Edinburgh Academy Musicians (Queen’s Hall: 28 April ’17)

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 “Almost three hours of glorious, live music, from the promising to the near professional”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Nae Bad

That the Edinburgh Academy hires the Queen’s Hall for their Summer Concert is not just a capacity issue but a fitting testimony to the quality of their music.   Yes, perhaps the venue shed a little magic dust over gifted performers, but in turn they rocked the joint in in an eclectic programme that ranged from Vivaldi to Katy Perry and kept us engaged all evening.

Parents, whether it is for amateur dramatics or any other of the performing arts, are a loyal, enthusiastic and forgiving lot, but there was no need for any suspension of the critical faculties or parental indulgence here.  The students acquitted themselves magnificently.  Every moment of the evening was a pleasure, none a duty.  Some of it passed for professional standard. As the evening progressed it became clear that many of those performing were talented musicians who just happened to be at school, not students who just happened to take the music option.

As I found my way to my seat I was accompanied by the merry chink of ice in glasses as stressed out, end of the week parents – and benign grandparents – found comfort and delight in the Queen’s Hall’s bar. I noted no less than eight acts and 18 works in the programme. It would be wrong to exclude any from commentary.

The orchestral pieces comprised the first part of the evening and ranged from a disciplined Junior Orchestra who concentrated hard and demonstrated good phrasing and tempo, with some really effective pizzicato in the Shrek Medley and some good underpinning by the violas and cellos. Lily Penman, in particular, deserving an honourable mention on the cello front desk, and – to no one’s surprise –  appearing latterly in the senior orchestra. The Ragtime rendition got a good swing rhythm going.

 

 

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Next up we heard the String Orchestra with Timothy Wong delivering an assured rendering of the Allegro from Haydn’s Violin Concerto in G major with good bowing and attack, followed by Hugh Cameron playing Vivaldi’s Concert Sonata No 5, who once in his stride showed great feeling and in the Allegro demonstrated an assured and well executed piece of playing. Confident violins led us into the beautiful melody of Allegro piacevole from Elgar’s Serenade for Orchestra Op 20, sensitively played with a good melodic line.

The Senior Orchestra then came on to tackle three early concerto pieces and an ensemble. First up was Ross Macnaughton playing the Allegro from the Bassoon Concerto in B flat Major by Mozart. Ross got great tone from this difficult instrument and made it look easy. It isn’t. He demonstrated an extraordinarily well executed cadenza including a couple of splendid Mozartian farts in the lower register. Great keywork and phrasing with terrific breathing. Matthew Black followed on with Mozart’s Andante in C K315 for flute. Matthew has a very clear, pure tone and the orchestra brought a real sheen to some of their playing and good pizzicato.   Jean-Claude Hubert’s clarinet brought a beautiful rich tone to the Weber Concertino, demonstrating real mastery of the keys in the Allegro. The orchestra were at their best in the concluding Pomp and Circumstance march no 1 in D by Elgar, causing one member of the audience to sing along and this writer and his companion to sway a little, Proms style.   Perhaps late nineteenth and early twentieth century music is best for developing orchestras, earlier compositions leaving things a little exposed.

 

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Following the interval it was Band time. The Junior Concert Band punched above their weight with a warm, expansive tone in Brian Balmages’s Rain. The Senior Concert Band kicked off with Copland’s Variation on a Shaker Melody, with a spot on trumpet opening, echoed by the clarinets in a thoughtful, competent and uplifting piece of playing. The rock solid rendition of the Star Wars theme provided a lively, brass driven contrast.

Now it was time for the Voice. The G2 Choir, so young in years, demonstrated an early grasp of the discipline of choral singing: immaculately presented, eyes on the conductor, no music, and purity of youthful sound making up for any relative loss of volume. Big shout out for the soloists as well, and a good sense of rhythm in both Wade in the Water and Electricity (from Billy Elliott).

Sophie Penman and Kirsten Taylor gave a clear and assured performance of the Laudamus Te from Vivaldi’s Gloria, backed by a string quartet, playing standing as is often the Chamber style. Intriguing to hear this large-scale work played in miniature. It worked.

The Chamber Choir were a joy. The best was plainly being kept until last. Very clear diction, focus and precision with a good balance between soloists and ensemble was shown in Billy Joel’s The Longest Time. Eric Whiteacre’s Sleep, in pure musical terms, was the event of the evening: beautiful tone colours, effortless moving up and down the dynamic range, unforced, quietly confident with assured handling of the dissonance, this moving piece was not so much sung as painted. The choir concluded with a clever and sensitive arrangement of Katy Perry’s Chained to the Rhythm by their conductor/director Angus Tully, who actually stopped and restarted them when they temporarily lost their way in a difficult piece that they were singing without music. I have only seen this done once before and that was by Nigel Kennedy! Nobody minded. It was great to get this unofficial encore.

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If musically the Chamber Choir was the act of the evening, the Big Band topped the bill for sheer entertainment value. Masses of noise in Starsky and Hutch, huge musical laughs in the Pink Panther, with the finale of Quincy Jones’s Soul Bossa Nova No 2 bringing the house down. Terrific solos on Sax by Jean-Claude Hubert and Freya Scott, drums by Niclas Coli, Daniel Jourdan on vibes and others, I am afraid, too numerous to mention. A very talented bunch.

 

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So there we have it, not so much a concert but a festival of almost three hours of glorious, live music, from the promising to the near professional. Philip Coad and his team played a blinder and the musicians themselves should be proud. In an age where the teaching of music is in danger in many schools, the Edinburgh Academy provides a beacon to how it should be done. “Grounded in Scotland, ready for the world” was emblazoned on the school van as I walked back down the alleyway from the rear entrance to the Hall. Yes indeed, the future of live music, whether in Scotland or even perhaps the world, is safe in the hands of those gifted young people we heard tonight.

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 28 April)

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Edinburgh Quartet (Queen’s Hall: 27 March’17)

Painting by Erik Petrie

“The band’s playing being bolder and more committed as they got into their stride”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars

The life of a professional musician has always been tricky, whether you were Mozart churning out prodigious quantities of glorious music against impossible deadlines and demanding creditors, Shostakovich keeping Stalin and his apparatchiks at bay, or even today as a rank and file player with the necessity often to freelance and keep several irons in the fire, both for the benefit of professional development and regular employment.

All these aspects were present at Monday’s Queen’s Hall recital by the Edinburgh Quartet. First, the line up. The first violin desk has been filled by a variety of (very talented) artists since Tristan Gurney left for London last year and was tonight filled by Zoe Beyers. Second violin Gordon Bragg also plays for the RSNO and is currently touring with them in Florida, his place being taken on the night by Tom Hankey. Catherine Marwood ably took the viola desk on behalf of Fiona Winning, leaving only Mark Bailey on cello as part of the regular band. I am afraid, notwithstanding good individual playing, it showed – a bit. Talented individuals do not necessarily an ensemble make.

The evening started with Mozart’s String Quartet in D Major K575. Composed towards the end of his life and published posthumously it is an enjoyable work that allows each member of the band to show off their individual talents, a wise choice here in that their experience of playing together is limited. It made for an easy to get into start to the evening, with Catherine Marwood’s viola to the fore supported by Mark Bailey’s Cello.

There followed Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 1 in C major. A short (fourteen minute) romantic work, yet of some intensity but also tunefulness, it surprised and pleased the audience as not coming as too much of a shock after the Mozart; the band’s playing being bolder and more committed as they got into their stride.

The evening concluded with Beethoven’s String Quartet in C major No 3 ‘Rasumovsky’ one of three so named after its sponsor, the Russian Ambassador to Vienna. Again, the work offers plenty of scope for the individual players to respond to, as well as some good ensemble playing as the Quartet were by now fully warmed up. There was real verve in the opening movement, particularly in the Allegro vivace, smooth togetherness in the Andante con moto quasi allegretto supported by well despatched cello pizzicato and really good ensemble playing in the Menuetto. The work was brought to a close with a high sprirted, high speed Allegro molto.

The concert was part of the Edinburgh Quartet’s season branded ‘EQ:Revolution’ and as before an artist from a different genre offered a complementary interpretation. In this instance it was Erik Petrie who went on stage, as he has done at others, to describe three colourful artworks, influenced by music and revolution, commissioned by the Quartet. The theme is certainly applicable to Shostakovich but more nuanced elsewhere. Petrie is an artist and was a little uncomfortable talking, understandably so when mentioning that the artworks were available for sale, albeit with the very noble cause of thereby providing financial support to the Quartet.

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 27 March)

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SCO, Gamba. Bartok. Maxwell Davies. Sibelius. (Queen’s Hall: 1 Dec.’16)

Map of Orkney

“A complete and wonderful surprise … much of it was huge fun, and what was more serious was beautifully and movingly interpreted.”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

The concert was promoted as “Peter Maxwell Davies: Orkney Wedding” and thereby probably did itself a disservice, as ‘Max’ is not everyone’s cup of tea, which is a shame, as if his work was better known, it might well be. The concert was in fact only half ‘Max’, balanced with Sibelius and Bartok, was mostly very accessible and enjoyable, and made for a fabulous evening’s music.

The concert was in effect a musical treatment of the folk idiom over some 80 years, starting with Sibelius’s Valse Triste and Scene with Cranes, both from Kuolema (1903), although the former is probably best known in its own right. Valse Triste was historically Sibelius’s most regularly performed piece, with the double irony of it being composed while he put his magnificent Violin Concerto on hold in order to placate his brother in law who wanted some incidental music for a play, and more annoyingly that he failed to negotiate a royalty agreement and never received a kroner subsequently. It is a fairly light yet sublimely melodic piece and the SCO played it beautifully managing the many varying tempi and dynamics with complete ease.

The following work, Peter Maxwell Davies’s Strathclyde Concerto No 2 (1987) was probably the only work of hard substance in the evening. One of ten “Strathclyde Concertos” commissioned by Strathclyde Regional Council and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, it is part of their DNA and the SCO embraced its challenging tonality and technical demands skilfully. Moreover, cellist William Conway, who played on its first performance in 1989, was completely at ease with the work. While definitely in the modern idiom it is an accessible and at times beautiful and certainly moving work, and it was good to hear it.

Following the interval it was time for Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra, having gone back 50 years to 1939. Beautifully orchestrated, we experienced a wide range of textures including witty pizzicato and rich, broad bowing producing resonant sonority. The orchestra was going at full tilt with attack and vitality of playing. A rewarding, and again, accessible work.

The concert was brought to an end with the banner piece, Maxwell Davies’s Orkney Wedding with Sunrise (1984). This is not a serious work, but a hilarious one, and shows one should not take all of Max’s Orkney compositions too seriously. The piece does what it says on the tin, describes a riotous rustic wedding, and Gamba and the SCO interpreted it in that spirit, with outrageously vulgar brass, deliberately tipsy violin playing, and a steward appearing with a couple of tumblers of whisky gratefully consumed by conductor and leader. The whole was brought to a glorious conclusion by the sound of the bagpipes off stage, and then a piper appearing in full Highland Dress and Bearskin brought the piece to a close.

Overall, the evening was a complete and wonderful surprise. All the music was accessible, much of it was huge fun, and what was more serious was beautifully and movingly interpreted. And Rumon Gamba was a stand in for the indisposed Alexandre Bloch. Bravo (which resounded throughout the auditorium)!

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 1 December)

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SCO. Egarr. (Queen’s Hall: 10 Nov. ‘16)

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Etienne-Nicholas Mehul (1763 – 1817)

“Richard Egarr skilfully coaxed every nuance out of the brilliantly orchestrated score so that the music was allowed to speak for itself in all its tranquillity and serenity.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Musicians will have their little jokes. The opening of HMS Pinafore starts with a drum roll. People think it is the introduction to the National Anthem and stand. The orchestra continues into the overture. Members of the audience sit back down in a mixture of moods. Most take the joke. It is, after all, Operetta. The Edinburgh Quartet, much lauded in these pages, do all their tuning off stage and get straight into the work when entering. SCO Conductor Richard Egarr took it a step further on Thursday night by starting Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture before the audience had finished clapping him on. I loved it. I noted that the Edinburgh Quartet’s second violin, Gordon Bragg, was sharing the front desk of the seconds on the evening in question. Must have felt at home.

The SCO and Egarr treated us to a confident and gutsy rendition of Prometheus with Egarr’s left hand so active it was as if the orchestra was a clock he was winding up. They certainly kept a fast tempo. This was a colourful, jolly opening number with trumpet and horn not holding back. “Was that lively enough for you?” Egarr asked as he chatted between numbers. You bet.

From research, I had found that the little known Etienne Mehul wrote his First Symphony at the same time as Beethoven wrote his Pastoral. Richard Egarr informed us that as it was being written “the French had just cut off the heads of a lot of rich aristocrats”. Hmm, talk about context. The work is more in the style of Mozart than Beethoven, with suggestions of Haydn; it is simple and repetitive, but by no means without merit and deserves its place in the canon. Lively, bouncy, with a fast pace and well orchestrated, definitely entertaining (probably deliberately so in the case of the bassoon scoring being more akin to flatulence) and well played. We went into the interval feeling very upbeat.

What more can be said, or indeed written, about Beethoven’s Symphony No 6, the ‘Pastoral’? Well, I shall try, because its fifth movement Allegretto has soothed my troubled brow on many an occasion, and I hold the work among my personal favourites.

Egarr’s pace was slightly fast, and he thereby avoided the work showing any tendency to cloy or sound clichéd. The SCO played throughout with an engaging fluency and naturalness. This was not some band trotting out a popular number at the end of the evening and the work was well crafted and treated with respect.As for that familiar fifth movement Allegretto (famously used for Lentheric’s Tweed fragrance in the 1960s) Richard Egarr skilfully coaxed every nuance out of the brilliantly orchestrated score so that the music was allowed to speak for itself in all its tranquillity and serenity.

Another fine evening with the SCO that is making an increasingly serious contribution not just to the Scottish, but to the international musical scene as well.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 10 November)

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Edinburgh Quartet: Mozart, MacMillan, Dvorak. (Queen’s Hall 25 May ’16)

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“They played with zest, enthusiasm and perfect tonality”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars:  Nae Bad

I think the overriding reason I enjoy the concerts of the Edinburgh Quartet over many others is their understanding of how to put together a performance, rather than just playing. A lot of thought clearly goes into this, from the overall theme, whether it be Storm and Stress or New Horizons to the programme mix on the night: this evening it was Mozart and MacMillan, followed by Dvorak, leaping boldly from the eighteenth to the twenty-first and then back to the nineteenth centuries – and then there’s considerate way they always do their final tuning before coming on stage so that they just smile at us and get on with it – it’s not about them, it’s about the music.

And smiling was very much in evidence on Wednesday; they were clearly enjoying themselves, and so were we. They put us at our ease.

We started with Mozart’s String Quartet No 19 in C, K465, the “Dissonance”. The first twenty bars or so really were the most incredible piece of creative genius of its time; we could easily have been listening to Schoenberg, but after that the piece reverts to classical, Haydnesque form, and a charming work it is, too. Assured, beautiful playing with the violins parrying the melody with the cello in contrapuntal support. An honourable mention must go to cellist Mark Bailey whose warm tone really brought it all out in the last movement.

Next up was James MacMIllan’s String Quartet No 3. The full gamut of techniques was used here, long silences, not so much sul ponticelli but playing on the other side of the bridge, tapping and knocking the bodies of the instruments, crazy pizzicatos, and the first violin playing right at the very top of the register on the E string. The work started eerily with unison octaves before breaking out into a thrilling full tilt series of prestissimo arpeggios thrown from instrument to instrument.  The players gave total commitment throughout to a highly unusual but engrossing work. I cannot pretend all the audience found it to their taste, but they were all remarking on it at the interval, and I for one was bowled over. It is clearly a demanding work extremely well played.

We were given an easier ride in part two, and gently led to the conclusion of the evening with Dvorak’s String Quartet No 12 in F Op 96, “The American”. From the confident and assured opening of Catherine Marwood’s viola to the many familiar melodies picked up individually and collectively by the band, they played with zest, enthusiasm and perfect tonality and were clearly enjoying themselves and we found their enthusiasm infective. Pure joy –  and a real treat to bring a thoroughly enjoyable evening to a close.

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 25 May)

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Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus (Queen’s Hall: 28 April ’16)

“A very appealing and appropriate choice of works”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars:

Thursday’s SCO concert at The Queen’s Hall was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the SCO Choir, and like at all the best gigs, the star attraction came on after the interval, following an impressive warm up by the band themselves.

Indeed, “warm up” is a particularly apposite description. The gallery was unusually crowded owing to the need for the ground floor to accommodate both the orchestra and 60 strong chorus, as half the centre stalls had been taken out. Heat rises, and for some reason the upper half of the house was uncomfortably warm, the lower a little too refreshingly cool.   Deliberate attempt to boost interval bar sales? Of course not; worried staff were toying with the radiators all evening.

Hot stuff? (Groan). Yes, it was an interesting programme, very much in the classical vein.

First up was Bach’s Overture from Suite No 3. Conductor Richard Eggar engaged with us immediately, explaining that this piece was “the one before Air on a G string” which I guess made us feel at home. My concerns about the Master’s orchestration including three trumpets playing very much in the high register, reminiscent of Handel and in truth slightly jarring (absolutely no reflection on the playing) was confirmed by the view taken by musicologist Joshua Rifkin that the piece may originally have been conceived for strings alone. Nonetheless it made for a lively opening to the evening’s entertainment.

Next came Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony. Yes, Fifth. Most people think he wrote only four, and in fact this work was composed probably somewhere between the first and second, much delayed in the performance. Nothing like the “Italian” or “Scottish” symphonies, it is a highly classical work, fitting in well with the Bach, and includes in the scoring a part for that intriguing instrument of yore, the Serpent, that I would imagine sounds rather like a cardboard tube made of brass.

A short while through the first movement I thought I was listening to Wagner. How could this be? Well, both Mendelssohn in this work, and Wagner in Parsifal, use the chorale-like orchestration of Martin Luther’s setting of Psalm 46, Ein’ feste Burg (“A safe stronghold’). Later on there were reminders of Haydn’s ‘London’ Symphony (no 104) with the use of the Dresden ‘Amen”. This ‘Reformation” symphony was an orchestral link between concert hall and church, a prelude of what was to come after the interval.

Mendelssohn featured again after the interval with the choir performing his hymn-like Verleih uns Frieden’, or “Peace in our time”, later to have such resonant connotations.   It was a pleasure to hear choral singing with such soothing melodic lines in this brief, dignified work.

Finally, the piece de resistance, Bach’s Magnificat in D. Confident choral singing with a strong, reassuring opening ably supported by brass and wind. The “Et exultavit…” that followed suffered from a slight lack of volume from the solo soprano, but the work as a whole provided a compleat combination of chorus, soloists and orchestra.

So Happy Birthday, SCO Chorus and Band, a very appealing and appropriate choice of works to celebrate this joyful occasion!

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 28 April)

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Scottish Chamber Orchestra: Ain Anger & Olari Elts

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“No musician could fail to admire, and secretly envy, the sheer bravura and chutzpah of this performance…

 Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Nae Bad

Thursday’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert at the Queen’s Hall was a fascinating melange of the contemporary, romantic and classical. As a result we experienced a variety of different musical experiences in an exciting evening’s musical entertainment.

I suspect the main draw must have been the evergreen Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but more of this later. The gig kicked off with Brett Dean’s “Testament”, a work some years in evolution that, to quote the composer “in some way related to Beethoven’s life and music”. I personally found it hard to trace this link back to the great man, notwithstanding the composer’s consultation with the string section of the Berlin Philharmonic and studying of the Heiligenstadt Testament. There were strong influences of Honegger, Adams and even Lutoslawski, as well as some clear 19th century style melodic lines in what was a mosaic of musical styles. It made for an entertaining and lively start to the evening and the orchestra dispatched it with enthusiasm and considerable skill.

By way of a contrast followed Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. Mussorgsky had planned to set eight songs by the poet Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov, with whom he shared rooms. In the event he set only four of them and died before he got around to orchestrate them, which his eminent fans Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich were happy to do, as has contemporary Australian composer James Ledger. This latter was the version chosen for us. Perhaps an unconventional choice in view of his illustrious forebears, the orchestration undoubtedly worked in an atmospheric and almost mysterious way, including an extraordinary clarinet glissando in the third song Trepak (described as “death dances with a drunk in the forest at night). Leading contemporary Wagnerian and Estonian born Bass Ain Anger gave a deep, clear and resonant account of this very Russian work in the folk idiom. The power of the magnificent, but I repeat pleasingly clear bass voice was enthusiastically supported, especially by the brass, as it drew to its sombre, striking conclusion.

And so on to the popular, oft played, recorded and interpreted Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C minor. One almost wonders what the point of performing this work is; how can one possibly bring anything new? Everyone, from Von Karajan, the wonderful Carlos Kleiber, and even the Bee Gees in Saturday Night Fever, has had a crack at this gloriously barmy work, and the only person who hasn’t heard it properly in the civilised world is probably Beethoven himself.

To their credit the SCO did pull a rabbit out of a hat. They went off at a cracking pace like the crews in the Boat Race, taut, together, on the money with every new passage and actually managed to convey the excitement of hearing the piece for the first time. A confident opening by the cellos in the Andante con moto made the most of the crescendo in the initial cadence and there were good dynamics and clarity even in the small supporting parts, in particular woodwind and pizzicato strings, and the more so of this latter in the subsequent Allegro. The final, fourth movement Allegro brought the work, and the evening, to a resounding conclusion.

So what to make of this interpretation of the well-known work? Full marks for enthusiasm as caution was thrown to the winds, not afraid of turning up the volume, raw, earthy, almost ‘street’, spirited and raucous. I am sure my school director of music would think that conductor Olari Elts was being a bit naughty with the work, and there were a number of bum notes and other flaws, particularly in the often exposed brass. However, no musician could fail to admire, and secretly envy, the sheer bravura and chutzpah of this performance. Roll over Beethoven!

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 7 April)

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