When The Rain Stops Falling (Bedlam: 6 – 9 Feb.’19)

Photo: Andrew Perry, EUTC

“Magnificient endeavour”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars, Outstanding

 

The archangel Gabriel commands the gates of Paradise but his mortal namesakes are having a bad time, lots of bad times in fact. At the start of Andrew Bovell’s play, in the year of our Lord 2039, it’s raining dead fish upon Gabriel York in Alice Springs. In early sixties London Henry Law abandons his wife and seven year old son, Gabriel, and along the Coorong lagoon in south Australia in 1983 the same Gabriel (Law) totals himself and his pregnant girlfriend – Gabrielle, of course – in a car crash.

There’s annunciation and revelation all through this play of four generations. It is of mothers and sons, of the sins of fathers, and of their mortifying consequence. Call it Miltonic, which might explain why Edinburgh University’s English Literature department chose to sponsor it. In Davos last month David Attenborough warned that “The Garden of Eden is no more” and now we have the unprecedented rainfall of the past ten days in northern Queensland.  In Bovell’s play, written in 2008, it takes two hours for the rain to stop falling and it delivers pathos by the bucket load but in the end it delivers understanding and well-being, as if you’ve been well rinsed.

We’re talking a cold water shower here: a deluge of testimony and heartache within an enclosure of near on eighty years. When The Rain Stops Falling has an extraordinary structure, where periods and scenes elide. It has been variously described as a ‘cats cradle’, a ‘pretzel’, a ‘Rubik Cube’. Characters fold their umbrellas, hang their waterproofs, and momentarily take their place alongside each other around a large dining table. It is always fish soup for supper, whether it’s in London in 1959, Uluru (Ayres Rock) in 1968 or Adelaide in 2013. Conversation moves between relationships, sex, drink, age, and … Diderot’s dressing gown, Mary Shelley, and the Great Hurricane of 1780. You might think, as a Gabriel observes, ‘a mess’; but then it is also a ‘magnificent endeavour’.

Cast and crew combine with remarkable nerve and purpose. There is no interval, as the writer required, and a scene misplayed could wreck any sense of what is going on – of where and when. Director Lucy Davidson has done a terrific job keeping the stage action fluid and evident without the space to really big up the visuals beyond projected captions. Actors work hard within overlapping narratives that are as fragile as the eco-system of the Coorong. In particular, Kelechi Anna Hafstad’s diction as the older Elizabeth Law has the clarity of pain that has been hung out to dry. Charlie O’Brien as Gabriel Law, Elizabeth’s son, has a lightness to him that is almost uplifting. And, when his wretched father, Henry (Angus Gavan McHarg), gives despairing voice to his postcards home, you are grateful for that support. Similarly, Dominic Sorrell plays his heart out as Joe Ryan, a good man out of his depth. Barney Rule opens and closes the drama as the stoical Gabriel who helps the audience to shelter. I reckon he’s channelling Lear’s Fool, for ‘He that has a little tiny wit, – With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, Must make content with his fortunes fit, For the rain it raineth every day.’

I much enjoyed this production of an intriguing play. One for the canon of contemporary Australian drama.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 6 February)

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SCO: Rustioni, Mendelssohn (Queens Hall: 6 Dec. ’18)

Image result for mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847)

“A delightful cornucopia of early romantic music.  It was a joy from start to finish.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra is currently offering a two part programme celebrating Mendelssohn and music in a similar vein.  On Thursday we got two pieces by the main man, along with a Rossini overture and a charming suite of Respighi bonbons, published almost a century later.

 

Whilst the Queens Hall is a welcoming venue with a genial atmosphere of really committed Musica Affecianadi Geriatrica the venue, as an old church, is pretty basic with stackable chairs forming the main stalls whose lack of racking means sightlines are poor, particularly as in this evening’s case where the size of the orchestra meant dispensing with the stage.  We saw the top half of the conductor, the heads of the soloists, and the wind and brass, the strings and woodwind, in glorious invisibility.  This made it frustrating and difficult to engage.

 

One wonders if the excellent young conductor, Daniele Rustioni, knew this, for his style of conducting was endearingly inclusive in terms of rapport with the players and at times almost swaying to the music with frequent flicks of his fine head of hair to engage with the audience.

 

But notwithstanding these built-in disadvantages and compensating factors, the music, and the playing, spoke for themselves in a delightful cornucopia of early romantic music.  It was a joy from start to finish.

 

Mendelssohn was the main event and is what I shall concentrate on but let me say first that Rossini’s Overture L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) delighted us with a ridiculous contrasting opening of pizzicato followed by orchestral chords in a positively Mozartian romp, with special mentions to the oboe of Robin Williams and piccolo of Alison Mitchell.

 

Our lively conductor almost ran back to the podium after minor re-seating between works and got straight into Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances: Suite 1, which did exactly what it said on the tin, a pleasant collection of instrumental ditties with oboe again to the fore and some strong cello playing from Principal Philip Higham.

 

And now the main attraction, Felix Mendesssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847), in the view of many the most precocious musical talent of all time, including Mozart and Schubert; the critical difference between him and Mozart was that his father did not exploit his youthful talents and instead let him grow.  Nonetheless he died aged 38 only a few years longer than Mozart’s 35 and Schubert’s 31, but the latter was disease driven (typhoid or syphilis, depending whom you believe), whilst the former two was almost certainly overwork.  His catalogue is enormously popular, and this evening we got to hear two lesser known works.

 

Mendelssohn’s Two Concert Pieces were in effect small scale concertos for two clarinets, in this case regular B-flat and bass.  The bass clarinet made a pleasant change to hear in these two light, entertaining pieces which while hard to take seriously were none the less enjoyable for that.  SCO Principal Maximiliano Martin and sub Principal William Stafford disported themselves with aplomb and the whole band, and audience, had a great time.

 

I did not know Mendelssohn’s 1st Symphony in C minor at all and was impressed by its structure and depth, late Mozartian in style, and astonishingly, composed when he was 15.  There was no hint of immaturity in this work whatsoever, which the orchestra played with verve and enthusiasm throughout.

 

So, all in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of accessible, tuneful music, very well played throughout with everyone, conductor, soloists, band and audience, having a great evening’s entertainment.

 

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 6 December)

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Education, Education, Education (Bedlam: 14 – 17 Nov.’18)

” It’s funny and fast, dances to a 90s soundtrack, and skewers English education.”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars:  Nae Bad

“Willkommen, Tobias. Boys and girls, please welcome Tobias from Berlin who will be helping out in the Modern Languages department”. And Tobias has the lunatic misfortune of arriving at Wordsworth comprehensive school on ‘Muck Up Day’ when the Year 11 (S5) pupils go off into the fabled ‘mists of Study Leave’. Run-up activities include include pinging shag bands, playing basketball in the corridors and placing a live chicken in the library. The finale will be an Achievement Assembly with a suicidal child on the roof.

Welcome, also, by happy coincidence to May 2, 1997 when Labour wins a record-breaking 419 seats to form its first government since 1979. The manifesto promise of ‘Education, Education, Education’ is all over the staff room. The teachers are excited, jumpy, and the febrile atmosphere is only fanned by the breakout of Cool Britannia. Noel Gallagher of ‘Oasis’ will be at a Downing Street reception on the 10th, but Tobias (Max Prentice) is friendly and unassuming, a ‘Take That’ kind of guy. You’ll like him immediately and come to trust him, which is handy because where there’s perspective and order, there’s Tobias. Elsewhere, on this important day, the school is a frenzied, entertaining mess.

Education, Education, Education won a ‘Fringe First’ in 2017 for the Wardrobe Ensemble. It seems, to my mind, a perfect choice for student performance. It’s funny and fast, dances to a 90s soundtrack, and skewers English education. Headteacher Hugh (Fergus Head) has all the moves – watch him go in D:ream’s Things Can Only Get Better – wants the best for all his pupils but all his enthusiasm cannot remedy the fact that his school is falling apart and has porta-cabins for classrooms. His Deputy, Louise (Kelechi Hafstad), is trying to hold it all together with discipline and an imaginary semi-automatic, which is dodgy, surely. History teacher Paul (most convincing by Lewis Foreman) has seen too many awkward kids to bother with them anymore. Tim (Giorgio Bounous) is the gormless PE jock and Sue (Becca Chadder) is the dedicated English teacher who inhabits that lovely world where she would share Malory’s Morte d’Arthur with 14 year olds but without the resources of Games of Thrones. No wonder then that Tobias marvels at it all whilst quietly enjoying a confiscated cheestring.

A serious narrative is provided by Lauren’s story. Lauren Robinson is spot on as the difficult, challenging, pupil who shouldn’t be expelled but who probably will be. It’s good to learn, within Tobias’ retrospective account, that it’s Lauren who comes out to Berlin to visit him and to see a grown-up European country. Director Tom Whiston ensures that your sympathies go where they should.

It’s those twenty years, 1997 to 2017, that give the play its bite. Its frenetic pace and half daft characters are contained within a frame that exposes the optimism of that Labour promise. Jack Whitehall’s Bad Education (BBC 3 2012 -14) was brilliant and ridiculous. As a 60 minute stage show this production of Education, Education, Education cannot be telly but it’s a riot of understanding and good sense, which ain’t easy.

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 November)

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Cyrano de Bergerac (The Lyceum: 12 Oct. – 3 Nov.’18)

Image result for Cyrano de Bergerac Scotland 2018

Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

“A production that oozes professionalism”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

Good theatre, I think, is both a puzzle and a pleasure. A treat for the eyes, ears and heart – but also something layered, where the picking apart of each thread in a production leads only to more curiosity and wonder. To that end, Dominic Hill’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac is the theatrical equivalent of a delicious chocolate cake with a Rubik’s cube shoved in it.

The year is 1640, and much like every other time prior to the 21st century, things aren’t going so great: the Spanish are acting up again, social conduct is bloodier than ever, and everyone seems to be talking in rhyming couplets. Enter Cyrano de Bergerac, a witty warrior and poet cursed with a face like a production of “Eyes Wide Shut” starring Pinocchio. Deeply in love with his cousin Roxanne but damned by his features, Cyrano soon finds himself helping another man win her heart with his words. Hi-jinks ensue.

It seems prescient here to point out that the first thing that struck me about this performance was its language. The original verse drama becomes – in Edwin Morgan‘s lyrical translation –  a mix of modern, light and heavy Scots and is wonderfully effective from the outset. I was surprised – as someone who is naturalised Scottish enough not to mispronounce “Cockburn” but who falters on “Kirkcaldy” every time – surprised that I was never confused.

And make no mistake: this review could just as easily been a list of the cast from ensemble to music, with associated favourite lines and individual strengths. Part of the joy of this production (especially from a reviewing standpoint) is that the acting chain suffers no weak link. Keith Fleming’s pompous and yet strangely respectable portrayal of De Guiche and Jessica Hardwick’s firecracker rendition of Roxanne stood out as particular favourites, but that isn’t by much – each ensemble character could have acted alone on an empty stage, and I still would have paid to watch it.

However, I would be remiss not to give extra praise to Brian Ferguson’s portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac himself. And what a portrayal it is: the sting of heartbreak, the fever of victory and the occasional misery of acting morally – combine alchemy-like in Ferguson’s performance, which stands out as the most singularly believable portrayal of De Bergerac since Depardieu’s on screen. Whether duelling with steel or syllables, Ferguson not only succeeds in creating a character who is larger-than-life, but is also imbued with a vulnerable, raw kind of groundedness.

The sheer energy and verve of Ferguson’s act is amplified even further by a director with a clear talent for the physical. Each group movement and mime is executed so expertly, it’s akin to watching a single organism twitch, undulate and react to its own dramatic movements. My theatre partner for the night, a stage combat instructor and enthusiast, had particular praise for the fights (especially in the first half, where rapiers abound).

However, this is not a flawless production. Any criticisms, though, are minor in comparison to its strengths, and are mostly relegated to the second half, where accents occasionally slipped and lines of dialogue were directed to the back of the stage. It also proved a little difficult to see some of the beautiful physical accompaniments performed in the background of many scenes, owing to actors being swallowed up by the impressive scenery.

A thought may also be given to the length of the show itself: the first act alone stretches to just under two hours. And whilst the production is of high enough quality that its length does not detract too much from the experience, I found myself hoping that it did not receive a deserved standing ovation for fear of my legs giving out for numbness.

These moans do very little to muddy the sheen of care and talent which is buffed into every scene of Cyrano de Bergerac. This is a joint production that oozes the professionalism of Edinburgh’s Lyceum, Glasgow’s Citizens, and the National Theatre of Scotland.  Its ability to mix what many might consider disparate ingredients into glorious, singular, drama cannot be understated. Just admire the dramatic polish!

Give this one a watch while you still can.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 13 October)

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RSNO. Sondergard, Morison (Usher Hall: 12 Oct. ’18)

Illus. Vesper Stamper.
‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’

“Well played throughout. One has complete confidence in the RSNO’s craft.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

I have written before of the RSNO’s skill in programme selection. Often a short warm up piece, followed by a concerto, and after the interval a symphony. Last night we were completely spooked. For sure, we had the symphony after the interval, but we started with Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites Nos 1 and 2, a good 30 minutes worth, and finished the first half with Ravel’s Scheherazade. That’s right, Ravel’s Scheherazade, not Rimsky-Korsakov’s. I suspect that many people didn’t realise it wasn’t the one they knew until it was over, in about eighteen minutes as opposed to the better known version’s fifty.

 

Moreover, Thomas Sondergard in addressing the audience before the concert started, as is the RSNO custom, pointed out that he had moved the various movements of Peer Gynt around to make for a better musical flow, and it worked. We started, as we absolutely had to, with “Morning Mood”, commonly known as “Morning” and hijacked by virtually everyone from TV commercials to Monty Python. A confident opening with crystal clear flutes and oboes before the glorious strings took over. Following on such well-loved sketches as Solveig’s Song and Anitra’s Dance Sondergard rightly chose to end with the splendidly tub-thumping In the Hall of the Mountain King. The trolls seemed to be clambering all over the Usher Hall as we left for the interval. A much underrated work, I would suggest that the Peer Gynt Suite is one of the most gloriously lyrical orchestral pieces ever written, and the RSNO did more than justice to it.

 

Not unlike its counterpart, Ravel’s Sheherezade is an exotic, ethereal yet sensual piece, and the excellent 2017 first British winner of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Catriona Morison had less time to get us in the mood. The work comprises just three songs taken from Tristan Klingsor’s poem, Asie (Asia), La Flute Enchantee (The Enchanted Flute) and L’Indifferent (The Heedless One). At first a little arid in interpretation and finding balance with the orchestra, Morison wowed us with ‘La Flute Enchantee’ and began to develop some of the magic and mystery of this short piece. ‘L’Indifferent’ showed nuances of world-weariness of a woman watching a young man walk by, apparently indifferent to her charms. I detected in the music shades of the Pavane pour un infante defunte and also –  albeit arranged later –  Bailero from Joseph Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. A pleasant interlude.

 

If anyone’s symphonic career got off to a terrible start it was surely Rachmaninov, the more extraordinary considering how popular his works are today. Poorly played and conducted by a supposedly inebriated Glazunov it was a critical and popular disaster, so much so that the composer retired from composition for three years and returned only after hypnosis therapy, (and to great acclaim) with his second piano concerto.

 

It is not difficult to see why. Rachmaninov’s 1st Symphony is clearly a nascent work and never published in his lifetime. “Bold as brass” is an appropriate description of the opening followed by the strings playing as if in marching order. Very little development of a melodic line, lots of noise not really going anywhere. The second movement was again striking but cannot be described as good music, although there was a definite promise of things to come by the time we came to the third and fourth – a lot of good stuff trying to get out. It is a courageous decision to programme this work (no faint praise intended): it is of considerable interest, and terrific if you like noise. The closing Tan Tam and Timpani were an audiophile’s delight! Well played throughout; one has complete confidence in the RSNO’s craft.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 12 October)

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Scottish Ensemble (St. Cecilia’s Hall 9 Oct.’18)

St Cecilia’s Hall, University of Edinburgh.

“I kept returning to my notes and underlining the words “Rich tone.” It was an aural joy”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

 

What do Edinburgh’s New Club, Cameo Cinema, and Usher, Queen’s and St. Cecilia’s Halls all have in common? They are all hosts to the most glorious live music, and this most fortunate of music writers has had the privilege of attending five concerts within just six days in these various venues. My conclusion after living here for approaching four years? Edinburgh is a world class music city, with some world-class music being performed here. We are very lucky.

 

There aren’t many new concert halls being built these days, although there are plans for one in Edinburgh, so the inspirational redevelopment of St Cecilia’s as a museum of musical instruments (you simply must see their fantastic harpsichord collection, many still playing) and enchanting, bijou oval 200 seater auditorium with central chair and perimeter soft bench seating is a delight. Only problem with the venue? No bar. However, the instrument showcases make for an adequate non-alcoholic distraction.

 

Notwithstanding the building’s eighteenth century origins (built for the Edinburgh Music Society in 1762) the concert style was modern. Ipads instead of music, standing instead of sitting in the custom of Chris Warren-Green and the LCO (all bar the cello!) and sleek modern tieless black rather than evening dress.

 

Four members of the Ensemble were playing on the evening, Music Director and first violin Jonathan Morton, Cheryl Crockett on second, the fabulously lively Jane Atkins, principal violist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Alison Lawrence on cello. Star soloist on clarinet was Matthew Hunt guesting from the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie. The standard was remarkably high, and while it is a well-known adage that a string quartet can sound as loud as an orchestra, what struck me about tonight’s combo was not so much their volume but more their rich tone. Time again during the evening I kept returning to my notes and underlining the words “rich tone”. It was an aural joy.

 

We started with the Brahms Clarinet in B minor Op.115 (1891). Less easily accessible than the Mozart (being held back, one suspects, for a lollipop finish), the players brought a generosity of spirit and a refreshing lushness of tone, particularly in the second movement Adagio, to what is quite a dry, late Brahms work, making it one of the most enjoyable renditions that I have heard. The intensity of sound from the strings, with the clarinet (Clara Schumann described it as “wailing”) soaring above them in full, unforced tone. It never wavered.

 

After the interval we were treated to an extraordinary amuse-bouche, Mclaren Summit by contemporary composer John Luther Adams, written in Alaska some five years ago and played by the quartet alone. Entirely on open strings and harmonics it was a strangely melodious work that reminded me of near namesake John Adams.

 

The uber popular Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K.581 (1789), which one might have expected, because of its chronology, to be the concert opener, was held back until last, a bit like a rock star ending with their biggest hit. One felt almost a sense of reassurance by the familiar opening and the playing of first violin Jonathan Morton really came into its own. The second movement Larghetto, matched only perhaps by the Adagio from the Gran Partita as one of the most beautiful pieces of woodwind and string music ever written, more than met our expectations with a degree of perfection often found only on recordings, clarinet and first violin calling and answering each other with a breathtaking poignancy. The third and fourth movements took us on a joyous romp home. In the final movement I was surprised to be reminded of the final movement of Schubert’s Trout Quintet, the players almost teasing us with their phrasing, deliberate pauses, and changes of tempo.

All in all a delightful evening’s music. I have to confess it was the first time I have heard the Scottish Ensemble. I want to hear more.

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 9 October)

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SCO. Mazzola, Frang. (Usher Hall: 27 Sept’18)

Vilde Frang
Photo: Marco Borggreve/Warner Classics

 

“It was a joyful, uplifting evening’s music.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

 

A braw Autumnal evening met me as I walked across the Meadows to the Usher Hall for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s 2018/19 Season Opening Concert. The programme contained Nielsen and Sibelius and I braced myself for an evening of bleak Scandinavian forests, folklore and darkness.

I could not have been more wrong. It was a joyful, uplifting evening’s music.

Of course, Robin Ticciati was not on the podium. His replacement, Maxim Emilyanychev, was not either (he comes back next week), but instead Enrique Mazzola, Artistic and Music Director of the Orchestre National d’Isle de France and Principal Guest Conductor of Deutsche Oper in Berlin returned to take up the baton. Essentially a bel canto and opera conductor, how would he cope with this Romantic and late Romantic fare? He did fine.

The more I thought about the evening’s programming the cleverer I thought it was. How many of you have heard Sibelius’s third symphony? Two and Five, of course, but this was an interesting choice. Moreover, Nielsen is known principally for his symphonies and concerti, but an overture? Cleverer still was the positioning of the star attraction, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, along with the soloist of the evening, Vilde Frang, in the second half. So often it’s a bit of a downer when the soloist goes home before the interval and the rest of the evening feels rather flat.

First off was Nielsen’s Helios Overture. Nielsen himself said that the work needed no introduction and indeed it was a predictable (none the worse for that) evocation of sunrise somewhat in the classical genre. After the pianissimo double basses, four horns braved the introduction and were just a tiny bit shaky on their damnably difficult to play instruments, so exposed. The orchestra very quickly found its feet with all sections playing confidently with some magnificent strings, wind and brass before it drew to a close as it had started, with pianissimo basses again. It was a pleasant relief to experience the audience sitting on their hands as Mazzola held up his hand to restrain applause rather longer than one might have expected. When it came, it was enthusiastic.

On to Sibelius’s 3rd Symphony in C. Who would dream of calling a Sibelius symphony “jolly”? But it was, and none the worse for that. In the first movement there was calling woodwind, responding strings, melodious horns, all at each other’s beck and call, ending with shades of the horn call of the 5th symphony. In the second we heard melodious flutes and unalloyed joy yet in the Sibelian mode. Come the third and a darker, sombre theme with nuances of Finlandia. A useful, unusual addition to one’s knowledge of this fabulous composer.

After the interval Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D, written a hundred years earlier than the previous two works. Nielsen was of course a Dane, Sibelius a Finn and while Beethoven undoubtedly German his interpreter tonight was another Scandinavian, the Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang. Yet this was proving to be no Scandi Noir, Frang perhaps making the point by wearing a light coloured floaty dress rather than more conventional evening colours. The work has a long orchestral introduction and to be honest Frang looked a little spare as she awaited her entry, which she then executed extremely competently and was very much in charge for the rest of the performance as she drew a great deal of tone and volume out of her modern-ish 1864 Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. The work is so well known there is little new for the music writer to contribute, save to say the performance was fresh, committed, with gusto, a thoroughly enjoyable 45 minute’s worth from start to finish.

Throughout the performance conductor Enrique Mazzola showed quiet authority and got everything he could and should have out of the works and the players, who responded only too happily. All done with the minimum of podium histrionics.

 

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 27 September)

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