NEWS AND LINK: James Levine cancels Metropolitan Opera conducting assignments through 2012-2013

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily


The Metropolitan Opera’s convoluted music director situation
became a little clearer Friday — or did it? The Met announced that its
long-time music director, James Levine, will not conduct again at the famed New
York City opera at least until the 2013-14 season as he recovers from a serious
fall, the latest in a series of health setbacks for the 68-year-old Levine who
has been at the Met’s helm since 1976.


In a statement attached to the Met’s media release (LINK),
Levine said, “I do not want to risk having to withdraw from performances after
the [2012-2013] season has been announced and tickets sold. With that in mind,
I have reluctantly decided not to schedule performances until I am certain I
can fulfill such obligations. The Met’s 2012-13 season needs to be finalized,
and the best conductors available must be contracted now. As my condition
improves, I feel confident I will be ready to conduct again soon, but I cannot
risk a premature announcement.”


Fabio Luisi, the Met’s principal conductor, will take over
all of Levine’s remaining assignments for the current season except for
performances of Siegfried on May 9
and Gtterdmerung on May 12.
Conductors for those performances and for a concert by the Met Orchestra on May
20 at Carnegie Hall will be announced shortly.


“As Levine continues his recovery,” the Met release says,
“it is anticipated that he will gradually resumes his other duties as Music
Director including coaching and planning, and artistic leadership of the
Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.”


Is that enough for a music director? Apparently the Met
thinks so in the case of Levine. It seems obvious that the company doesn’t feel
comfortable enough with Luisi to make him the permanent music director and
letting Levine assume some sort of “laureate” relationship. Is Luisi  — who seems to have done well in his
conducting assignments — merely caretaker while the Met searches for a
long-term solution?


Perhaps Levine will fully recover, although based on the
announced timetable, he will be age 70 when he conducts again. Last Friday’s
announcement seems to bring short-term clarity without answering any long-term



(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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Five-Spot: What caught my eye on November 24, 2011

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily



Normally each Thursday morning, I list five events that peak
my interest, including (ideally) at least one with free admission (or, at a minimum,
inexpensive tickets). However, because of the Thanksgiving holidays, I’ve only
found two events — admittedly important ones — for this week’s listing.
However, there are also some upcoming events that are worth adding to your



Tomorrow and
Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles
Philharmonic: Esa-Pekka Salonen returns to the Phil



Whether it’s a case of “absence makes the heart grow fonder”
or the fact that the L.A. Phil always seems to play with extra fervor under the
baton of its former music director, whenever Esa-Pekka Salonen (pictured right) comes “home” to conduct
the LAPO it’s a special occasion. For those new in town or to classical music,
the now-53-year-old Finnish-born Salonen was the Phil’s music director for 17
seasons (1992-2009), the longest tenure among the 11 people to hold the


This weekend is the first of two consecutive Salonen
programs: Beethoven’s Lenore Overture, No.
2 and Piano Concerto No. 2, along with the world premiere of Sirens by Swedish composer Anders


Sirens is scored
for large orchestra, mixed chorus (the Los Angeles Master Chorale), and two
soloists: soprano Hila Plitmann and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. The 30+
minute piece was commissioned by the late Betty Freeman and dedicated both to
her and to the conductor. Salonen has a three-minute video on his Web site
(LINK) where he discusses the work’s genesis and speaks lovingly of Freeman,
who he described as “sorely missed and a great supporter of new music.”


Hilborg writes of the piece: “In Greek mythology, the Sirens were murderous bird-women who used
their voices to lure sailors to their island. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Ulysses orders his crew to
plug their ears and tie him to the mast so he will be able to hear, and
survive, the deadly singing.

The calm sea starts stirring, ghostlike whispers emerge
from the depths, strange fragmented voices agitate the surface. The scene
suddenly clears and the Sirens appear.

The Sirens try to lure Ulysses in numerous ways: they
flatter his ego; they appeal to his mind and soul, promising him they’ll
disclose all the secrets of the world; and they sing seductively, arousing him.

Then the Sirens’ true monstrous identity is revealed, as
their powerful singing transforms into horrendous screaming. The hallucination
dissolves and all reverts back to calm sea, as Ulysses’ vessel sails out of danger.”


Read the complete program note HERE.


Emanuel Ax, a long-time collaborator with both Salonen and
the Phil, will be the soloist in the concerto, which (despite its number) was
actually the first piano concerto that Beethoven composed. Well-known
harpsichordist and conductor Lucinda Carver will deliver a lecture an hour
before each concert.


Concert information:


Friday at 9 p.m. on
PBSSoCal TV (aka KOCE)

Los Angeles Opera’s
production of Daniel Catn’s Il Postino


The PBS series Great
taped the world premiere of Il Postino (The Postman) by Southern California composer Daniel
Catn. Plcido Domingo stars as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Charles Castronovo
sings the title role, and Grant Gerson conducts.


The opera was based on Ardiente
Pacienca (Burning Patience),
a 1985 novella by Antonio Skrmeta,
and the award-winning (and beloved by many) 1994 film, Il Postino, by Michael Radford, but
Catn turned it into his own very special and, as it turned out, final work
(the composer died unexpectedly last April). A link to the laudatory reviews,
including mine, is HERE.


Information (including
a video preview clip):



For the “futures” section of your calendar:


The Metropolitan Opera had originally scheduled two “Live in
HD” telecasts for December: Handel’s Rodelinda,
starring Rene Fleming with Harry Bicket conducting, on Dec. 3; and
Gounod’s Faust, with Jonas Kaufman in
the title role and Yannick Nzet-Sguin conducting a new production, on Dec.


The company has added two “encore” presentations (i.e.,
previously recorded telecasts), both of which are worth attending: Mozart’s The Magic Flute on Wed., Dec. 21 at 6:30
p.m. and Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel
the following evening. There are several things that make these productions

They’re short (Magic
clocks in at 110 minutes and Hansel
and Gretel
runs 123 minutes) as opposed to Rodelinda and Faust, both
of which are more than four hours in length.

They’re both sung in English.

They’re both labeled as “family friendly.” The Magic Flute was staged by Julie Taymor
with the same sort of puppet and fantasy magic that characterized her
production of The Lion King. The
fairy tale setting of Hansel and Gretel is
equally enchanting. Both are great for adults and kids alike.


A couple of added bonuses:

Hansel and Gretel
was one of the last roles (The Witch) for the great English tenor, Philip
Landridge, who died on March 5, 2010 just a few months after this production

The Magic Flute
was conducted by James Levine and it’s no telling how long it will be before we
see the Met’s music director back in the pit (he’s recovering from back


One downside: you’re going to have a hard time finding a
theater locally for Hansel and Gretel, at
least as of this writing. While The Magic
will be shown at the Alhambra Renaissance 14, Covina 17 and Puente
Hills 20, the closest theater (to me) for Hansel
and Gretel
is the Cinemark 14 in Long Beach, which does have the advantage
of being within walking distance of the Metro Blue Line stations at 1st
St. and the Long Beach Transit Mall.





(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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SAME-DAY REVIEW: Met’s “Siegfried” live in HD in theaters

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily



Metropolitan Opera:
Live in HD — Richard Wagner: Siegfried

Saturday, November 5, 2011 Alhambra Renaissance 14 Theater

Encore performance: TBD

Next segment: Gotterdmerng,
telecast on Feb. 11 beginning at 9 a.m. (PST)




For reasons not explained (at least not that I have seen),
the encore performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” telecast of
Wagner’s Siegfried is listed as TBD.
Part of the issue may be finding a time slot in theaters for a 5-hour-plus-long
telecast. But whenever it is, you don’t want to miss it, especially if you’re a
Wagner fan, so keep checking the Met’s Web site (above).


As most opera lovers know, the Met has been unveiling
segments of its new production of Wagner’s four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, over the past
year so, leading to three productions of the entire cycle beginning April 7,
2012 (see the Hemidemisemiquaver


The new production, which replaced a 20-year-old version,
was designed by Canadian Robert LePage and is dominated by an extremely large,
heavy (45 tons, so heavy that the Met had to install three 65-fooot steel
girders to reinforce its stage), complicated and expensive apparatus known by
some as “The Machine,” which uses 24 Fafner-sized metal planks that rotate,
pivot, move up and down, etc. to create sets for the four operas.


As was the case with LA Opera’s Ring cycle a few years ago, things seem to be improving
significantly for the Met’s Ring as
it moves forward, at least based on what I saw at my local movie theater today.
Part of that is due to improvements in the technology, including the addition of
some striking video projections and 3D animation effects. However, those took a
back seat to the music: the Met Orchestra, led by the company’s Principal
Conductor, Fabio Luisi, and the cast, headed by what amounts to a Peggy Sawyer
story (think of the 42nd St. movie)
for American tenor Jay Hunter Morris.


Morris, who hails from Paris, Texas and speaks with a
distinctive drawl (that doesn’t show up when he sings German), replaced Gary
Lehman in the title role eight days before opening night when the latter came
down with an undisclosed illness. Morris wasn’t exactly Sawyer (who stepped
onstage as literally an overnight replacement) and this wasn’t exactly new; he
actually made the same sort of rescue earlier in the year when he replaced Ian
Storey in the same role for San Francisco Opera’s Ring.


Nonetheless, Morris had to get up to speed on a complicated
production, mesh with cast members who were already deep into rehearsal, and
get ready to sing at the Met for the first time (the opening of the telecast showed
him getting lost trying to find the Met cafeteria and exclaiming at the view of
the empty opera house from the orchestra pit).


The first thing to say is that Morris’ youthful good looks
mean that he comes as close to what Wagner imagined for the youthful Siegfried
as probably anyone. In truth, Wagner asked for the impossible; he wanted a
teenager who could sing like an adult heldentenor
for five or so hours, finishing with a duet with a soprano who has been
resting until those climactic moments. You can get one or the other but not
both, but Morris comes pretty darned close to the ideal. His voice doesn’t
quite have that heldentenor ring yet
but it is bright and gleaming. He held his own with Deborah Voigt as Brnnhilde
and sang with lyrical grace whenever possible. Moreover, Morris acted the role
with real sensitivity (as did Voigt) — more on that in a moment.


Perhaps more than anything, today’s telecast was another
potent argument for the validity — and indeed, in some ways, the superiority —
of seeing an opera in the movie theaters. I don’t want to debate the merits of
seeing a production live as opposed to telecast from a sound point of view or
the electricity that can leap between performer and audience in a live house on
the best of days. Nonetheless, those in the theaters enjoyed some visuals that
can’t possibly have been seen from most of the seats in the opera house.


Two examples: When Morris and Voigt were singing their final
35-minute duet, there was a moment when Voigt was lamenting her fate and Morris
gave her a swift — almost infinitesimal — side glance of sympathy (mirth?
pathos?). I doubt anyone in the Met could have seen it. Moreover, I wonder how
many people in the opera house could have seen how the woodbird was “singing”
in synch with soprano Modjca Erdmann (sort of a reverse Milli Vanilli); an
intermission interview revealed that the singer was actually controlling the
animation effect through her voice. Those were just two of many such episodes.


As usual, the intermission features were fascinating,
beginning with the exhilaration being felt by the singers as the came offstage
at the end of each act. A segment on Morris showed him collapsing on a couch in
his dressing room at the end of Act II in dress rehearsal, pulling off the infamous
ring and saying, “Here, take it!” He did the same thing, playfully, to Rene
Fleming, who was the performance hostess, at the end of Act II today. A lengthy
feature on Morris’ rise to this point in his career displayed a great deal of
humanity from the singer — he’s still somewhat in the “don’t pinch me in case I
wake up” mode.


In addition to Morris, the balance of the cast was
excellent. Voigt has gotten snipes in reviews for her singing but I thought she
sounded lustrous today and brought real pathos to the role of the woman who
goes to sleep as a goddess 18 years earlier (as she joked in an interview —
there was an 18-year-gap between when Wagner completed Act II and began Act
III) and wakes up as a mortal. Moreover, she and Morris genuinely seemed
smitten with each other by the final curtain (it doesn’t always happen).


Bryn Terfel sang with impressive majesty as the Wanderer;
he’s clearly a worthy successor to Thomas Stewart and James Morris in the Met’s
Wotan/Wanderer legacy, and if he isn’t then Eric Owens, whose dark bass voice
was perfect for the malevolent Alberich, could be next in line.


Another star was Gerhard Siegel as Mime; he’s sung the role
of Siegfried many times and he has that sort of voice, which was on full
display as he portrayed the scheming dward. Siegel also related in an
intermission that when he was singing in the Met’s 2009 presentation of the Ring, he suffered a heart attack (“The
Met saved my life,” he exclaimed fervently). Hans-Peter Knig boomed darkly as


The Met Orchestra remains one of the marvels of the musical
world; it hasn’t lost a beat under Luisi’s ministrations. The Italian maestro
moved things along briskly — the performance lasted far less than the six hours
that the Met’s Web site had forecast. Luisi also showed a great deal of
sensitivity in accompanying his cast and really let Wagner’s music speak for


Speaking of Fafner, the Met follows in a long tradition of
being unable to come up with a convincing dragon. You’d think with the amount
of money being spent on this production that someone could have created
something more convincing than a head with sharp teeth and a long neck. As I
said, others have failed, as well. The performance did have a bear that made a
brief appearance in Act I, although he looked more cuddly than ferocious.


The video projections on the 24 giant planks were striking
and, in most cases, added to the drama. The video wizards managed to create an
effective stream that, inexplicably, seemed to run through Mimi’s hut/cave and
also added reflections in the water that showed up when Siegfried is wondering
how he can be related to Mime. The projections also created a realistic forest
for Act II, although Fafner’s cave was somewhat indistinguishable.


The real oddities came in Act III. The pulsating prelude was
accompanied by Wotan/Wanderer stirring a lake that eventually dissolved into a
glacier (ask not why). After Siegfried got through the fire surrounding the
rock where Brnnhilde lay asleep (highly effective) he seemed to have trouble
discerning someone lying on the rock; it was difficult to see it in the movie
theater and I suspect might have been even more incomprehensible inside the


All of these are minor quibbles in the grand (5-hour-plus)
scheme of things. As I said, things seem to be looking up for the cycle and, as
was the case in Los Angeles, I suspect that the totality of the Met’s cycle
will be much greater than its individual parts that we’ve seen so far. If
anyone has a few thousand dollars and wants to sponsor me, I’d love to go.




When the Met announced it would begin telecasting operas
into movie theaters, those of us on the West Coast joked that people might come
in their pajamas. That certainly was possible today with a 9 a.m. start time
but a good-sized crowd showed up at the Alhambra Renaissance 14 Theater.

Considering the kvetching that occurred when LA Opera ran
its cycles over a nine-day cycle (the traditional cycle — i.e., Bayreuth —
usually takes six days), it’s interesting to note that the first of the Met’s
cycles begins April 7 and ends April 24, while the second and third cycles
stretch over eight days each.

Although James Levine is currently listed as the conductor
for 2012 Ring cycles, Fabio Luisi
will be conducting the performances of Gotterdmerng,
which begin January 27 (the theater telecast is slated for Feb. 11) while
Levine continues to recuperate from back surgery. Stories printed yesterday
said that a decision on whether Levine would conduct the cycles would be made
within the next two months.

Casts announced for the cycles also involve some
interesting changes. Gary Lehman, who was replaced by Jay Hunter Morris for
this Siegfried and the
January-February Gotterdmerng, is
currently slated to sing the roles in the cycles. Seems a little unfair for
Morris. Meanwhile, Deborah Voigt will be alternating roles with Swedish
Katarina Dalayman in the three cycles.

Morris was replacing Lehman who replaced Ben Heffner, who
pulled out in February. That eventually set off a set of musical chairs that
involves San Diego Opera’s production of Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick. Read about it HERE.



(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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Five-Spot: What caught my eye on November 3, 2011

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily



Each Thursday morning, I list five events (actually six this
week) that peak my interest, including (ideally) at least one with free
admission (or, at a minimum, inexpensive tickets). And this doesn’t count the
Metropolitan Opera’s HD telecast of Siegfried
on Saturday beginning at 9 a.m. at theaters in the area — be forewarned:
the running time is approximately six hours! (LINK).

Here’s today’s grouping:



Tomorrow at 11 a.m.,
Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Los Angeles
Philharmonic. James Conlon, conductor; Yuja Wang, pianist

Much of the attention will, undoubtedly, be focused on what
the young Chinese pianist will wear (she of the “little orange dress” notoriety
LINK) but the real story should be a wonderfully constructed
program — Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Prokofiev’s
Piano Concerto No. 3 and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 — led by LA Opera Music
Director James Conlon with Wang as soloist. Tip: if you’ve never attended a
morning L.A. Phil concert, this would be a great time to try it out, but check
for ticket availability. Info:


Tomorrow at 8 p.m.
at Alex Theatre (Glendale) and Sunday at 7 p.m. at Royce Hall (UCLA)

Los Angeles Chamber
Orchestra plays Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti

The six Bach Brandenburg Concerti are about as far away from
Prokofiev’s 3rd (above) as you can get, but Bach’s famous sextet is
indelibly linked with LACO — this will be the 51st time that the
orchestra has played all or some of the pieces. Concertmaster Margaret Batjer
will lead the performance from her first-chair position. Info:


Sunday at 2 p.m. at
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Los Angeles Opera’s Romeo et Juliette

LAO brings back its
Ian Judge-created production of Gounod’s take on Shakespeare’s tale of
star-crossed lovers. Tenor Vittorio Grigolo and soprano Nino
sing the title roles; Plcido Domingo conducts. A Los Angeles Times story on the young
soprano is HERE and and of Brian’s nifty “10 Questions” posts in Out West Arts on Grigolo is HERE.


Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Lang Lang in recital

What caught my eye about this concert was the program, which
begins with Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat, continues with Schubert’s Sonata in
B-flat, and Chopin’s 12 Etudes, Op. 25 — three pieces of distinctly contrasting
styles that should be fascinating in the hands and mind of the young Chinese
pianist (this is obviously a weekend for young Chinese pianists). Info:


Monday at 7 p.m. at
Castle Press (Pasadena)

Muse-ique stops the

Worby continues her penchant in Muse-ique’s first year of presenting programs
in unusual sites — in this case, the Doric String Quartet making its Los
Angeles debut amid stacks of paper and the printing presses of this north
Pasadena establishment (the musicians will be standing on the press while the
audience will sit on other presses and rolls of paper).


featured work on the evening will be a new string quartet by Southern
California native Peter Knell that the composer and Worby will discuss and the
Doric Quartet (which took first prize in the 2008 Osaka International Chamber
Music Competition) will play. The evening will also contain movements from
quartets by Haydn, Schubert and Bartok, and — given that Worby is in charge —
there’s sure to be a surprise or two. Info:


And the weekend’s “free admission” program …


Friday at 8 p.m. at
Pasadena Nazarene Church

Pasadena Community
Orchestra with Suzanna Guzmn as soloist

Music Director Alan Reinecke conducts a program that
features one of the nation’s finest mezzo-sopranos, Suzanna Guzmn, as soloist
in Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer. The
program also features music by Bartok, Howard Hanson, Prokofiev and Ralph Vaughan
Williams. Info:



(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.



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AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: L.A. Phil, Met Opera return to movie theater screens

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily

A shorter version of this
article was first published today in the above papers.


One of the more intriguing classical music developments of
the 21st century — live telecasts of programs to movie theaters —
resumes this month as both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera
begin their new telecast seasons during the next fortnight and others join the


The Met began beaming live Saturday performances into movie
theaters five years ago. The concept has been a resounding success and
continues to grow as the 11 telecasts this season will be sent to 1,600
theaters in 54 countries, with Russia, Israel, China and four other countries
and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands joining the stable this year.


Meanwhile, the L.A. Philharmonic will open the second season
of its “LA Phil Live” series next Sunday at 2 p.m. (local time), with Music
Director Gustavo Dudamel conducting the first of three concerts broadcast from
Walt Disney Concert Hall. The program is all-Mendelssohn: the Hebrides Overture, Symphony No. 3 (Scottish) and the Violin Concerto, with
the brilliant young Dutch violinist Janine Jansen as soloist. As was the case
last year, the telecast will include interviews with Dudamel and the soloist,
rehearsal footage and the concert itself. The other concerts in the series will
be on Saturday — not Sunday — Feb. 18, a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8
(Symphony of a Thousand) telecast
from Caracas, and a Spring 2012 date TBA — (More info on the series HERE)


While questions remain about the viability of orchestra
concert telecasts both in terms of the programming quality and ticket sales,
the Met telecasts have grown in sophistication and and the venture has become a
significant income stream for the Met (the number reported in one article was
$8 million for last season).


The Met: Live in HD
season opens Oct. 15 with a telecast of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena with Anna Netrebko in the title role joined by her
Russian colleagues, Ekaterina Gubanova as Jane Seymour and Ildar Abdrazakov as
Enrico (Henry VIII). Marco Armilato conducts this new production, which opened
the Met’s 2011-2012 season. A repeat telecast will be shown on Nov. 2.


The second telecast is a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni on Oct. 29 with an “encore
performance” on Nov. 16. Mariusz Kwiecien sings the title role. Fabrio Luisi,
the Met’s newly named principal conductor, will be in the pit.


This was one of the productions that Music Director James
Levine was supposed to conduct before he fell in Vermont in August and
underwent emergency surgery. Luisi, who had previously been the Met’s principal
guest conductor, was promoted to principal conductor and will step in to
conduct Don Giovanni and other
productions this fall, which has caused major scheduling headaches for
organizations from Vienna and Rome to San Francisco and Los Angeles (LA Opera
Music Director James Conlon agreed to step in and conduct performances of
Verdi’s Requiem with the San Francisco Symphony next month). Click HERE for
Daniel J. Wakin’s article in the New York


BTW: in a change from last season, most Met telecasts will
begin at 9:55 a.m. Pacific Time. Repeat telecasts of each program are usual
shown about two weeks later.


Another entry into the telecast market will come on Oct. 22
(the bicentennial of Franz Liszt’s birth) at 8 p.m. (local time) when Charles
Dutoit leads the Philadelphia Orchestra in a concert that includes Chinese
pianist Lang Lang as soloist in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1. This is a tape
delay of a telecast from earlier that day and will be repeated on Oct. 24.


The program will also include Lang Lang segments from the
2011 iTunes Festival in London, including interviews, commentary, and musical
performances. However, the telecast will not include Shostakovich’s Symphony
No. 10, which will be performed in Philadelphia but not shown as part of the


Details on all of these telecasts can be found HERE.



(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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