OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Grams, Porter make impressive debuts at Pasadena Symphony concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Andrew GramsOne of the advantages of the long interregnum between Pasadena Symphony music directors is that local audiences have heard a number of young conductors who are forging strong careers with orchestras in the United States and abroad. Saturday brought the last of those young maestros as Andrew Grams (right) took the podium at Ambassador Auditorium.

The 36-year-old Baltimore native was recently named music director of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra in suburban Chicago, an ensemble that is similar in size to the PSO. Grams reportedly was the unanimous choice of the ESO’s musicians and it’s easy to see why. He has an enthusiastic, energetic conducting style and, as he showed in the opening piece Saturday night, a cheeky sense of humor, as well.

For William Bolcom’s Commedia for (Almost) 18th Century Orchestra Grams tucked a trio of string soloists high on the back row of the orchestra, where percussionists would normally sit. Midway through their first solo lick, Grams turned to the audience and pointed to the soloists with a sly smile, as if to say, “Did you find them?” It was an appropriately light touch to Bolcom’s mashup of styles that range from Baroque to Mahler to slapstick.

Grams was all business in the final piece for the evening, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, although at the end of the first movement he peeked over his shoulder and smiled as if to say, “It’s okay to applaud.” Overall, Grams took things at a brisk pace, although he also found time to luxuriate in the woodwind solos that permeate the uber-familiar work. The orchestra was in top form throughout most of the performance.

In between those two pieces came Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, with 17-year-old Simone Porter as the soloist. A native of Seattle, Porter studies with Robert Lipsett at The Colburn Conservatory of Music in downtown Los Angeles. She is also part of Colburn Artists, a program created in 2012 by The Colburn School to provide professional management services to its most-accomplished students, and Saturday night Porter validated her selection.

Playing a 1742 Camillus Camilli violin, Porter displayed a sweet, yet rich tone throughout the concerto, not just in the low notes but on the upper strings as well. She attacked this familiar work with exuberant, youthful gusto and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the moment, listening and bouncing along with the orchestral accompaniment when she wasn’t playing. It was an impressive performance; she is clearly someone to keep an eye and ear on.

Grams and the orchestra offered rich, luxuriant accompaniment, particularly during the broad, romantic moments of this familiar work. I hope that representatives of the Long Beach Symphony, which is searching for a new music director, were in the audience. Grams should be on their candidates list.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Porter’s PSO appearance is one of several important local concerts for her this year. On April 27 she will play Beethoven’s Romances 1 & 2 with the Pacific Symphony, led by Carl St.Clair, at the SOKA Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo. On Sept. 4 she will make her Hollywood Bowl debut as soloist in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot.
• The final concert of the PSO’s 2013-2014 classics season will be held May 10. Jahja Lang, long-time music director of the San Diego Symphony, will lead a program of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Shai Posner as soloist. Information.
• Audience members got the first public look at the PSO’s 2014-02015 season. Music Director David Lockington and Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan will alternate leading the five classics series concerts, with Lockington conducting the first, third and final program and McGegan leading Nos. 2 and 4. Opening night is Nov. 1. I’ll have more on this tomorrow in a Blog post.
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: Pasadena Symphony resumes youth movement

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this story was printed today in the above newspapers.
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Pasadena Symphony; Andrew Grams, conductor, Simone Porter, violin
March 29 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Preview one hour before each performance.
Ambassador Auditorium; 131 South St. John Ave., Pasadena
Tickets: $35-$105.
Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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Simone_Porter_4_WebFor more than a quarter-century the Pasadena Symphony has distinguished itself by discovering young, talented soloists. Earlier this year 13-year-old pianist Umi Garrett soloed in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. For the PSO’s programs on March 29 at Ambassador Auditorium, a “grizzled veteran,” 17-year-old violinist Simone Porter (pictured right), will join the orchestra and guest conductor Andrew Grams for a performance of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. The concerts will open with William Bolcom’s Commedia for (Almost) 18th Century Orchestra and will conclude with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

Porter’s PSO appearance is one of several important local concerts for her this year. On April 27 she will play Beethoven’s Romances 1 & 2 with the Pacific Symphony, led by Carl St.Clair, at the SOKA Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo. On Sept. 4 she will make her Hollywood Bowl debut as soloist in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot.

A native of Seattle, Porter studies with Robert Lipsett at The Colburn Conservatory of Music in downtown Los Angeles. She is also part of Colburn Artists, a program created in 2012 by The Colburn School to provide professional management services to its most-accomplished students.

The PSO’s “youth movement” also includes its guest conductor. Grams, a 36-year-old Maryland native, last fall became music director of the Elgin Symphony just outside of Chicago, an ensemble that is similar in many respects to the Pasadena Symphony. In January he conducted the Baltimore Symphony in a concert that elicited from Tim Smith, music critic of The Baltimore Sun, the following: “The year is not even a week old, and there’s a contender for highlight of the 2014 music season in Baltimore.”

Meanwhile, two area choral groups resume their seasons this week.

• Jeffrey Bernstein leads the Pasadena Master Chorale in “The Voice of California” on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and next Sunday at 4 p.m. at Altadena Community Church. The program features music by Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen, along with premieres by Los Angeles-based composers Matt Brown and Reena Esmail. Information: www.pasadenamasterchorale.org

• Artistic Director John Sutton will lead his Angeles Chorale in “Romancing the Soul,” an evening of Brahms love songs on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Pasadena’s First United Methodist Church and March 30 at 4 p.m. at Northridge United Methodist Church. Information: www.angeleschorale.org

• This evening at 7 p.m. in Walt Disney Concert Hall, Grant Gershon leads 48 members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale in music by famed Southern California composer Morten Lauridsen. The program will include Mid-Winter Songs, Ave Dulcissima Maria, Canticle/O Vos Omnes, O Magnum Mysterium, , Madrigali, Nocturnes and Les Chansons des Roses (Lauridsen will accompany the last two pieces on the piano). Ironically, the only major piece the Chorale won’t be singing is Lux Aeterna, which has become a choral landmark since it was premiered and recorded by the Master Chorale in 1997. Information: www.lamc.org
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(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Pasadena Symphony opens 86th season

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
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Igor Stravinsky’s score to the ballet, The Rite of Spring, is 100 years and five+ months old but it remains one of the most unsettling works ever written, no matter how often you’ve heard it. Pairing “Rite” with Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade and Shostakovich’s Festive Overture made for a formidable opening concert to the Pasadena Symphony’s 86th season Saturday afternoon at Ambassador Auditorium.

The program —David Lockington’s first as the PSO’s fifth music director — offered major challenges for the players, conductor and the audience; the latter included a sizeable number of children and young people (always a healthy sign for an orchestra).

The 57-year-old, British-born Lockington’s conducting style seems precise (judged from an audience seat) and he generates a great deal of energy on the podium. As we learned from when he first conducted the PSO in 2012, the orchestra clearly responds well to his leadership. Lockington also delivered erudite comments in the preconcert lecture and prior to the playing of Serenade.

In The Rite of Spring Principal Bassoonist Rose Corrigan spun an appropriately ominous line at the beginning and Lockington and the orchestra built the tension until the first driving, rhythmic section exploded. The orchestra’s winds and the percussion section, headed up by Timpanist Wade Culbreath, were in top form throughout the afternoon. The overall performance was solid, but not breathtaking and the audience responded with a generous standing ovation.

Lockington chose Bernstein’s Serenade as a companion piece because, in his words, “I think of it as a mid-century look at a musical language that was made possible by The Rite of Spring.” The rarely played 30-minute work, written in 1954, was inspired by Plato’s dialogue “Symposium” and is the most un-Bernstein sounding piece he ever wrote, although his familiar snappy, jazzy motifs (think West Side Story) do finally emerge in the final movement.

Anne Akiko Meyers gave a superbly virtuosic performance, playing on a 1741 Guarneri del Gesu violin, “Ex-Vieuxtemps,” for which she recently received lifetime performance rights (details HERE) Her lyrical portions sang sweetly (her pianissimos were particularly striking) and she sailed through the thorny sections as if they had been written for her instead of for violinist Issac Stern. Lockington and the orchestra provided supple support.

The program opened with a sizzling rendition of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture. Lockington took tempos that were just short of frenetic but not over the top and the PSO was at its razor-sharp best.

Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Because orchestra schedules are planned well in advance, this was the only concert that Lockington will conduct this season. Beginning next season, he’s expected to lead at least three of the classical concerts. Read my story on Lockington HERE).
• The Pasadena Symphony’s holiday concerts are Dec. 14 at 4 and 7 p.m. at All Saints Church, Pasadena. Grant Cooper conducts the orchestra, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, vocalist Lisa Vroman and the L.A. Bronze handbell choir. INFO.
• Nicholas McGegan (LINK) makes his first appearance as the PSO’s principal guest conductor when he leads the orchestra on Jan. 11 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Ambassador Auditorium. The program is scheduled to be Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 and Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 in E minor, with 13-year-old (yes, you read that right) pianist Umi Garrett (LINK) as soloist. Info on the concert is HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: Pasadena Symphony, David Lockington open new chapters in their lives

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A version of this article will be published Friday in the above papers.
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Pasadena Symphony; David Lockington, conductor
Shostakovich: Festive Overture
Leonard Bernstein: Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion (after Plato’s “Symposium”); Anne Akiko Meyers, violinist
Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)
Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. • Ambassador Auditorium; Pasadena
Information: www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org
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Lockington-pensive4WebWhen David Lockington (right) takes the podium Saturday at Ambassador Auditorium, it will mark a new chapter in the 86-year history of the Pasadena Symphony, as he becomes the orchestra’s fifth music director and the first to hold the position since Jorge Mester in 2010.

However, it will also mark a new chapter in the life of the 57-year-old Lockington, a career that has spanned two continents and carried him from coast to coast in the United States. Although he was born in England, in a sense he’s returning to family roots because his wife, acclaimed violinist Dylan Jenson, was born in Los Angeles and has many family members in Southern California.

Saturday’s programs, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. will include Shostakovich’s Festive Overture; Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; and Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, with violinist Anne Akiko Meyers as soloist. This marks the second consecutive concert Meyers has soloed for a conductor making his PSO debut; in 2010 it was James DePreist leading his first concert as the orchestra’s Music Advisor.

Meyers (below, right) will also be playing an historic instrument: the “Ex-Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesu, which was crafted in Cremona, Italy in 1741 and got its name from a former owner, Belgian violinist and composer Henri Vieuxtemps. Earlier this year, Meyers received lifetime use of the “Vieuxtemps” for concerts and recitals thanks to an unnamed benefactor who purchased it at a Chicago auction (read more about the story of Meyers and her violin HERE).

Lockington has served as the Music Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra since 1999 and has held the same position with the Modesto Symphony since 2007 (where he worked with current Pasadena Symphony Association Executive Director Paul Jan Zdunek). He is also Principal Guest Conductor of the Orquesta Sinfonica del Principado de Asturias in Spain.

However, when he was named PSO Music Director last March his focus changed. He’s not yet certain whether he and his family, which includes three grown children and a daughter in middle school, will relocate from Grand Rapids to Southern California. Nonetheless, he says, “I’ve always had a strong belief that if I can’t literally live where I’m working that it’s important for me to have a strong presence in the community, and that certainly will be the case with Pasadena.”

Since he first conducted the Pasadena Symphony in January 2012, Lockington has been in the city five times, meeting people and planning for the future. “The Pasadena Symphony musicians are so quick and so responsive and so professional, says Lockington. “They want to be led but they have a strong desire to make it work and are willing to go wherever you take them, However, if we don’t reach people, if I’m not strongly enough here as the face of the orchestra, then we won’t be doing our job.”

One thing that Lockington has learned is the Pasadena Symphony musicians’ high quality. “Southern California is a London sort of situation with this incredible pool of musicians,” notes Lockington from first-hand experience. Over the years, he has collaborated with several London orchestras; a new recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons he and Meyers made with the English Chamber Orchestra (the first with Meyers playing the “Vieuxtemps” violin) is scheduled to be released next Valentine’s Day.

Although Lockington will continue to conduct the Modesto Symphony, he will end his relationship with the Grand Rapids Symphony after next season. “That will be 16 years with the orchestra and will mark its 85th season,” explains Lockington. “It was an appropriate time to move on to another chapter.”

He remains unsure about the Spanish job. “My contract is through end of next year (he has led up to 10 concerts a year) and after that we’ll see,” he says. “I love going there,” he says with a chuckle. “Among other things, I can take a long weekend to visit my mother, who still lives on the outskirts of London.”

That kind of innovative planning characterizes Lockington’s musical life, as is evidenced by Saturday’s program. The Rite of Spring was an obvious gift,” says Lockington, “because this year is its 100th birthday. I suppose virtually every orchestra has programmed it (Lockington opened the current Grand Rapids Symphony season with the work).

“Gustav Mahler said of his music, ‘My time will come.’ You wonder whether Stravinsky could have imagined the vast number of performances of “Rite of Spring that have taken place this year and how it has become a staple of orchestral repertoire. It doesn’t have the same shock value as when it premiered, but when you look at the audience attendance numbers every time it’s played it draws well. That shows how more sophisticated audiences have become.”

MyersWebBernstein’s Serenade is much less known than The Rite of Spring Nonetheless, says Lockington, “I love this piece. It’s not typical of Bernstein; it’s so different than West Side Story, which was composed in 1957, three years after Serenade. There are measures that sound sort of Russian. There’s something knotty about it that reminds me of the Russian school. I think of it as a mid-century look at a musical language that was made possible by The Rite of Spring.”
Although this is the only PSO concert that Lockington will conduct this season (orchestra schedules are typically planned several years in advance), he will lead three of the five classical concerts beginning next year; the other two will be led by newly named Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan.

Lockington also indicated he would be open to conducting a summer concert at the Los Angeles County Arboretum; he has led outdoor concerts in Grand Rapids and Modesto and attended two concerts at the Arboretum last summer. “The setting is great and the programs are so diverse, always interesting,” he marvels. “I think it’s amazing so see so many people sitting at so many tables; it was mind-boggling! I loved the atmosphere and the peacocks in the background.”

Like many conductors, Lockington was an instrumentalist before he took up the baton. In his case, he played the cello, first in a youth orchestra conducted by his father and later for two years in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (where one of his colleagues was Andrew Shulman, now the PSO’s principal cellist).

Lockington came to the U.S. to earn a Master’s degree at Yale University (he is now a U.S. citizen). He played cello in the New Haven Symphony and was assistant principal cellist for the Denver Symphony for three years before turning to conducting.

“I spent a lot of time observing conductors and what worked with them,” says Lockington. “As a cellist and sitting up front, I had a perfect nest-eye view of what was going on. Being unencumbered by my instrument was also important. If I’d been a violinist, I would have had my instrument in my ear but sitting with my head free couldn’t have been a better way to learn.

“Because I played the cello in an orchestra, I know first-hand what being an orchestra musician is like,” continues Lockington. “I realize it’s a stressful life and I know from experience the precision that’s required, the preparation, the emotional, mental and physical energy it takes to be engaged for long periods of time. So I have a lot of empathy and sympathy for musicians.

“I’m still a practicing cellist,” notes Lockington. “It keeps me honest. I’m asking people to do things every single day that I do when I practice. I know the process and efficiency that’s required to keep in shape and to be able to pull something off in a short period of time. So, in a funny sort of way, I feel like it gives me a license, the right to demand these sorts of things of people because I’m doing it every day.”

Lockington believe there’s another advantage that he has as a cellist. “Being in touch with the string family, the main sound producer of the orchestra, means that the sound I can draw out of the strings affects the total sound of the orchestra,” he believes. “Being a string player means that the sound I listen for and the sound that I draw out is different than if I were a pianist or a horn player for example; not necessarily better, just different. I hope it’s colorful and I hope it’s beautiful. The music has to be special and we have the musicians to do that here.”
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers isn’t just fiddlin’ around at the Pasadena Symphony

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
MyersWebMuch of the buzz for Saturday’s concerts by the Pasadena Symphony at Ambassador Auditorium surrounds David Lockington’s first concerts as the orchestra’s fifth music director. However, the soloist, violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, has quite a story to tell, as well.

When Meyers (left) played the Barber Violin Concerto to open the Pasadena Symphony’s 2010-2011 season, it was the first time she had played in a concert with her new violin, the “Ex-Molitor/Napoleon,” a Stradivarius dated 1697, which she purchased for a then-world-record price of $3.6 million (the “Lady Blunt” Strad was sold in 2011 for $15.9 million). In a review of that concert, I wrote that she “produced a rich, creamy tone throughout a vibrant performance and set off fireworks in the third movement with her prodigious technique.”

However, when she returns to open the PSO’s 86th season Saturday, she will be playing not her Strad but the “Ex-Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesu, an instrument Myers calls “one of the most iconic violins ever made.” Earlier this year, Meyers received lifetime use of the “Vieuxtemps” for concerts and recitals thanks to an unnamed benefactor who purchased it at a Chicago auction.

“It is very big responsibility,” says Meyers of the “Vieuxtemps,” which was crafted in Cremona, Italy in 1741 and got its name from a former owner, Belgian violinist and composer Henri Vieuxtemps. “[The ‘Vieuxtemps’] has this projection and richness; there’s such a breadth and dimension to the sound that’s unlike any instrument I’ve ever played.” (Meyers writes about her first experience playing the instrument HERE)

“There are very few of these [iconic] instruments in existence now, maybe 50,” said Meyers to James Cushing for an article in the San Luis Obispo Tribuine earlier this year. “Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifiez played Guarneri Del Gesu violins. Paganini himself played one! Most of them — actually, most violins at this level of quality — are usually locked away in museum display cases and never touched,” she said. “Whenever I see these instruments behind glass, I feel like I’m visiting some sort of zoo. Animals were made to run free, and these instruments were made to be played.” (Read Cushing’s complete story is HERE)

The “Ex-Molitor” was actually the second Strad that Meyers had purchased; the other was a 1730 instrument named the “Royal Spanish.” She made good use of both violins; Meyers’s most recent recording, Air: The Bach Album with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Steven Mercurio, features Bach’s solo violin concerti as well as the double concerto with Meyers playing the solo parts on both the “Ex-Molitor/Napoleon” (which Meyers nicknamed “Molly”) and the “Royal Spanish” Strads. The album debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Classical chart and was one of the top-selling classical albums of 2012

The “Vieuxtemps” received its recording debut with Meyers playing when she performed Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, along with Arvo Part’s Passacaglia, accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Lockington. The recording is scheduled to be released next Valentine’s Day.

Meyers has not decided what to do with her two Stradivarius violins. “As I was given lifetime loan of one of the most important violins ever created,” she said in an email, “I am playing on the “Ex-Vieuxtemps” almost exclusively now. I am deciding what to do with the “Royal Spanish” Strad and the “Ex-Molitor/Napoleon” Strad.” Given her statement earlier about instruments in museum cases, one might expect that the two Strads will find their way to other musicians.

Saturday’s concerts mark the second consecutive “debut” concert for Meyers with the PSO; when she appeared in 2010, it was James DePreist’s first concert as the orchestra’s music advisor.

For Meyers, Southern California concerts count as homecoming. Her career began in Southern California (Meyers was born in San Diego). Now age 43, living in Austin, Texas, where she is Distinguished Artist and Professor of Violin at the University of Texas’ Butler School of Music and the mother of a two daughters, Meyers was living with her parents in Ridgecrest at the age of seven when her mother drove her more than three hours each way to Pasadena so Meyers could study with famed teacher Alice Schoenfeld at The Colburn School.

Meyers’ rise in the musical world was meteoric. She appeared twice on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson at age 11, made her Los Angeles Philharmonic debut the same year and a year later soloed with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. At age 23, she was awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, the only artist to be the sole recipient of this annual prize, and embarked on an extensive recording career with RCA Red Seal (at the time one of the most prestigious labels in the industry).
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Hemidemisemiquavers:
• Local violinist Laurie Niles (who also runs an excellent Blog site entitled “Violinist.com”) has two stories on Myers and her “Vieutemps” HERE and HERE
• You can see a YouTube video clip of Myers talking about the violin HERE and that same clip is currently the lead when you click on her Web site HERE.
• Information on Saturday’s Pasadena Symphony concerts is HERE.
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(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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