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To Be Out of Control is to be In Control

June 3,2017


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The Summer Season has arrived and while most conductors rummage through their closets to find their white jackets, I dust off my golf clubs and head to the range!  Having grown up in North Carolina, I held my first golf club at about the time I started piano lessons.  My parents bribed me to go through orthodontic treatment by giving me a series of lessons with Ernie Edwards, the PGA professional at Starmount Country Club, and I have enjoyed the game to varying degrees of success ever since.  My winter season is so intense that I need the release of a summer virtually away from music to recharge my batteries.  This was a method I learned from a teacher of my teacher, Marcel Tabuteau who used to put his oboe in the refrigerator and go fishing for the summer after the Philadelphia Orchestra ended its season.

This GOLF SEASON started with a huge boost, a day long visit with David Armitage at the McLean golf School at the Miami Beach Golf Club.  Barb had a tax seminar in Miami and I went along for the ride.  I literally spent 7 hours with this amazing (and patient!) teacher, working on most aspects of my game.  I came away with any number of things to improve and the results have been most discernable (as in an average of 10 strokes off my score after the several rounds that I have played since this experience). 

But one thing David emphasized that I quickly equated to my conducting style was the notion that to be out of control is to be in control.  I have a habit of trying to control every aspect of my swing, when only the first 18 inches of the takeaway are crucial.  From there one really should relax tension and “release.”  As we worked on that concept, I recalled an audition I had lost because the orchestra felt I was trying to control their every move.  Karajan once suggested that conducting a great orchestra is like flying a sophisticated aircraft, “the less you do to disturb it, the better.”  And, apparently, the more one relies on freedom and inertia with one’s golf swing, the better!

“To be out of control is to be in control.”  I like that!  Now I am off to the range to practice

A dip in the Lake

April 10,2017

Tchaikovsky’s epic ballet, Swan Lake, is a Mt. Everest of sorts for any ballet company, and certainly for the conductor. It is the quintessential ballet in most minds, as it is the representative work in the art form for most people. Natalie Portman made if famous in the movies, and its tunes have been used in motion pictures, television, etc. for decades. The piece had a somewhat checkered beginning, and Tchaikovsky was never able to finish the score to his satisfaction. Most productions are based on the original (or subsequent) Petipa (the original choreographer) traditions, but then take on the vision of the contemporary choreographer. Such was indeed the case in Tulsa in March when I experienced my first voyage through the piece. TB Artistic Director Marcello Angelini brought the piece to life as the vivid spectacle that it can be, pitting good vs. evil in the main characters against a backdrop of a corps of beautifully portrayed swans. Marcello’s uncanny ability as a human metronome is legendary, but I managed to get a nod of approval at the end of the run. The score is massive with many nuances in tempo that must be hit in order to serve the stage. The Tulsa Symphony performed it brilliantly! The month of March ended with a visit from Alexander Schimpf, a recent winner of the Cleveland International Piano Competition. Alex was in town to present a recital and masterclass at Otterbein University, and Barb and I were delighted to host him in our home. Alex is an amazing performer, possessing a facile technique and superb musicianship, and his Beethoven/Brahms/Schubert/Schumann recital did not disappoint. I hope to partner with him again in Springfield in the not-too-distant future. He even gave our Steinway M a workout! April started with my most challenging week of the season, and three different programs with the Columbus Symphony. A Young Peoples’ Concert for middle school and high school students also featured the CSO’s annual concerto competition winner. We then offered a Happy Hour Concert that featured my friend Gavin George, regional phenom who has appeared with the Westerville Symphony. I am not sure why this series does not fair more favorably with the public. While we had 750 in attendance, the concert is free and we offer free food! A sad commentary on the state of the art in Columbus, I am afraid. My week ended with my fifth visit with the artists of Cirque de la Symphonie, a troupe of acrobatic artists who perform with the orchestra performing an array of light classical works. Always a fun trip, and this was with a number of artists that were new to me. Now it is on to a production of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet with BalletMet Columbus. Sure to be a fun and emotional time!

New Works and Old Friends

March 8,2017

Building a new ballet from vision to performance is something I had never experienced until recently at the Tulsa Ballet. As a part of the Company’s 60th anniversary season, Artistic Director Marcello Angelini commissioned choreographer Edwaard Liang to create a new full length storybook piece, and he chose the 14th book of L. Frank Baum’s classic tales of OZ. Dorothy and the Prince of OZ tells the story of Dorothy’s return to the Emerald City to avert war between King Sapphire and Queen Diamond and in the midst of her diplomacy, she falls in love with their son. The show is visually stunning with sets and puppets by Basil Twist (who served a creative role in the Harry Potter movies), computer projections by Daniel Brodie, and gorgeous costumes by Mark Zappone. The score was a compilation of works by Grieg, Glazanov, Bartok, and some original music by Oliver Peter Graber. Alas, it was adjusted in rehearsal to created needed material and clearly serves the story while sometimes sacrificing musical cohesion. But the overall affect was amazing. To watch the entire process unfold was fascinating. Truthfully, we handed the last edits to the orchestra as they arrived for the opening night performance! And there are further adjustments that I will make before the piece sees its second staging in May or 2018 by BalletMet Columbus (who co-produced the work with the Tulsa Ballet). Another new work I enjoyed revealing was at the Westerville Symphony’s annual event, Tunes-n-Tales. This collaboration with the Westerville Public Library brings together a popular children’s book and a chamber orchestra with music either arranged or composed for the performances. This year the book was Thacher Hurd’s Mama Don’t Allow, and I chose music from Shostakovich and Weill to interweave with the story. David Frost’s arrangement of the title song had the audience rocking! Another week of In-School concerts with the Columbus Symphony was followed by a wonderful reunion with violinist Lindsay Deutsch. Lindsay appeared with the Springfield Symphony performing John Corigliano’s Chaccone from the Red Violin and Alexander Courage’s Fantasy on themes from Progy and Bess. Lindsay was very generous with her time as she also did a mini recital/meet and greet at Temple Shalom and had an inspiring visit with the Springfield Youth Symphony. Lindsay and I also hatched plans for her return to central Ohio and the Westerville Symphony next season. I hope it will come to pass. Now I am back to Tulsa and my first Swan Lake. Let’s hope I don’t drown!

January 2017

February 3,2017

January can be a dull month, but not so this year! Having led 12 performances of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker with the Tulsa Ballet and BalletMet Columbus, I enjoyed a week of travel to see family and friends before ringing in the New Year quietly at home with Barb in Columbus. Early January saw a masterworks concert in Springfield with violist Nogathula Ngwhenyama. Thula and I had a marvelous time with the Cassadesus Concerto in the style of Handel, a piece with baroque vocabulary despite its 20th century derivation. I think such works do have a legitimate place in the repertoire and was delighted to share it alongside the masterpieces of Bach, Lully, and Handel. I often joke that there is nothing more useless than a conductor on a baroque program, as the real work is done weeks in advance as we prepare the materials. Baroque composers left so much of the interpretive aspects of music (dynamics, phrasings, even tempi in some cases) up to the performer, so many decisions must be made. Preparing thorough and concise materials is always the challenge in such an event, and the key to success, particularly with an orchestra that does not specialize in this style. A series of in-school concerts with the Columbus Symphony was next on the schedule. I have enjoyed designing a program over the years that we take into Columbus City Schools elementary buildings. The full orchestra travels to several schools throughout the year, and the students sing along with the Orchestra. We also invite the beginning string students to play a piece or two with the orchestra. The kids feel like rock stars in front of their peers, and champion the string program that still exists in this urban district. I was able to re-connect with the cast of Disney in Concert Tale as Old as Time with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic in late January. It was great to work with these fabulous singers again, and I was quite impressed that the OKC Phil managed to fill three houses (in a 2500 seat venue) for the show. And, a reception with their young professionals group was a fun, energized event. Now I am off to Tulsa and the world premiere of Edwaard Liang’s new ballet, Dorothy and the Prince of OZ. This promises to be a lively experience!

Onegin

November 1,2016

I recently performed Onegin with the Tulsa Ballet to great success. I was not familiar with the work, but it is a stunning setting of the Alexander Pushkin novel in verse, Yevgeny Onegin. The piece is choreographed by John Cranko, and the Cranko Trust is quite selective in licensing performance rights to the work. In the USA, only the American Ballet Theater, Boston, San Francisco, and Houston companies have staged it, and now Tulsa joins their ranks, again testimony to the quality of this amazing troupe. The Trust assigns a stager and designer to oversee the production so that Cranko’s wishes are precisely followed. The Stager, Jane Bourne, spent six weeks in Tulsa bringing the work to life. I was familiar with the Cranko/Stolze duo from our Tulsa performances last season of Taming of the Shrew, a show that, while amusing and extremely enjoyable to watch, is fiendishly difficult to play and conduct. So, I approached this assignment with a little fear and trepidation. The score is the music of Tchaikovsky, but not composed with the story in mind. Cranko worked with composer Kurt Heinz Stolze to develop the score that is entirely music of Tchaikovsky, but none of it being derived from the opera Tchaikovsky wrote based in the same subject. In fact, Cranko couldn’t sell the idea in London or Paris given the existence of the Opera, and it was not until he assumed leadership of the Stuttgart Ballet that he was allowed to fulfill his vision in 1965. Stolze used several existing orchestral works for the piece, some of Tchaikovsky’s tone poems, most notably the Tempest, Voyavoda, and Francesca da Rimini. The majority of the musical material, however, comes from Tchaikovsky’s piano music, which was orchestrated by Stolze. While there are some orchestration issues, and the need to make some adjustments for balance, overall the score is stunning. It is cohesive in its design and the melodies are vintage Tchaikovsky. The story is extremely accessible, even to the novice ballet aficionado. The experience was much like discovering a neglected or unknown work by a great master. I hope I have the opportunity to perform it again!

Remembering Robert Shaw

May 10,2016

The music world remembered an icon recently as it marked the 100th anniversary of the birth or noted conductor Robert Shaw.  The Atlanta Symphony marked the occasion with an appearance at Carnegie Hall, and Georgia Public Broadcasting released a new video, Man of Many Voices, which incidentally was produced by an acquaintance, Kikki Wilson (no relation!).  Carnegie Hall has recently re-released its series of videos, created in the 1990’s called Preparing a Masterpiece

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42diMGHG_Z0

In these fascinating films, Shaw explored several iconic choral scores and his style, his phenomenal ear, his unique techniques, his wit, his amazing command of the English language are all beautifully documented.  Eight volumes traverse Elijah, the Brahms Requiem, Britten’s War Requiem, music of Verdi, Hindemith, and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis  all with choruses who came together from all over the country just for the unique experience.  The results were stunning.

I had the fortune of working with Mr. Shaw back in the 1970’s, attending his rehearsals for the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, Berlioz Requiem, and the Brahms Requiem.  His emphasis on each element, rhythm, text, pitch all are meticulously pursued individually as the music is almost dissected and then reconstructed.  The “count-singing,” his technique of achieving rhythmic precision has been borrowed by countless conductors. 

He allowed me to borrow his score to the Beethoven Ninth, and I was astonished at the meticulous way he marked.   Likewise his editings of the choral score, creating a edition all his own, create an extraordinary historical document of this amazing mind.  He commented that he wished he could start over every time he conducted a piece with a new score, a new set of parts, a clean slate.

 

It was his particularity.

Remembering Louis and more

March 7,2016

With the passing recently of one of my teachers, Louis Lane, I am yet again reminded of my own mortality. I had the pleasure of knowing Mr. Lane during my time at CCM while he was leading the Dallas Symphony and teaching at the Conservatory. His longtime association with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra was most likely the highpoint of his career, although his leadership of the Atlanta Symphony with Robert Shaw, his time in Dallas, and his tenure in South Africa made him a formidable conductor who never really achieved a post commensurate with his gifts. Louis and I stayed in touch until the last decade of his life, and for that hiatus I am remiss. He was an enormously gifted musician and teacher. There are several scores I studied with him, Debussy Faune, Copland Appalachian Spring, Tchaikovsky 5, all come to mind, that to this day mark the detailed approach to study that he practiced and demanded.

Louis’ death at 92 reminds me of my mortality, yes, but it also points to the longevity that conductors often enjoy. They say conducting is an excellent form of upper body aerobic exercise. Here are some interesting facts: Conductors, their attained age at death, and the cause:

Gustav Mahler 51 infectious myocarditis

Wilhelm Furtwangler 58 pneumonia

Dimitri Mitropoulos 64 heart attack

Leonard Bernstein 72 progressive lung failure

Fritz Reiner 75 heart attack

Herbert von Karajan 81 heart attack

Sir Thomas Beecham 82 stroke

Sir George Solti 85 heart failure

Bruno Walter 86 heart attack

Arturo Toscanini 90 stroke

Carlo Maria Giulini 91 not specified, but presumably heart failure

Leopold Stokowski 95 heart attack

I recently started wearing a Fitbit monitor during rehearsals, but find that the device equates conducting with running, so it thinks I am far more fit than I am. But I am convinced that the mental demands of conducting, the inquisitive joy of studying, and, yes, the physical gyrations do prolong one’s life. Let’s hope! For I am now, finally, figuring out what the questions are!

2015 Year in Review

December 31,2015

The end of an old calendar year always seems to be replete with review and reflection, and my own personal exercise of this practice reveals that 2015 has been among the most meaningful years of my career!  So many milestones and accolades have come my way!

A few of the highlights:

  • First and foremost, I celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary with the love of my life, Barbara Karam Wilson. Barb continues to serve White Castle System, having enjoyed a promotion to Tax Manager this year.

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  • My Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra had its debut performance at Carnegie Hall.  This was also my first performance in the venue, a collaborative effort with the Cincinnati Youth Symphony.  A sizeable and enthusiastic audience enjoyed an outstanding performance, and I was able to renew my acquaintance with composer Lowell Liebermann whose work I programmed.

 https://scontent-ord1-1.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-xlp1/v/t1.0-0/p206x206/11329782_10153680363441487_485542065758299346_n.jpg?oh=51c538dff7d2e1336bad10dbeacaa327&oe=57138F1E https://scontent-ord1-1.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-xpt1/v/t1.0-9/10291217_1664114120474565_4373792922813298939_n.jpg?oh=d59787d1fbdf95eb1d88d53e81dbd245&oe=570A4149

 

  • I marked twenty-five years of service to the Columbus Symphony Orchestra.  While my appearance at the CSO’s annual Picnic with the Pops series was its usual quasi-rainout, I was surprised with a stunning video tribute and a warm reception that allowed me to connect with any number of old friends.

https://scontent-ord1-1.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-xfp1/v/t1.0-9/11028015_10206191779584825_8471575549951405297_n.jpg?oh=a427b612625467d348451d70d3ced261&oe=57212AE2

 

  • I traversed several monumental scores for the first time:
  • Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty with the Tulsa Ballet, truly a pinnacle for ballet conductors
  • Mahler Symphony No. 2 with the Springfield Symphony
  • National attention was drawn to the Westerville Symphony as we embraced head-on the presence of social media in the concert hall
  • I played a round of golf at the Double Eagle Golf Club, one of the most elite and challenging in central Ohio.  And in preparation, I enjoyed several intense lessons from my coach, Chris Miller at the Medallion Club.

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  • I survived 15 performances of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker with BalletMet Columbus at the Detroit Opera House and with the Tulsa Ballet (including the annual snow drop).

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  • My friend Cabot Rea retired from broadcasting after 30 years of service to the NBC affiliate in Columbus.
  • Barb and I managed to squeeze in a little vacation in LA with Barb’s brother, and were lucky enough to score tickets to see Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.  Very talented, iconic duo.  Also paid a visit to the Reagan Library where Air Force One is a major attraction.

 

 

All in all, a great year, full of wonderful music, great friends, love, and happiness.  But the world seems ever more turbulent and cries out for the harmony that music provides. So my work is just beginning!  Here’s to 2016 and all the opportunities it brings!

Concerts in the 21st Century

October 27,2015

Recently, the Westerville Symphony received a grant from PNC Arts Alive which enabled us to create a concert experience that invited social media into the concert hall. Through a live twitter feed projected over the orchestra, the audience was invited to tweet about the concert while it was taking place. A live internet stream of the performance further expanded our audience reach, and, according to the twitter activity, we had viewers from throughout the US and Europe. PNC’s grant enabled us to promote the event and purchase the necessary hardware and licensure to carry it off. Staffing was handled by our own tech-saavy Executive Director, Sean Brewster.. For the event, I programmed the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition and invited Gavin George to perform the First Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto. Gavin is a prodigious talent of twelve who lives in Granville, OH, and has recently signed with Opus 3 Artists. His popularity, his youth, and his gregarious personality made him a perfect player in this experiment. The musicians of the Orchestra as well were tremendous sports, and helped to generate buzz about the event through their own social media outlets. The Orchestra is a unique paradigm of Otterbein University students, regional amateur musicians, and semi-professional musicians, so labor obligations triggered by the electronic media presence were not an obstacle. The audience was given a quick tutorial (and reminded to silence their devices) from the stage, with very few limitations about how and when to tweet their comments. We had tried to invite “tweeters” to sit in a particular section of the audience (we employ general seating), but I think the participants scattered themselves throughout the hall. There is no denying that social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., are now integral parts of our daily lives. Few of us, at any age, are completely immune to the presence. Social media are more and more the conduit for news, social commentary, marketing, and communication. If the arts are to flourish in this new era, then ways to utilize these media are both lucrative and vital for our survival. I do worry, at times, about the invasive presence of YouTube. Intellectual property seems to be a thing of the past, as events are shared, in many cases, without regard to approval of the artists. But we’ll save that discussion for another installment of “Between the lines.” Our primary concern in creating the Westerville Symphony experiment was to not interfere with the concert experience, but rather, enhance it by creating an access point that usually is avoided. Great care was taken in placement of the screen projecting the feed so that it would not distract the musicians, particularly the soloist, nor intrude on those who wished to experience the concert in a traditional fashion. We monitored the feed so that relevant discussion was shared. The local classical music radio outlet, WOSU media’s Classical 101 tweeted commentary about the music in real time, relaying informative insight with regard to architecture of the piece, programmatic content, etc. I got involved with tweets about the pre-concert rituals, backstage activity, etc. Our soloist, likewise, shared some thoughts. The event was a great success. While we did have a little negative feedback from a few die-hard traditional concert enthusiasts, overwhelming majority of the response has been highly positive. I feel that we made younger concertgoers feel a sense of involvement that they may not typically enjoy at a symphony concert. Society is evolving at a furiously fast pace, andwe must experiment and then implement new concepts in access and service that make the art form we practice as relevant,synergetic, and inclusive to its public as it can b

Remembering Schippers

May 18,2015

I happened to hear a recording the other day of one of my teachers, Thomas Schippers, leading the New York Philharmonic, and it brought back a flood of memories.

I focused on conducting very early in my musical career, and my sights were firmly set when I entered the College-Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati.  One of the reasons that I chose CCM was its proximity to a great orchestra and a great conductor.  I was able to hear the Cincinnati Symphony on a weekly basis and struck up an acquaintance with then music director Thomas Schippers quite early in my freshman year.  While he didn’t teach, per se, the Conservatory enticed him into leading the graduate seminar in conducting, and I weaseled my way into that class with his blessing (and you can imagine the disdain of the academicians).  I attended as many rehearsals as I could, and eventually gained his attention sufficiently to enjoy a few one-on-one discussions.  I remember one Sunday morning lesson at his home where I enjoyed coffee with Tommy, Sam Barber, and Gian Carlo Menotti!  I often wish I could re-live that hour now that I know what the questions are!

 Upon my graduation from CCM, Tommy secured an appointment for me at L’Academia Santa Cecilia in Rome to study with renowned conducting pedagogue Franco Ferrara.  Tommy had recently been named music director of the orchestra there, but he developed a mysterious illness and began cancelling engagements due to his health.  He ultimately passed away on December 16,1977.  His ashes are interred at the Duomo in Spoleto Italy, home of the Festival that he helped to found with Menotti and Barber.

 

In looking back on the scenario, I sometimes wonder if Schippers wasn’t one of the first cases of AIDS. The doctors never really definitively diagnosed his problems, chalking it up to some rare form of lung cancer.

At any rate, we lost an amazing musician and conductor that day.  In fact, I think, had he lived, Thomas Schippers would be the pre-eminent American conductor today (he would be in his 80’s now). He had an extraordinarily fluid technique, an innate musicianship, and a keen ear, and he empowered the orchestra to play far above its means.  One could watch their development on a weekly basis, and the CSO was often referred to at the time as the most European of all American orchestras.

I am so fortunate to have spent some time with him! 

 

Serving Many Masters

January 26,2015

An interesting debate has developed regarding the ultimate musical responsibility of the ballet conductor.  Should the conductor’s primary allegiance be to the choreography or the composer? And to what extent should one be influenced by the other?

The following review of the Mariinsky Theater’s recent BAM residency takes Maestro Gergiev to task for his apparent overriding adherence to Tchaikovsky’s amazing score:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/17/arts/dance/mariinskys-swan-lake-at-brooklyn-academy-of-music.html?emc=eta1

And Joe Horowitz makes a very compelling case for defense of the poor composer:

http://www.artsjournal.com/uq/2015/01/what-are-ballet-conductors-for.html

Both, I feel are valid points.  With both pieces in discussion, the composer created the score for a specific production and choreographic concept.  But through the years, new choreographers have brought their own creative ideas to the music and “adapted” architecture and tempi  to suit their own ideas.  One need only look at Tchaikovsky’s much abused Nutcracker to see  a wide swing of tempo variation, arrangement of musical numbers, and cost saving cuts in the orchestration.

I am often reminded of a lesson I had with Aaron Copland back in the late 70’s. He admonished me to follow my own heart and musical intellect, and he insisted that he as a composer learned more about him music from other conductors’ interpretations.  Most composers today would agree that even a haphazard performance is superior to the notion that their musical statements simply collect dust on a library shelf.

A score created for a story told through dance is defined by the dance.  Petipa had detailed instructions for Tchaikovsky as he set out to compose for their collaborations.  Yet it was Stravinsky who developed the scenario for Le Sacre du Printemps, and his frustration with Niijinksy’s choreography is legendary.

A conductor does, however, have certain responsibility to all entities, the composer, the choreographer, and the dancers.  My friend, Geoffrey Fallon authored the following article detailing that third responsibility:

http://www.danceus.org/ballet/ballet-conductors-enhance-the-artistic-dance-experience/

Joe Horowitz also brings up an interesting subject as well, the size of the pit orchestra as it tries to do justice to the lush scores of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.  This is the subject for yet more debate, as most American theaters (outside the major markets) have limited space (and budgets!) to support the orchestral forces.  Gone are the days of a fully staffed Nutcracker, and even Stravinsky grudgingly sanctioned a reduction of Petrouchka.   Yet again, I contend that a live performance of any configuration is superior to a canned performance.

 

 

TWISTED - Something totally new!

September 29, 2014

I have just completed one of the more intriguing projects in recent memory.  Twisted was an event planned to celebrate the season opening of BalletMet Columbus, Opera Columbus, and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

Almost a year in the making, this program consisted of favorite opera arias, choruses, and symphonic interludes.  Majority of the music involved singers, but the twist was that they were then choreographed for the dancers (and singers).  Val Caniparoli, Ma Cong, Edwaard Liang, and Jimmy Orante set these pieces without regard to the actual plot line of the operas represented.  What emerged was a fresh, new take on very familiar tunes.  High points for me were Val’s setting of the Storm scene from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Ma’s setting of the Habanera from Carmen, and Jimmy’s interpretation of the farcical sextet from Cenerentola.  Most stunning was a highly charged setting of Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5 which Edwaard set.

Logistically, the performance was a challenge, as the Orchestra was upstage of the dancers/singers.  I followed the action by virtue of a video monitor, and the singers were able to follow me on monitors mounted on the balcony rail.  Luckily, I had participated in several weeks of rehearsals with the company in studio before adding the Orchestra to the mix, so the process was as seamless as it could be.

The whole thing came together extremely well.  The Orchestra, returning from a six week vacation, was primed and ready.  The singers were extremely versatile and anxious to please.  The dancers relished in the presence of live music, something all too rare, I’m afraid, for BalletMet.  We all checked our egos at the door, and created something new.

At a time when funding, both developed and earned, is critical, collaborative events like this are essential to our collective survival.  If arts institutions are to survive, they MUST synergistically embrace their peers and create new and exciting art.

This certainly was the dawn of a new era for the performing arts in Columbus.  Let’s hope it is sustained!

http://www.dispatch.com/content/pages/video.html?video=/videos/2014/09/24/twisted-fuses-opera-ballet-and-orchestra-.xml

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=AirrlDvEne0

Looking Back

May, 2014

My usual habit is to look forward, always excited to move on to the next wonderful musical opportunity.  But at this time of year, with the closing of another winter concert season, I cannot help but reflect on the past with its plethora of successes.

The 2013-2014 season afforded me 36 performances of 22 different programs. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • The season began in September with a trip through Mozart’s amazing Gran Partita Serenade.  Made famous by the opening scene of Amadeus (where Salieri delivers that riveting monologue exposing his deep jealousy of Mozart’s genius masquerading as simplicity).  The wind players of the Westerville Symphony outdid themselves with this extraordinary piece.
  • Alicia Hui, Principal Second Violin for the Columbus Symphony joined the Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra for a soulful reading of the Bruch Scottish Fantasy.  This music comes from my ancestral heritage, and I never traverse this score without a rush of emotion, and Alicia more than did justice to the music.
  • Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony and the 3rd Piano Concerto of Rachmaninoff opened the season for the Springfield Symphony with some of the most focused, pristine playing by that ensemble in recent memory.  The Mendelssohn positively sizzled, and Rachmaninoff (my first trip through that score) was amazing.  Spencer Meyer was the soloist, and did a tremendous job with this complex score.
  • The Springfield Symphony took on a project in November that truly embraced its mission of being relevant to its community.  We created an experience that commemorated the Civil War with particular emphasis on the African American involvement not only as that catalyst of slavery but the direct involvement of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment.  A house prominent in the Underground Railroad network still stands in Springfield, and several residents of our community at the time enlisted in the Mass 54th.  Not only did we create a musical celebration, but commissioned our partners at The Now Device to create a multi-media visual presentation. The result was a performance that still has the Community buzzing.
  • The Holidays saw an opportunity to conduct two different versions of The Nutcracker.  The Tulsa Ballet uses Marcello Angelini’s version, and BalletMet Columbus ( for whom I conducted on their annual tour to Detroit) uses Gerard Charles’ choreography.  They are just different enough to resemble two different pieces.  Gerhard’s is traditional, Marcello’s is more adventurous, adding music from other sources.  Both are wonderful, but shifting gears between the two is a bit stressful.
  • While on the subject of ballet, I had a chance to conduct Ben Stevenson’s setting of Prokofiev’s Cinderella in Tulsa this season.  This must be one of the greatest scores of the 20th century.  The production was beautiful and the experience exhilarating, despite a few “discussions” with the Artistic Director over tempi.
  • The season saw two memorable experiences with the Westerville Symphony as well.  In March we collaborated with New York composer John Deak on a program highlighting humor in music. The concept was part of a festival at Otterbein University, and it proved to be a huge success!  But perhaps the highlight of the season for me was a performance of Ralph Vaughan-Williams  Sea Symphony.  This piece doesn’t come around often, so needless to say, it was my first performance of the work.  Its complexity is enormous, but the time in learning and rehearsing the piece was well worth the effort.  The combined choruses of Otterbein, the soloists, and the Orchestra tackled the project with amazing focus and dedication.  What a wonderful way to close a tremendous season!

Now, I must study for next year!

Columbus Symphony Side by Side

April 16,2014

I recently collaborated with my colleagues at the Columbus Symphony Orchestra on a side-by-side experience that brought gifted amateur musicians together with the full-time members of the CSO.  The vision was to invite townsfolk who had significant musical experience, most likely from another era, to dust off their chops and enjoy an evening of music making with the professionals of the Columbus Symphony.  They paid for the privilege, of course, but the plan for the first installment was simply to break even with income matching the expenses of the hall rental and associated support staff.  The conductor happily donated his time to this worthwhile cause.

Like any first rehearsal with an unfamiliar orchestra, I approached this like a blind date.  I had no idea what level of proficiency I would find.  My colleagues at the CSO are used to this sort of activity, in that they regularly staff a side-by-side mentoring event with our Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra, but working with adults was uncharted territory for all of us.  The participants from the community had detailed their experience in applying for the opportunity, so we had some idea of level of expertise, but we had no idea if they had kept their skills honed, or were truly dusting off the instrument for the first time in decades.  They were supplied with music in advance of the event (Beethoven Symphony No. 5 (mvt. IV); Dvorak Symphony No. 8 (Mvt. IV); Sibelius Finlandia; Brahms Hungarian Dances 5 and 6), and we held our breath.  I intended to work on details and then “perform” each work with a reading.

I was delighted to re-connect with several former Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra members at the event, and met many school music teachers as well as long-time CSO supporters.  The level of this ensemble was very high, but I quickly learned that “rehearsing” didn’t necessarily produce significant results.  Matters of ensemble and balance got a little better, but intonation and quality of overall sound were not appreciably affected.  So the major lesson I learned was that we should focus on reading rather than rehearsing.  Perhaps, if a subsequent performance were planned, more indepth rehearsal would be beneficial. But we all had fun, and made some splendid music together.

We produced a short video for PR purposes, and the piece went viral!  Norman Lebrecht detailed the event on his blog, Slipped Disc, and I have had reports of it making news outlets as far away as Mexico. One comment, however, gave me cause to ponder.  Someone chastised the use of the word amateur in describing the consumers of this opportunity.  We associate somewhat negative connotations to the word, as an amateur pursues a certain discipline without compensation, implying that the pursuit is casual rather than focused and disciplined.  But the word traces its derivation to the Latin word for love, implying a devotion more unquenchable than simply making a living. The noted conductor Robert Shaw once said (and I paraphrase) that music, like athletics, loses something of its sincerity when it is entrusted solely to the professionals.  He would know, as his Atlanta Symphony Chorus, amateurs by the accepted definition, was one of the finest ensembles anywhere.   I interact with amateurs on a regular basis in my music making, and they remind me of that sincere,  profoundly honest, unpretentious aspect of music, and artistic success with amateurs, reaching that achievement far greater than the sum of their individual talents, is what drives my artistic soul!

By the way, we have received some amazing coverage of this event.  Here are two examples:

http://www.elnorte.com/aplicacioneslibre/articulo/default.aspx?id=204782&md5=516133fb6128c43e1ccf5ee55f1daf89&ta=0dfdbac11765226904c16cb9ad1b2efe

http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2014/04/when-amateur-musicians-join-a-pro-orchestra.html

DOES Familiarity Breed Contempt?

March,2014

I recently did a pre-concert talk for which I was totally unprepared!  So I chatted about the music at hand for a few minutes, and then threw the floor open to questions.  This always seems to illicit interesting threads in every conceivable direction, as conducting is a very mysterious art, and I encourage the discussion to explore anything on the minds of the attendees.   But one question totally intrigued me.  I often get, usually after an awkward silence, the inquiry, “What is your favorite piece of music?”  But this time, a gentleman asked, “Is there a piece that you are totally sick of, and would just as soon NEVER conduct again?”   I was tempted to say “YES!” immediately, and rattle off all the difficult pieces that I would rather not have to face again (Bartok 3rd piano concerto; Rite of Spring, etc).  Or list the pieces from my younger days that appeared on the inevitable audition list (I still can’t face Copland’s El Salon Mexico because of the audition trauma it caused!).  But the notion of being so “over” a particular piece that I really couldn’t perform it again, did make me think. I’ve performed Tchaikovsky’s  The Nutcracker, well over 100 times, yet I find something new every time I traverse that marvelous score.  I led performances of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors over 50 times during my years with the Canton Symphony, yet I would love to have a chance to lead it again now.  Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 has seen probably 20 performances under my leadership, yet I think I am finally feeling comfortable with the piece.  So I think the answer to the question is a resounding, “NO!” 

I have always believed that one must be totally convinced by a work before programming and then performing it.  I recall with horror a few times when I was coerced by some artistic administrator into performing a piece that I didn’t fully embrace, and the lack luster results were just that.  Often as a guest conductor or even a staff conductor, one is simply handed a program and given no input whatsoever as to the potential success.   I remember one program I was assigned that ended with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.  But then, I was instructed to follow it with an encore of the Pas de Deux from The Nutcracker.   As we painfully learned, you cannot follow the 1812 overture with anything (well, maybe Stars and Stripes Forever, but that is a whole other issue!).   I also recall being part of a commissioning project that yielded quite mediocre results.  I felt obligated to give the new work it’s premiere, but doubt I will ever inflict it on an audience again.

 Certainly, there are pieces in the repertoire that do not convince me, or I have yet to be enlightened about.  There are also works that I only now feel comfortable conducting.  I recently made my sixth trip through the score to Tchaikovsky’s Pathatique Symphony   and was amazed at how my perceptions had changed on the piece since last performing it, over a decade ago.    

So the notion that I am sick and tired of a particular piece, I have yet to experience, thank goodness.  Now, where DID I put my fresh new score to Mozart’s Eine Kliene Nachtmusik!? 

Departed Friends

January 20,2014

It seems like I have been writing the words “rest in peace” on a more regular basis lately.  I suppose it is inevitable that, as we age, we lose our friends and family in increasing rapidity.  But it does seem like recent days have brought many departures, and for none of which I seem quite ready. 

Two influences on my formative years have passed recently, and I wanted to pay tribute in a personal way.

I came to know Marvin Rabin quite by accident.  The Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra was performing at the Music Educators National Conference in Cincinnati back in the early 90’s.  Marvin was prowling the halls and heard our warmup rehearsal and stuck his head in the room.  He spied one of his former students, who is now a professor of music education at The Ohio State University.  Marv inquired if that was the CCM orchestra, and my colleague gleefully informed him it was the CSYO, made up entirely of high school students.   Marv was delighted, as he was one of the architects of the youth orchestra movement, having been instrumental in the formation of the Greater Boston Youth Orchestra.  Marv insisted on meeting me, and our acquaintance lasted for many years.  He did more than anyone else, I think, to help me overcome the notion that conducting a youth orchestra was not a stepping stone, but rather the most important work in which we can engage.  Marvin knew.  He could have enjoyed an international performing career, or certainly graced the violin section leadership of any of the top orchestras.  Yet he chose to nurture young musicians.  Marv and I spent time together at the International Youth Orchestra Festival in Banff, and I enjoyed a number of long discussions about music, kids, conducting, cooking, you name it.  He paid me the highest compliment in the world one day as I was rehearsing Shostakovich 5 with the CSYO, I spied him in the back of the fiddles feverishly writing in his score. I asked him earlier what he had found, and he said , “the bowing you have them do (there), it’s brilliant!  I just stole it!”  The highest form of flattery, indeed.

As I type this missive, the music world is reeling at the loss, yesterday of Claudio Abbado.  I met Abbado at La Scala in the late 70’s during a sojourn to Italy.  While he didn’t teach conducting, he graciously allowed me to follow his rehearsals at La Scala, the Edinburgh Festival, and with the Vienna Philharmonic.   I remain convinced that the most constructive way to learn the art of conducting is to watch as many practitioners as one can.  And not just in performance, but in rehearsal.  It was watching Maestro Abbado that I learned volumes about the servant/leader paradigm.  Abbado empowered his players to create great music, and always approached his role with a warm, engaging sense of collegiality that always seemed to work.  He was totally unassuming in his approach to music and the great orchestras he led.  I remember several strolls through the Galleria in Milan where he quizzed me on my favorite repertoire, my favorite recordings. One thing that impressed me long after my sojourn to Italy was over, was Abbado’s constant involvement with the youth orchestra movement.  He regularly supported efforts of young musicians, and championed them till his final days. 

A Midsummer Night's Dream

November 15,2013

People have asked me about my activities as a ballet conductor as opposed to symphonic conducting.  My quip response is that when conducting a symphonic concert, I am totally in charge.  When conducting ballet, everyone else is in charge!  But it does go a little deeper.  Ballet conducting is much more collaborative, and the successful conductor must know when to lead with conviction or tactfully cooperate.  The primary mission, it seems to me, has two elements, 1) making the dancers look as great and feel as comfortable as they can, which is entirely the result of tempo and timing,  and 2) be an advocate for the composer and try to maintain the integrity of the score.   Lots of layers, but the result of a beautiful show is well worth the effort!

 

I did keep a diary recently during a trip to the Tulsa Ballet, which I serve as chief conductor.  The work we created was Christopher Wheeldon’s setting of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The music is by Felix Mendelssohn, coming from his incidental music to the play, but also incorporating a few other works as well.

 

Day 1

Travel.

CMH-ORD-TUL

I always try to travel the day before my first obligation as seamless travel connections are the exception nowadays.  I am staying at an apartment that the Tulsa Ballet leases for visiting choreographers, stagers, and their principal conductor.  A cozy little place that I find far superior to hotel living as I can cook!

 

Day 2

My first day in the studio.  I enjoyed warm greetings from the dancers, which is always a good sign!  I floated between several rehearsals which were going on simultaneously, discovering the various tempo variances that have evolved from the DVD of the Company performing the piece a decade or so ago. Each rehearsal has a pianist (as opposed to a recording) , so tempo variance is possible.  The music staff and I sit down to go over current metronome marks and staging cues. After a long day, I  discovered a wonderful restaurant called The French Hen Bistro.  But if I eat like that every night I will a) go broke, and b) NEVER have the guts to go on stage with all those skinny dancers for my bow at the end of the show.

 

Day 3

First run-through of the piece in the studio.  Studio K at the Tulsa Ballet Studios is an ideal space as it simulates the theater environment with audience configuration.  At this point I begin to see how the piece will ultimately come together.  I double check tempi and consult with the other members of the artistic staff as to "wiggle room" where these tempi are concerned.

 

Day 4

Run through with a different cast. If there are tempo variations to accommodate different dancers, today will start to show that.  TB Artistic Director Marcello Angelini likes to keep the tempi consistent amongst the casts, but occasional variances do happen.  Luckily, there are only a couple of minor differences.

 

Day 5

This is the first run-through that I conduct (with piano). Aside from a bit faster tempo in the pas de deux, of which the dancers gently reminded me, things went pretty well.  Marcello asked me to speak at the Founders Society dinner this evening (the elite fund raising group), and I was delighted to do so.  Speaking to audiences is a passion of mine, as it creates a special bond that otherwise might not exist, and I am looking for any possible way to make the performance more enjoyable. Understanding is key to appreciation.

 

Day 6

We have a run through in studio today that will be streamed live to the TB Facebook following.  It is also the studio dress rehearsal with costumes and wigs. This, evidently, went very well, as the artistic staff released the company early and without notes (specific observations from the run of moments that need correction before the next run)!

 

Day 7

Day off for the company.  I went to Sky Fitness for a workout; did a little grocery shopping; and stopped by the River Spirit Casino (and won for a change).  Dinner with Marcello and  his wife (and Ballet Mistress for TB) Daniella.

 

Day 8

Orchestra reading rehearsal.  It was great to see the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra again.  They are a most congenial group, even when assigned the task of pit-work.  Librarian Mark Faci had created a new set of parts for the piece, and we traversed the score without mishap.  Some of the tempi were a little slow to accommodate a "first read," and will be adjusted when we are in the pit.  We used the TSO's wonderful new rehearsal space for the service.   

 

Day 9

We spent the morning going over notes from the Friday studio dress rehearsal.  One adjustment was made to accommodate my needs,  but other than that, the music staff came away unscathed. 

 

Day 10

This is my really busy day.  The morning is off, but I have a 2 and 1/2 hour orchestra rehearsal (which goes well, but consumes all the time allotted) and then a piano run through on stage, back to back.  As this is the first run of the show on stage,  the piano run through with the Company is primarily for spacing so there is a fair amount of stopping/starting.  My tempi seem pretty much in line with what the dancers are expecting, but it is easy with just a pianist in tow.  Andrew Lahti, the company pianist, has shadowed me at the orchestra rehearsals, and has helped me keep the tempi consistent.  In ballet, even one or two metronome clicks are noticeable.  One interesting development, in the famous Wedding March, I am asked to slow a particular section in order to accommodate a quick costume change.  So, even the wardrobe department has jurisdiction over the poor conductor!  But it’s all to create a great show!

 

Day 11

The first dress rehearsal has its speed bumps.  There is something about assembling all the moving parts that tends to freak me out a little bit.  There are several glitches with tempi, but we are able to read the piece without having to stop.  The ballet masters and the artistic director do call us back for about 15-20 minutes after the run to adjust a couple of these tempo problems --- the Pas de duex, the scherzo, the song, the prologue, and the fugue.  In other words, just about everything that was ballet sensitive, was problematic.  Not a good sign. 

 

Day 12

I went to the morning piano rehearsal with a certain amount of fear and trepidation, but the company and artistic staff were very gracious.  We checked a few tempi and things were fine.  The evening saw the final dress rehearsal.  Tulsa Ballet does a wonderful thing as they make the entire ticket inventory for this dress rehearsal available to underserved populations through several social organizations in Tulsa.  We had about half a house, and they seemed to have a wonderful time.  Bottom turning into a donkey was quite a hit!  Artistically this show went splendidly.  I left the pit at the end of the run and the Artistic Director indicated they had no notes for us!  A first for me with TB!  I did work the orchestra on a couple of spots, but all in all the results were great! We had overcome the pitfalls of the night before.

 

Day 13

Opening night!  My wife (a former dancer, turned tax accountant) flew in for the weekend!  Following the performance we had dinner with Marcello, Daniella, and the dean of a major ballet academy who was in town on an assessment visit for the TB Academy’s accreditation.  And through the power of the internet, when we arrived back at the TB apartment, I was able to view a splendid review in the Tulsa World. “Wilson’s pacing was excellent, and he guided the players in phrasing that perfectly underscored the action and emotion of the scene.,” Not bad!

 

Day 14

The morning rehearsal saw a fair amount of cleaning from the night before, but relatively few notes for me.

Our second performance was great with lots of energy and seemingly even more precise than the opening show.

 

Day 15

Our largest crowd of the weekend arrived for the matinee, and they enjoyed a wonderful performance.  All in all a great run.

 

Day 16

Travel back to Columbus. And on to the next fun thing!

A New Concerto!

September 1, 2013

With the turn of the calendar page to September, the new concert season is upon us with a vengeance!

The summer months are relatively light for me, by design.  I use that time to recharge the batteries and learn new repertoire for the coming season.  While I look forward this season to visiting with some familiar scores like Brahms 3rd Symphony, the Tchaikovsky Pathatique Symphony and Violin Concerto, there are many new pieces on the horizon as well.

 

October and the opening of the Springfield Symphony season bring my first Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto with pianist Spencer Meyer.  While I have covered this piece a few times, I never have actually conducted the work, and it seems much more intricate than Rachmaninoff’s second concerto.  For that reason, I intend to spend some time with the Orchestra alone on the piece, something I rarely do with a standard repertoire work.  Usually, I wait until the soloist has arrived, and we have a chance to consult on the piece before we read it together with the orchestra.  Luckily, Spencer’s schedule allows him to arrive in town a day before his primary rehearsal with us, so I can approach the piece with his thoughts in mind as I work on details of the orchestral accompaniment.

 

A new work, for me, requires six to eight months of study.  I make at least 10 separate trips through the score, each time analyzing a different aspect (orchestration, form, harmony, melodic structure, etc.).  Once I have formed an opinion about each of these ingredients, I consult as many recordings as I can get my hands on, and see what I have missed along the way.  I also like to enjoy a period of time away from the score, as it tends to grow in my mind during that hibernation.

 

Accompaniment brings additional challenges, and I try to approach every assignment with care and attention to detail. Far too many conductors view the presence of a soloist as a necessary evil in the concert program, and tend to be somewhat flippant about their role.  I suppose they assume that a brilliant performer will carry the piece and they can concentrate on the purely orchestral aspects of the program.  Other conductors I have witnessed try to impose their own interpretive ideas, and in many instances, some direction may be warranted.  My own feeling is that I have engaged the soloist to play a particular piece and expect the artist to know the piece “inside, out.”  I hope to learn things about the piece from the artist, despite the fact that I have thoroughly learned the work as well, and may have done the work with other formidable performers.   But I would never be so presumptuous as to insist on my own ideas over the wisdom of the soloist.  I must be confident that they have significantly more experience with the work than I, although this is not always the case!  I recall having to send a soloist packing when it became obvious he didn’t know the piece (Beethoven Emperor Piano Concerto of all things!!).

 

My own formula for a successful collaboration, given limited rehearsal time and my own artistic temperament , is to do whatever the soloist wants, and then to decide on Monday morning whether to ever engage that particular artist again!

 

Sound in Motion

August 1,2013

                The summer months are a time for me to get caught up on my reading, and spend time with the new repertoire for the coming season.  While I have been spending my study time with Prokofiev’s Cinderella, among other pieces, I also have enjoyed quality time with a few books I have long been anxious to read.

                I was an oboist in my previous life, so David McGill’s Sound in Motion; A Performer’s Guide to Greater Musical Expression, caught my eye.  The author, currently the principal bassoon in the Chicago Symphony, chronicles the teachings of legendary oboist Marcel Tabuteau.  Tabuteau held the post of principal oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra for almost 40 years, while also teaching at the legendary Curtis Institute of Music.  He defined the American school of oboe playing as well as a style of musical expression that musicians continue to study, refine, and emulate.  My own teacher, Phil Koonce traced his lineage back to Tabuteau.  In recent years, I spent some time talking oboe and music with John Mack (a Tabuteau student) during my tenure as cover conductor for the Cleveland Orchestra.  Joe Robinson, formerly of the New York Philharmonic has also written extensively on Tabuteau’s teaching.  So these methods have long been of interest to me.

                Tabuteau was adamant about the constant forward motion in music, but rather than relying on poetic metaphors (which he felt came later in the evolution of style), he developed methods of  numbering that aided the musician in defining stylistic motion in more concrete terms.  His concepts in note groupings that give direction beyond the simple rhythmic patterns created by the composer,  help us to avoid certain rhythmic pitfalls that lull us into predictability if not error, and therefore make our music dull. He reminded us to think of the overall direction of a passage rather than the minute details that might bog us down (yet gave us formulae for making those minute details extremely precise).  Something that my oboe teacher, Phil Koonce, instilled in me was the notion that every note in a musical phrase has a different, quantifiable intensity.  Phil attributed that notion to Tabuteau, and it was definitely a “déjà vu moment” to read McGill’s account of that teaching as well.

                McGill does an outstanding job of organizing and defining these ideas with a myriad of musical examples.  While primarily the experience of the study of woodwind techniques, these concepts are germane to any musician.  I was fascinated with a section challenging the typical phrasing of Wagner’s Ride of the Walkyries, something that I have always questioned.  His section on “The Larger Picture” reminds us of the importance of the key elements of phrasing that have the ultimate goal of the elimination of “sameness” in our music.  Lots of valuable food for thought.

                Curiously, after reading McGill’s account of Tabuteau’s teaching of long tones, where the intensity is increased and diminished while thinking of ascending and descending numbers, I took a golf lesson. The pro advised something very similar in creating and releasing torque in my golf swing!

If I can figure out the aspects of this numerology in cooking, I can truly say that “everything I needed to know about life, I learned from Marcel Tabuteau’s woodwind class!”

                Thanks for stopping by and joining me on my quest of reading “Between the Lines!”

              

Pardon Our Dust!

April 10,2013

WELCOME!

If you have just discovered my site, or actually come looking for it, I’m glad you are here! I am still in the process of populating the place with information, and invite you to explore and offer feedback!

 

I hope to update this blog on a monthly basis with details of my many activities, observations along the way, a recipe or two, maybe a golf tip……

 

In the meanwhile, check back often, and thanks for visiting!

 

PSW

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