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Archive for the ‘Western classical’ Category

Take Five: Western classical concertos


Sergei Rachmaninoff

In November 2012, we started a series called ‘Take Five’, which would recommend five albums or artistes from various genres of international music. This series will be carried once in two months. The first seven parts talked of British alternative rock, classical crossover, world music, electronic music, early female blues legends, the Motown superstars and the Velvet Underground influence, respectively. This month, we look at western classical concertos.

AMONG the various types of western classical compositions, this writer has a special weakness for concertos. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a concerto features a solo musician, who has a primary role in the piece, as against a symphony, where all musicians have important roles, but nobody is prominent.

Based on the instruments they are written for, we can have violin concertos, cello concertos, piano concertos, flute concertos, harp concertos, so on and so forth. At times, two or three soloists may also be used, and we can thus have a concerto for flute and harp (like the one composed by Mozart), or a concerto for piano, violin and cello (for example, the famous Beethoven piece).

A standard concerto has three movements – fast, slow and fast. While concertos are always a pleasure to listen to on CD or vinyl, watching them being performed live is a different experience altogether. The best place to hear them, of course, would be live in a concert hall, but besides that, one finds plenty of material on DVD and YouTube.

Before talking of five concertos that would be ideal for lay listeners, here’s a brief on the origin of the form. Here we are using the terms Baroque for music created in the 17th and early 18th centuries, Classical for music created in the later 18th century, Romantic for music created in the 19th century, and Modern for 20th century music. This is as per the generally accepted descriptions of these periods.

The term concerto was first used in the early Baroque period to denote works involving voice and instruments in which the instrument had an independent role. Late Baroque composers, like Bach and Vivaldi, created some memorable compositions, but it was in the Classical period that Mozart revolutionalised the form, writing five violin concertos and 27 piano concertos. His senior Josef Haydn, though more prolific with writing symphonies, composed four concertos for violin, two for cello and 12 for piano. In the Romantic period, most composers wrote magnificent concertos, and the trend was continued well into the Modern era.

With so many great concertos written over the years, choosing five isn’t an easy task. Here, I have looked at four popular works, and one unusual example, all of which have been personal favourites.

Violin Concerto in D Major – Tchaikovsky: Written in 1878, this was the only violin concerto created by the Russian composer, who is otherwise hugely known for his ballets ‘Swan Lake’, ‘The Nutcracker’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’.

One of the best-known among all violin concertos, Tchaikovsky’s piece is also considered one of the most difficult to play. It has three movements, and runs into 35 minutes.

The piece was written in Clarens, Switzerland, when the composer was recovering from his disastrous marriage. As he didn’t play the violin himself, he took the help of his pupil Iosif Kotek, who as per the grapevine was also his homosexual partner.

For Tchaikovsky’s concerto, one can check the recording of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein, with Isaac Stern as the soloist. Other violin concertos one can check are the five by Mozart, the six by great virtuoso Niccolo Paganini and the one written each by Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and modern composer Jean Sibelius.

Cello Concerto in B Minor – Antonin Dvorak: This composition by the Czech composer ranks among the best cello concertos ever written, and it would be ideal to begin with the one featuring noted cellist Msitslav Rostropovich, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

Dvorak wrote this piece in 1895, and this was the last concerto he created. It has three movements running into 40 minutes. Its London premiere in 1896 was conducted by Dvorak himself, with Leo Stern playing the cello for the London Philharmonic.

Among the other cellos concertos, the ones by Haydn, CPE Bach, Robert Schumann, Carl Reinecke, Edward Elgar, Dmitri Shostakovich and Samuel Barber are recommended. British composer Benjamin Britten also wrote what he called a ‘cello symphony’, where equal emphasis was placed on cello and orchestra.

Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor – Sergei Rachmaninoff: Of the four piano concertos that Rachmaninoff wrote, No 2 was the most popular, coming as it did after the terrible response to No 1. The Russian composer wrote the second concerto in 1901.

Written in the standard three-movement format, the piece became so popular it was used in Hollywood soundtracks. The opening section, which sounds like the tolling of bells that lead to the main theme, is a class by itself.
Among the recordings, one can check out pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy playing both Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto No 2 and 3. There is also a priceless recoding of Rachmaninoff playing all his four piano concertos himself.

Over the years, numerous great piano concertos were written. Further suggested for listening are Mozart’s 24th and 26th, Beethoven’s five piano concertos, Frederic Chopin’s two, two by Franz Liszt and the two by Brahms.

Clarinet Concerto in A Major – Mozart: One of the last pieces created by the legendary Mozart before his death in 1791, the clarinet concerto was written for the clarinettist Anton Stadler. It is in three movements – fast, slow, fast.

As there is no autograph for this concerto, and it was published posthumously, critics have found it difficult to understand all of Mozart’s intentions. Yet, it stands out for the delicate interaction between soloist and orchestra, and has received an overwhelming response.

Among the recordings of this concerto, the one featuring clarinettist Sabine Meyer is outstanding. Among other clarinet concertos, those written by modern composers Aaron Copeland and Igor Stravinsky are noteworthy.

Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra No 1 – Ravi Shankar: This was a pathbreaking attempt by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar in the early 1970s to blend Indian music with the western concerto format.

Shankar wrote two such concertos. The first was conducted by Andre Previn for the London Symphony Orchestra. The base is Indian, as it uses four Indian classical ragas – Khamaj, Sindhu Bhairavi, Adana and Manj Khamaj. The second concerto, also called Raga Mala was conducted by Zubin Mehta for the London Philharmonic, and features ragas Lalit, Bairagi, Yaman Kalyan and Miyan Ki Malhar. However, the tempo of the movements has been kept in western style, beginning with fast, then going on to slow and then back to fast.

Summing up: Here, we have talked of four concertos that are purely western classical by nature, and one that is a fusion between Indian music and the western concerto format. We have also mentioned some of the other popular concertos, though this by no means is a complete list.

Like the symphony, the concerto has had its own role to play in western classical music. And if you haven’t attended a live concert featuring a concerto, it’s high time you do.


What makes a celebrity classical conductor


Sir Colin Davis

THE world of western classical music suffered a huge blow on April 14, following the death of popular conductor Sir Colin Davis. Best known as president and longest-serving principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin was one of the most respected names in contemporary classical music.

Known for his interpretations of composers Mozart, Hector Berlioz and Jean Sibelius, Sir Colin was earlier considered to be a rebel among conductors, often rubbing people the wrong way with his aggressive nature. But after a fair amount of experience, he matured considerably and was hugely admired both by audiences, musicians and even young conductors whom he trained.

Sir Colin was part of a breed called the ‘celebrity conductor’, a section which actually forms a fairly small part of the overall classical music scenario. And when you talk that group, very few names come to mind.

Among the others, one could include Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Leopold Stokovski, Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Georg Solti, Simon Rattle, Otto Klemperer, Antal Dorati, Kurt Masur, George Szell, Neville Marriner and Mumbai’s very own Zubin Mehta. There are also those who have conducted orchestras but are largely known for their mastery as instrumentalists — people like violinist Yehudi Menuhin, pianist Daniel Barenboim, cellist Msitslav Rostropovich and pianist-composer Andre Previn.

Across the world, there are numerous philharmonic orchestras, and therefore numerous conductors. So what makes some people more famous and respected than the others? After all, in classical music, the orchestra strictly plays whatever is written down by the composer. Unlike other forms of music, there is no scope for improvisation or individualisation.

Whether he is a celebrity or not, a conductor plays a crucial role in the overall picture. And the biggest barometer to gauge his importance lies in the fact that whether one is attending live concerts or listening to recorded music, audiences are normally interested in four names — those of the composer, the composition, the orchestra and the conductor.

Each orchestra also consists of a large set of very talented musicians. But rather unfortunately, their names are normally unknown to the audience, unless they play a concerto, where one instrumentalist gets a lead role, or unless the conductor specially announces their names for playing a known passage, or unless they are celebrities in their own right.

In 20th and 21st century classical music, the conductor has had many roles to play. Let’s look at some of them:

  • He acts as the face of the orchestra, even though in concert, he has his back to the audience.
  • He selects and mentors the musicians, whatever instruments they play.
  • He decides the choice of the orchestra’s repertoire and specific programme. Thus, he has the power to influence the musicians on the way they express themselves, and even learn and play rarer pieces to add variety.
  • He is completely knowledgeable of a large variety of compositions, getting into granular detail about each note played by each instrument and even suggesting ways to make it sound more beautiful to the audience.
  • He is the backbone of each rehearsal session, guiding the musicians over matters such as timing, volume and expression, so that when they actually perform in front of an audience, the show is flawless. One mistake by one musician in a 100-piece orchestra, and the conductor is blamed.
  • In a live set-up, he ensures coordination in timing, especially during the start of a piece. With his sheer presence, he motivates and inspires the musicians, even though most of them don’t look at him, but at their music sheets instead.
  • He is an authority on auditorium acoustics, and knows how to produce the best sound at vastly different venues.
  • He trains younger musicians on the art of conducting, thus acting as a role model.
  • He acts as a team leader, encouraging camaraderie among musicians, and even ensuring that there are no personality clashes that would affect both the performance’s quality and the orchestra’s image.
  • He’s an expert manager, actually playing the role of a chief executive officer.

Despite all this, there are many who believe that the conductor is just a mere figurehead who sways to the music with his baton to attract the audience!

Anyway, that brings us to our main point. What makes some conductors better-known than others? Why do only some of them make it to the celebrity league? And strangely, why haven’t we seen any women in our list of conductors?

The third question doesn’t have any logical answer. Even though women like Marin Alsop and Simone Young have broken the gender barrier, conducting primarily remains a man’s job. The only reason one can think of is that traditionally, men have taken the initiative of managing large orchestras, and that’s something that has just stuck on.

Now, let’s talk of big names as against not-so-big ones. There are a few reasons why some conductors become celebrities. One is their overall personality, right from their looks to their demeanour to their communication skills to their media-friendliness. Take Bernstein, Karajan, Rattle, Mehta or Sir Colin. Both on and off stage, they looked special.

The second is their interpersonal and management skills. The better they were with such qualities, the more likely they stood a chance to stay at the top for long. With the number of years they put in, they came to be identified with their orchestras and even with the music of specific composers whose pieces they often conducted.

Finally, there’s the orchestra’s name and prestige. As mentioned, there are numerous orchestras around the world. Most of them are really talented. But some of them carry a larger weight because of their location or track record.

Anyone conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra or Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and even reputed orchestras like Royal Concertgebouw and Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra would be more visible and more prolific than some of the lesser-known but equally talented orchestras scattered across the globe.

Besides all this, the celebrity conductor would be perfect practitioners of the roles mentioned in bullet points above.

Like the others mentioned, Sir Colin fit all the requirements of a celebrity conductor. The classical world has lost a gem, and one hopes the younger lot of conductors and musicians draws huge inspiration from his achievements.

The Mumbai symphony

WHEN the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) began playing the fourth movement of Gustav Mahler’s ‘Symphony 5’ on Tuesday evening, there was feather-drop silence. The Adagietto, after all, is one of the Austrian composer’s most recognised pieces of music, enticing listeners with its ‘sehr langsam’ (very slow) pace and romantic brilliance.

Conducted by Christoph Poppen of Germany, the Mahler masterpiece was the highlight of the second day of this year’s September season of SOI.  From the solitary trumpet opening to the energetic and epic finale, the five-movement ‘Symphony 5’ was played to perfection, gaining a standing ovation and nearly 10 minutes of applause. The evening’s other pieces ― the prelude to Richard Wagner’s opera ‘Lohengrin’ and Richard Strauss’ tone poem ‘Death and Transfiguration’ ― set the perfect pace for a wonderful evening.

The concert is part of the SOI’s 13th season. Beginning with Poppen conducting a Beethoven special that included the ‘Violin Concerto’ and the ‘Pastoral Symphony 6’, it will conclude this Sunday with operatic favourites composed by Wagner, Franz von Suppe, Giaochino Rossini, Johann Strauss Jr, Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini and others, in a session conducted by Zane Dalal.

Obviously, the city’s small but devoted number of western classical followers is thrilled. Back in February, they had witnessed two operas ― Pietro Mascagni’s ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s ‘I Pagliacci’ ― and Carl Orff’s scenic cantata ‘Carmina Burana’. So this time, there was some variety.

For the past six years, Mumbai has been looking forward to the SOI’s February and September seasons. Though there are many one-off concerts and festivals through the year, most of them feature smaller chamber orchestras or even solo players, duos, trios and quartets. Festivals like Sangat Chamber Music Festival and Arties Festival, featuring young musicians, have earned their own place in the city’s music calendar.

For more popular pieces like symphonies and concertos, which require larger and more varied orchestras, the SOI concerts have provided an ideal platform. Much credit would go to Khushroo Suntook, chairman of the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Marat Bisangaliev, the orchestra’s musical director, and Zane Dalal, conductor in residence, for spearheading this effort.

Over the years, Mumbai has seen many large orchestras like the Israel, Vienna and Munich Philharmonic, thanks mainly to the efforts of conductor Zubin Mehta. Ensembles like the Bombay Chamber Orchestra, Stop-Gaps Cultural Academy and Paranjoti Choir have played a great role in the city’s musical landscape, There was also this huge extravaganza organised by the Mehli Mehta Foundation in 2008, featuring greats like pianist Daniel Barenboim, tenor Placido Domingo and violinist Pinchas Zukerman.

With the SOI concerts, the Mumbai audience is at least guaranteed of three-day events twice a year. During the past six years, the orchestra and NCPA have done a commendable job in getting high-quality musicians and using a good mix of programming. Though there have been no ‘superstars’ barring composer-conductor Karl Jenkins in 2009, conductors like Adrian Leaper, Alexander Annisimov, Evgeny Bushkov, Johannes Wildner, Dalal and now Poppen have led some spectacular recitals.

On the programme front, there has been a good mix of the popular and rare. We’ve seen Beethoven’s ‘Choral Symphony 9’, Maurice Ravel’s charming ‘Bolero’, Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherzade’ and Mahler’s ‘Symphony 5’, and we’ve also heard composers like Ernest Chausson, Isaac Albeniz and Henryk Wieniawski, who are not too well-known in India.

Given this, a few challenges remain. One, though SOI stands for Symphony Orchestra of India, only 17 of the 80 musicians are Indian. The effort should be to increase that considerably.

Secondly, though a price range of Rs 800-2,000 per show may be justified considering the scale of the concerts and number of musicians, there is nothing like a season pass for those wanting to attend all three days. If a little concession is given on such season passes, more people may want to attend the entire festival, instead of going on only one or two days.

Thirdly, now that the seasons have been well-established in Mumbai, it’s just the right time to take the concerts to other cities, to help widen the exposure of western classical music there.

Finally comes the question of audience profile. In Mumbai, a large section of attendees comprises people from the Parsi and Christian communities, besides diplomats and musicians. Though there have been various efforts like workshops and newspaper advertisements, the following for western classical remains largely limited to a few sections. Of course, that’s the case with many other genres too.

Keeping this in mind, the programming for the next season in February 2013 seems like a smart move. The opening day will have a Beethoven special yet again (obviously, Indian crowds relate to him and Mozart most), followed by compositions of Leonard Bernstein, Johannes Brahms and Antonin Dvorak on the second day.

The final day begins with Camille Saint-Saens’ ‘Violin Concerto 3’ and
Tchaikovsky’s ‘Symphony 5’ (whose second movement inspired John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song’). But after the break, there is a triple concerto called ‘The Melody of Rhythm’, featuring banjo player Bela Fleck, bassist Edgar Meyer and tabla wizard Zakir Hussain.

Now that’s not western classical music, the purists will scoff. Sell-out, they may scream. But the good thing is that it will surely bring in some diverse crowds, who will anyway be exposed to western classical music in the first half.

Much before that happens, of course, a lot of smaller events have been lined up. On October 15, violinist Alina Ibragimova and pianist Stephen Kovacevich will be performing at the Tata Theatre. This will be followed by the Joy of Music festival, featuring solo recitals by Ilya Rashkovskiy and Giuseppe Andaloro on piano, and Alvarro Pierri on guitar. The Sangat festival is normally scheduled in December.

Surely, Mumbai’s western classical music buffs are in for an exciting season.

An initiation into western classical music

Hi all

Am posting a piece I wrote a while ago to circulate to those who have a basic liking for western classical music, but are looking to know more about the nuances. Am sharing it on this blog



MANY people listening to western classical music for the first time may find it heavy, or even boring. It often requires patience and perseverance to develop a taste for it, unless one is exposed to some of the more popular and melodious tunes initially—pieces like Johann Strauss Jr’s ‘The Blue Danube’ (an elevator favourite), Beethoven’s 5th symphony (rearranged to a disco sound in ‘Saturday Night Fever’), Mozart’s 25th symphony (used in the Titan watches ad), Mozart’s 40th symphony (adapted by Salil Chowdhury in ‘Itna na mujhse tu pyar badha’) and Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ (rearranged in the movie ‘Black Swan’).


However, complex as it may appear, western classical music can be appreciated if one knows a few basic fundamentals. Like all genres, it has its rules and techniques. But unlike most genres, there’s absolutely no scope for a musician to improvise or use his own creativity, as the piece HAS to be played the way it was originally written. The feel and expression may change each time, depending on who’s playing it, but the notes and arrangements have to stay the same.


What must one keep in mind to appreciate western classical music? Here are the very basics:
1 Composer and era
While listening to a classical work, the first thing one keeps in mind is the composer and which era he belonged to. After all, the composer is the brainchild of the musical piece, and it is his imagination that musicians are expressing as dictated by him. The five eras in classical music, along with the main composers, are:

a) Baroque period (1600-1770, roughly)—Bach, Vivaldi, Handel. The early music of Haydn came under this era. This era was preceded by European church music and the Renaissance period—a lot of which is termed gospel music these days.
b) Classical period (1770-1815, roughly)—Later Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven. While Haydn is considered a bridge between the baroque and classical eras, Beethoven is seen as a bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras
c) Romantic period (1815-1910, roughly)—Later-day Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Frederic Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Johannes Brahms, many others
d) Modern period (1910-1975)—Igor Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovich, Edward Elgar, Benjamin Britten, Arnold Schoenberg. Charles Ives. Some people feel that though he lived before this era, Wagner’s style of composition had a major influence on modern composers.

e) Contemporary period (1975 onwards)—Philip Glass, Terry Riley, John Adams, Karl Jenkins, John Tavener.

There is another school which classifies conductors by country, but that can be done once one is a bit deeper into the music.

2 Conductor
The conductor is the person who leads the orchestra which plays the composer’s music, whether it is live on stage or for a recording. Though all orchestras play the same piece the same way, a good conductor can bring about better tone, texture, colour and feel from the musicians. The best known conductors are Leonard Bernstein, Herbert Von Karajan, Georg Solti, Otto Klemperer, Yehudi Menuhin, Daniel Barenboim, Antal Dorati, Simon Rattle and India’s very own Zubin Mehta.

3 The type of music
This could be either orchestral/ philharmonic (where many musicians—even 50 or 100—play together) or chamber music. The latter can have a small group of musicians—even 20 or 25—or lesser numbers like solo, duet, trio and quartet. A string quartet, for instance, has two violins, a viola and a cello.

4 The type of composition
The popular ones are:
a) Symphony—This is where a large number of musicians play a pre-composed piece. Symphonies have many violinists, violists and cellists, and a smaller number of bass players, horn players, percussionists, and on many occasions, a pianist.
b) Concerto—Here again, a large number of musicians play together, but the difference is that one musician has a more prominent role. Thus in a piano concerto, the pianist is the soloist who is the backbone of the piece.
c) Quartets, trios, duets and solos—Feature four, three, two and one player, respectively.
d) Sonatas—These are small compositions which are played on instruments (as opposed to cantatas, which are sung).
e) Opera—This is considred another genre altogether, but the base is the same. Here, various singers play the roles of the cast in a story. Each singer has a certain voice range (for men it is bass, bass-baritone, baritone, tenor and counter-tenor, and for women it is alto, contralto, mezzo-soprano and soprano). They are backed by an orchestra. Popular opera composers are Verdi, Rossini, Puccini, Mozart and Wagner. Singers of operatic music include Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, Maria Callas and Monserrat Caballe.
f) Waltzes, marches, dances—These are akin to Indian light classical music. Usually sprightly and catchy tunes. The most famous waltz composer is Johann Strauss Jr, best known for ‘The Blue Danube’. In the contemporary world, violinist-conductor Andre Rieu is known for his modern interpretations of such tunes, accompanied by a large orchestra.
g) Ballet—Longer pieces written for dance enactments. Popular ballet composers are Tchaikovsky (‘Swan Lake’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’), Profokiev (‘Romeo and Juliet’), and Stravinsky (‘The Firebird’).
h) Choir/ choral music—Many singers sing in harmony, but not for a story situation.

5 Movements

Just like Indian vocal music has the slow vilambit and fast drut, and Indian instrumental music has the alaap, jod and jhala sequence, western classical music is divided into movements, often based on their tempo. Most symphonies have four movements—fast, slow, fast, extra-fast, played in that order. Concertos can have four or three movements—from fast to slow to fast again. Though different names are given to different movements based on their speed, the common ones are adagio (slow), largo (very slow), andante (slow, at a walking pace), allegro (fast), scherzo (very fast) and vivace (lively).

6 Instruments used

Last bust not the least, one must keep in mind the musical instruments used. The most prominent ones used in western classical music are the violin, cello, viola and piano, but on the whole instruments can be characterised into:
a) Stringed instruments—Violin, viola, cello, double bass, guitar (lesser used), harp (used more in earlier classical music)
b) Wind instruments—Flute, piccolo, oboe, bassoon, clarinet
c) Brass instruments—French horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba
d) Percussion instruments—Timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals
e) Keyboard instruments—Piano, organ, harpsichord

Well, if one keeps these six things in mind, it becomes easier to appreciate western classical music. For those who are keen to make a beginning, one can start with a compilation called ‘100 Greatest Classical Works’ (EMI). Once one has acquired that basic taste, here are 10 album recommendations:

1 VivaldiThe Four Seasons
2 Bach
6 flute sonatas and The Brandenburg Concertos
3 Mozart
Symphony No 25, Symphony No 40 and ‘Eine Klein Nachtmusik’
4 Beethoven
Symphony No 5, Moonlight Sonata, Piano Concerto No 5 (used very well in ‘The King’s Speec’h), Symphony No 9
5 Rimmsky Korsakov
Scheherezade (a great CD for beginners)
6 Hector Berlioz
Symphonie Fantastique
7 Johann Strauss Jr
Viennese Waltzes (light tunes – semi-classical in nature). Also called ‘Vienerwaltzer’
8 Tchaikovsky
Swan Lake (another great CD for beginners)
9 Stravinsky
Firebird and The Rite Of Spring
10 Rachmaninnoff
Piano concerto No 2 (pl don’t try his piano concerto No 1)


Pieces one can check on YouTube


1 Maurice Ravel—Bolero (one of the ultimate musical pieces)

2 Mozart25th Symphony

3 Mozart – 40th Symphony

4 Beethoven5th Symphony

5 Johann Strauss JrThe Blue Danube

6 TchaikovksySwan Lake

7 Carl OrffCarmina Buranna (Old Spice ad)

8 WagnerRide of The Valkyries

9 Tchaikovsky5th symphony movement 2 (which inspired John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song’)

10 PachelbelCanon in D


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