culminates in murder - all excellently paced here - the tenor sings, "Vous pouvez m'arrêter, c'est moi qui l'ai tuée"  ("You can arrest me, I'm the one who has killed her").  Even if we did not have the specific printed instruction - "the crowd re-enters the stage" - José's words imply in an absolutely concrete way that someone other than the two protagonists must be present at that moment.  Instead, in this production Don José, holding Carmen's body, sings those words to no one, after which the stage rotates and we see a bull lying dead in the corrida, surrounded by an immobile crowd.  Destiny - get it?  Carmen dies; the bull dies; and no one lives happily ever after.  But we really don't need that hunk of heavy-handed symbolism, especially at the close of a production that has heretofore managed so beautifully to dispense with such stuff.  After having been so blessedly direct with us, Mr. Eyre, why give us a lot of bull?

January 9, 2010 10:50 AM | | Comments (1)
January 3, 2010

Phew!  It's over for another ten months!

Imagine an intergalactic visitor arriving on earth to study human beliefs and practices and entering a store, restaurant, train station, or airport in any U.S. city in December.  The poor ET would undoubtedly conflate Jesus Christ with Bing Crosby and would assume that the voice of the latter was that of the former.

Is it possible that only cranks, curmudgeons, and non-believers like myself are nauseated by the two-month-long bombardment of Christmas music, good, bad, and indifferent?  Doesn't the onslaught bother normal people, too?  Aren't true-believing Christians offended by the cheapening of their holiday?  O come, indeed, all ye faithful, and do something to stop the annual flow of musical treacle!

But onward.....  Just as I'd gone to the Met's season-opening Tosca thinking I'd dislike it - after having read even our most open-minded critics' largely negative reports - but ended up convinced that most of it was pretty good, and in any case an improvement over the old Zeffirelli extravaganza, so I went to Hoffmann prepared for the worst, although for entirely different reasons.  In Salzburg in 1981 and '82 I had attended performances of this work in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's thoughtful and beautiful staging, brilliantly conducted by James Levine, and with Plácido Domingo in the title role, Catherine Malfitano in all three of the soprano roles, José van Dam in the bad-guy parts, and Ann Murray as Nicklausse and the Muse.  I can't imagine that anyone who was there has forgotten the total participation of all of the principal singing actors - Domingo's tabletop rendition of "Kleinzach", Malfitano's impassioned Antonia, van Dam's cynical Dr. Miracle - or the delightful simplicity of Ponnelle's "gondolas," which were large pieces of cloth pulled by "gondoliers" over a highly-polished, mirror-like floor.

But Bartlett Sher's Met Hoffmann, designed by Michael Yeargan, more than holds its own against the Ponnelle and other productions that I've seen.  Although there is a lot going on in all but the Antonia act, everything seems to be there for a good reason, and, like any piece of art worthy of the name, this production contains underlying layers, not to mention overlaid details, that can't be absorbed at a first encounter.  I went back to see the last performance of the season, on January 2nd, and enjoyed myself even more than the first time around.  In his program notes, Sher cites both Kafka and Fellini as jumping-off points for his production concept, and the Fellini influence was particularly evident in the obsessive eroticism of Acts I and III.  In my opinion, however, Kafka was so much of his (and our) time that his brand of fantasy can't be shoehorned into pre-20th-century fantasies, be they Hoffmannesque or Offenbachian.  In any case, whatever Sher's inspirations may have been, the results worked.  These performances were a joy to the eye.

And, for the most part, to the ear.  Levine's approach to this work is now so refined and so masterly that I can't imagine anyone doing it better.  I'm no expert on the opera's complicated textual issues, but all the music that was done was done excellently by orchestra and chorus.  The minuscule Kathleen Kim was outstanding, vocally and choreographically, as the mechanical doll Olympia.  Anna Netrebko kept her here-I-am-everybody! stage style in check and sang Antonia more and more impressively as the second act went on - though better in the earlier performance than in the later one.  Ekaterina Gubanova was a competent if somewhat under-acted Giulietta.  Alan Held - the villain - who began very strongly, was beginning to sound a bit worn by the end - but who wouldn't?  And Alan Oke (Cochenille & Co.) proved to be a real theater animal in his Act II buffo aria.  Kate Lindsey was an excellent Nicklausse and Muse, although her voice sounded small next to that of her Hoffmann, Joseph Calleja.  With a less attentive conductor than Levine in the pit she could have been swamped.

And what are we to make of Calleja?  In certain respects, his voice reminds me of that of a famous tenor of the past, Giovanni Martinelli, at least insofar as Martinelli's voice has been preserved in recordings.  Both have a clarion, penetrating ring but also - to my ears - an unpleasant, bleating quality.  All power to Calleja for having done so much careful work and for having brought off his debut in this difficult role better than creditably in one of the world's most important opera houses.  Yet at some level his interpretation seemed to me not quite three-dimensional.  Illness prevented him from singing in the January 2nd performance, at which he was replaced by Canadian tenor David Pomeroy, who did a first-rate job.  Pomeroy's voice may not be as distinctive as Calleja's, but it doesn't have the other's unpleasant edges, either, and he sang with assurance and conviction.

Let's hope that this production will come back during many future Met seasons.

January 3, 2010 2:30 PM | | Comments (1)
November 10, 2009

Love of Berlioz originates, I think, in wonder at and delight in his musical imagination.  Of course, one wonders at and delights in the imagination of every creative artist whose work one loves, but there is something startling and forever fresh about Berlioz's musical imagination.  I feel certain that he surprised even himself by some of his inventions.  A friend asks how I can like Berlioz and not like Liszt; she finds creative parallels between them that I don't perceive.  To me, Liszt is at best interesting, and if I were a much better pianist than I am I might enjoy trying to overcome the difficulties that his music sets up.  (I remember Vladimir Ashkenazy saying, about learning the "Transcendental" Etudes, that although the music itself isn't "spiritual," the process of overcoming the technical difficulties became a spiritual difficulty.)  But Liszt's music never touches me, whereas Berlioz's often does.  It's true that Berlioz enjoys bombast and was second to none in his mastery of it: think of the "Rakóczy" March, the March to the Scaffold from the Fantastique, the last few minutes of the "Corsair" Overture, and much else.  But think, also, of how he can create visceral excitement without resorting to bombast: the "Grande fête chez Capulet" in Roméo, the final section of the "Roman Carnival" Overture, the whirlygigging "Feux follets" in Faust, or the crazed and orgiastic but never bombastic ending of.Harold in Italy.  And then there is the profundity of the emotional communication.  I hear none of this in Liszt; to me, his music is decorative.  Berlioz has inferior, ornamental, even wandering patches, but there is great depth in so much of his music.

And Berlioz is a conductor's delight.  Old Weingartner and Toscanini and Monteux loved his music, and in our own day he has found first-rate exponents in Muti, Levine, and now (new to me in this repertoire) also James Conlon.  (You'll ask: Where's Colin Davis?  But something in me as a listener has never warmed to Davis in this or other repertoire, although he has certainly been one of the most dedicated Berliozians of our time.)  This season, Conlon has taken over the Met's production of La Damnation de Faust, which Levine conducted when it was new last year, and he has brought to the score incisiveness and lyricism similar in concept to Levine's yet all his own.  Robert Lepage's video-based production made the same impression on me this year as last: it contains much that is beautiful and fascinating but also much that is over the top - effect for effect's sake.  But it feels familiar this year, and familiarity breeds... well, acceptance, in this case.

The cast was new.  Ramón Vargas (Faust) may not have Marcello Giordani's dramatic presence, but he also doesn't have Giordani's constricted, strained sound in the middle-high register, which is where a lot of the part (and a lot of French tenor writing in general) lies.  Olga Borodina is a fine Marguerite, but following in Susan Graham's footsteps is an ungrateful task.  Ildar Abdrazakov is somewhat less dashing as Mephistopheles than was John Relyea, but the two are equals with respect to vocal and communicative power.  The all-important orchestra and chorus (after all, Berlioz conceived this work as an oratorio-like, four-part "dramatic legend", not as an opera) were simply magnificent, this year as last.  I'm hoping to go back for another performance, and I hope, too, that we won't have to wait many seasons before this this production returns to the Met's repertoire.

In thinking about the Met's singers in this work, I suddenly remembered Régine Crespin's comment to me - at the end of Plácido Domingo's Operalia competition in Bordeaux in 1996 - about the poor showing that young French singers had made in the previous days; the great French soprano attributed this outcome to bad voice teaching in her country's conservatories.  I'm not in a position to judge the validity of her statement, and certainly there have always been some remarkable French singers.  But it's true that the opera world could use a number of first-rate native French-speaking singers well versed in their country's repertoire.  French is the most difficult "opera language" for non-natives to deal with.  Italian- and Spanish-speaking singers have a particularly hard time of it because they're not accustomed to dealing with massive quanitites of diphthongs; a case in point is the wonderful Mirella Freni, who used to sing quite a bit of French repertoire beautifully but who rarely, in my experience, managed to pronounce correctly the short French e sound (as in the article le), which is present, I'd guess, in about a third of all French words.  Germans, Russians, Brits, and Americans may have a slight advantage, but they don't seem to manage much better than their Latinate colleagues.  None of the principals in this year's Damnation de Faust cast made the text intelligible even 30 or 40 percent of the time - and I found Renée Fleming's French diction just as mediocre in her otherwise remarkable performance of Messiaen's extremely difficult Chansons pour Mi at the New York Philharmonic's opening night concert, part of which I saw and heard on television.

I recall Domingo's story of a performance of La traviata in which he took part in Tel Aviv at the beginning of his career: he sang Alfredo in Italian, the Violetta did her part in German, the baritone performed his in Hungarian, and the chorus sang in Hebrew.  The performance must have been both barbarous and hilarious, but presumably each singer's pronunciation was clear.  Having multinational casts sing in languages that they can't pronounce properly presents an apparently insurmountable difficulty.

November 10, 2009 2:30 PM | | Comments (1)
October 25, 2009

I was in Chicago a week ago to discuss the subject of writing musical biography with some of Prof. Philip Gossett's excellent graduate students at the University of Chicago - a thoroughly enjoyable experience, at least for me.  While I was there, I managed to catch a CSO concert with the orchestra's music director designate, Riccardo Muti.  Thanks to some peculiar twists of fate, or scheduling, at any rate, this was the first time I'd ever heard the orchestra on its home turf rather than at Carnegie Hall or elsewhere on tour.

The program consisted of Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony and the Bruckner Second.  In the past, Muti's Mozart often seemed forced to me - carefully conceived but with tempi, both fast and slow, that didn't seem to flow naturally.  This was not the case here: the approach was fresh, playful, and thoroughly delightful.  And for the second time in my listening life, I did not either fall asleep or wish I had fallen asleep during a Bruckner symphony.  The first was a New York Philharmonic performance of the Sixth a couple of years ago, also conducted by Muti.  I have a feeling that his success with this composer has to do with the fact that instead of trying, as many of his colleagues do, to rationalize the unrationalizable by shoehorning all those weird, contrasting episodes into a logical whole, he focuses on each episode and lets it flower.  Maybe he reached the conclusion that thematic dithering is central to Bruckner's compositional process - at least in the symphonies; much less so in the religious music - and that the works' coherence is to be found precisely in their apparently incoherent qualities.  Now that I'm well into my seventh decade, I think it's safe for me to say that I'll never be a Brucknerian, but I can finally see that a good Bruckner performance every once in a while can be a pleasant experience.  The CSO sounded splendid, and the city's pre-honeymoon with Muti, who takes over as music director next fall, seems to be in full swing.

Call me crazy, but on Saturday evening I thought again (if only for a moment) of Bruckner's bizarrely episodic Second Symphony while listening to the excellent Pacifica Quartet play Janáček's even more episodic "Intimate Letters" Quartet at the Metropolitan Museum's Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium.  I sometimes have the feeling that Bruckner is episodic because he couldn't figure out what else to do, whereas Janáček is episodic, especially in this work, because that's what his churning stomach was dictating to him.  This quartet is full of Eros and Thanatos - hardly a unique combination (these are the magnetic poles between which most art bounces back and forth, though there certainly isn't a hell of a lot of Eros in Bruckner) - but in this case the emotions created by those two demanding gods are mashed together with Slavic exuberance and good old early-20th-century, Central European angst.  The Pacifica threw themselves into the maelstrom and captured the piece's wild mood shifts wonderfully well.

I was much less impressed by their take on Mozart's "Dissonant" Quartet (C Major, K. 465): I felt that the first movement's introductory Adagio was exaggerated, not so much by the ultra-slow tempo as by inflated dyanmics and phrasing that went with it, and the Allegro itself seemed unsteady, as if the musicians had inadvertently taken a marginally faster tempo than usual.  The Andante cantabile was marred by numerous little affectations that so many musicians today opt for in Mozart; I generally find that "bringing out" details is a much less successful procedure than letting them stand out by making sure that everything around them is absolutely clear but subordinate. The third movement and finale were much less fussy.  Maybe some of the problems in the first two were exacerbated by the auditorium's slightly dry acoustics, which have a negative effect on Mozart's super-exposed musical textures.

The Pacifica Four's Brahms, however, was every bit as good as their Janáček.  The Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2, seems to me the most difficult to bring off among the composer's three surviving works in this genre.  With the exception ot its relatively forthright finale, the piece has an underlying terrain that shifts constantly with respect to rhythm, articulation, harmonic movement, and emotional content.  The musicians captured all of this excellently; even the gently anguished piano dolce chords in bars 20 and 22 - a stumbling block for so many ensembles - came off with just the right degree of internal tension.  Another stumbling block is the choice of a basic tempo for the second movement: if it's a shade too fast, the sense of repose is destroyed, but if it's a shade too slow, the opening theme sounds banal. The Pacifica players got it right - and they also understood that the violence in the movement's agitated middle section must sound semi-repressed; there's a reason, after all, why Brahms's dynamic markings never rise above a single forte.  Even the cello's dark upbeat to the third movement - usually dragged out to make it more "meaningful" - was all the more portentous for its gentleness.  And the first violin's headlong, virtuosic dash in the finale's coda capped a wholly satisfying performance.

I don't think that the profoundly intimate cavatina from another A minor quartet - Beethoven's Op. 132 - makes an appropriate encore piece, but I'm glad that I stayed to hear it because it was so well played.  I look forward to hearing this fine group in other Beethoven quartets as well as other repertoire.

October 25, 2009 8:16 AM | | Comments (2)


Overflow More than once in recent years, I've had the experience of attending an exhilarating musical event and of reading immediately afterward about the ongoing classical music crisis: drops in attendance figures, graying audiences, demise of the recording industry, and on and on. more

Harvey Sachs I am a writer, lecturer, music historian, translator, and arts administrator. Early in my career, I worked as a conductor, albeit at modest levels, for about a dozen years, and this gave me some insight into the practical side of music-making. more

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