Joseph Nolan
Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Easter story trimmed but taut

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra and St George’s Cathedral, St Matthew Passion
Perth Concert Hall, April 16 ⋅
Review by Sandra Bowdler ⋅

Bach’s St Matthew Passion (Matthäus-passion) is generally regarded as one of the outstanding monuments of Western music. It uses text from the Gospel according to St Matthew to re-tell, indeed re-enact, the story of the crucifixion, with voice parts for a narrating Evangelist, Pontius Pilate, St Peter and Jesus himself. Musically, it is constructed in a framework of choruses, Lutheran chorales, recitative (accompanied and otherwise) and aria.  The narrative is basically carried forward by stretches of unaccompanied recitative. It is a complex construction, but in performance can be a transfixing experience whatever one’s spiritual beliefs.

It is also undeniably long. This led to some hesitancy in its reception in the eighteenth century, during which the most often performed passion was Graun’s Tod Jesu (1755). The Bach version’s more recent popularity is said to be due to Mendelssohn’s recuperation and abridgement in 1829, the centenary of its original premier. In modern times, unabridged versions are frequently performed and extensively recorded; it usually runs somewhere between two and a half and three hours, usually with at least one interval.  Why then abridge at all? Audiences are able to sit through Wagner and extremely long movies like the Lord of the Rings series. For this performance by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, the reason offered in the printed program is that “WASO rehearsal schedule is not limitless”. Why then do it at all? Why not the much more convenient (shorter) St John Passion, for instance? Obviously these are rhetorical questions but, on the one hand, audiences who know the work may be discombobulated and perhaps disappointed and, on the other, Bach’s intentions are embodied in a work which is very long but which is his best idea of how to present them. Any abridgement is second guessing the composer, who is after all generally regarded as a towering genius.

Rather than the Mendelssohn version, the shortening in this case is the work of respected conductor Joseph Nolan, who has achieved wonders with the featured St George’s Cathedral Consort. In rejecting Mendelssohn’s version, he argues in the program that he has kept the “mainframe of the story intact and that the key relationships are seamless”. In so doing however about a third of the work – it came in at two one hour parts with an interval timed part way into Bach’s part two – has been lost, including such narrative segments as the Annointing in Bethany, the initial Betrayal of Judas, the Last Supper and half of the Interrogation by the High Priests, along with six arias and two chorales.

So how does that work out in practice?  In Part One, it seemed a breathless leap from the initial chorus and chorale to the soprano recitative and aria ‘Ich will dir mein Herze’, and similarly with the other cuts, so while the key relationships might not jar, the lack of continuity does, certainly for those who know the work. The other problem on the night, which might be related, was that Part One was dramatically inert; a lot of well delivered narrative, beautiful sounds and exquisite singing and playing overall, but no real excitement. Part Two, which was more intact, also fared better dramatically; from the soprano’s Erhat uns allen wohlgetan … Aus Liebe on was more gripping (albeit lacking the baritone’s Ja, freilich … Komm, susses Kruz and the alto’s Ach, Golgotha …Sehet! Sehet!). The concluding chorus Herr, wir haben gedacht was as riveting as it should be.

On the plus side, the decision for the chorales to be sung a capella was more than rewarding, with the Consort’s well attested discipline and vocal beauty to the fore. The modern instruments of the small sized orchestra were played with Baroque sensibility if not pitch, and special mention should be made of concertmaster Laurence Jackson, particularly with respect to his solo accompaniment to Aus Liebe, Liz Chee exquisite on oboe throughout but noticeably in Ich will bei meinem Jesu and Mache dich, and flutemeister Andrew Nicholson. All was well supported by a continuo group comprising cello (Noeleen Wright) and chamber organ (Stewart Smith).

Tenor Paul McMahon as the Evangelist with Andrew Foote (baritone) as Jesus held the work together with sterling performances. Sara Macliver’s ethereal but tensile soprano was as exquisite, and sung with as much feeling, as ever. As mentioned, her aria Aus Liebe raised the dramatic tension in Part Two creating, with the flute and oboes, a stunning aural effect. Mezzo-soprano Fiona Campbell is another local glittering star, and her creamy golden tone was well to the fore, particularly in the crowd-pleasing Erbarme dich.  James Clayton’s resonant bass sounded somewhat restrained; the frequent positioning of the soloists behind the orchestra didn’t help. Richard Butler sang the solo tenor parts with a pleasant plangency but was not quite comfortable in the passage work. Smaller roles were competently sung by members of the chorus. The performance received warm if not quite rapturous applause.

Some in the audience may have been remembering the Perth Festival performance of 2005, conducted by Graham Abbott and semi-staged by Lindy Hume, which included some of the same soloists and orchestral players with period instruments. It clocked in at something over three hours including one interval, with which everyone seemed to cope, and indeed it was totally absorbing. Perhaps the world, and Perth, have changed too much, but a future uncut or even less cut St Matthew Passion is surely not too much to hope for.

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Classical music, Music, News, Reviews

Beyond the bombast

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, “Grieg’s Piano Concerto and Dvořák’s New World” ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, November 16 ⋅
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ⋅

Australian symphony orchestras only rarely premiere new work. The West Australian Symphony Orchestra‘s premiere of Lachlan Skipworth’s Hinterland was therefore an anticipated and revealing event. Australia’s orchestras are conservative in the precise meaning of the term: their aim is to conserve a musical tradition which began in 17th century Europe and which arguably reached its apotheosis at the start of the 20th century. This does not imply slavish reproduction, but rather an alternative definition of modernism where progress is defined less in terms of radical new discoveries and more in terms of reworking known forms into new configurations.

Employing these criteria, Skipworth’s Hinterland was a triumph. It is a rousing, fundamentally neo-romantic work. Melodramatic, rhythmically strong crescendos and rattling bass kettle drum moments define its structural units, this kind of material bookending both the first movement, and then exploding out in the finale. The WASO’s placement of this premiere alongside Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No 9 From the New World (1893) and Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor (1868) was instructive in this sense because, despite popular terminology, WASO and its peers are less committed to properly Classical composition, and instead tend to highlight the emotionally rousing approach which the Romantics developed in 19th century Europe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, quite a bit of Hinterland feels rather like one of John William’s works (Star Wars, etc), a composer well known for producing a modern, digestible form of neo-romanticism. Skipworth’s materials are a bit darker, and certainly there is a tendency to dwell in the deeper tones of the orchestra more than what Williams’ lighter touch tends towards, but there is a clearly shared approach to blending between the two.

Hinterland is basically a three part work. It starts dirgy and heavy with massed strings and ends in much the same place only much more aggressively and powerfully. As Skipworth puts it, the “dense chordal mass of the opening returns to build a powerful climactic peak.” For those such as myself, who dream of finding the radical potential of that wonderfully conservative machine that is the orchestra, I did find some such elements in the interregnum. Hinterland is essentially a piece of what was once called “program music”: material designed to evoke a narrative about how the landscape changes over time. The middle section relates how “shimmering strings capture sparks of [morning] sunlight in shallow rock pools.” Because of this, there is true attention to not just rhythm and harmony, but sound qua sound. The sharp clack of the rocks briefly used by the percussionists, the rich, colouristic quality of the horn peals, and other gestures, come out here and rest in their own sonic world. The audience is encouraged to listen and attend to the specificity of these modest, subtle but wonderfully beautiful acoustic events. For those such as myself whose allegiance lies more with Morton Feldman and Xanis Xenakis than John Williams or Georges Bizet (whose work is also evoked here), it was deeply disappointing that the most exciting element of this performance came across as little more than a diversion from the true melodramatic focus of this neo-romantic work. Still, of course, different strokes for different folks, and while the WASO certainly could have used a lighter touch, Skipworth’s challenge for the performers was well handled.

Much the same was true of the program overall. Pianist Andrey Gugnin played Grieg’s extremely varied and at times fiendishly complex Piano Concerto from memory, ably supported by the orchestra. For my taste, the final solo piano section is by far the most interesting, the harmonic richness of the rest of the work here constrained into a very jazzy, finger-plucked section that sits well amongst piano works of the late twentieth century.

Dvořák’s New World symphony concluded the program in a commemoration of the foundation of WASO, which began with a performance of this piece in 1928. Dvořák’s composition is an intensely interesting one which I do not know well. It is at times sparse, with a real sense of urban drive, recalling what America once represented to nineteenth century Europe: the “New World.” There are hints of (now considered ill-informed) attempts to evoke American Native chants (taken from unreliable sources of white American poetry about Hiawatha), of folk-like music (Dvořák’s own speciality in his native Czechoslovakia), of calmed and modified jazz and African-American music, as well as the sweeping Romantic motifs that tended to define music of the period as a whole. Dvořák apparently found the US both scary and bracing, and the music certainly evokes this.

There was a sense that WASO was if anything too Romantic in its interpretation. Having hit the crescendos and crashing strings so early, it was not clear where the orchestra had to go when it came to the finale. But then to some degree this is the point of such music. It is composition with the volume turned up to 11 out of 10 (to quote Spinal Tap). The aim is for an ever more overwhelming explosion of musical force and its corresponding affective impact. If the concert was not quite able to deliver here, this was, I would suggest, at least as much a consequence of the musicological bombast which WASO bravely broached as it was that of the performers. Skipworth’s own contribution then can only be read as a canny compromise. He neither rejects these musical approaches, nor does he slavishly devote himself to them. I look forward to his next endeavour.

Pictured top: Asher Fisch conducts the WA Symphony Orchestra.

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Ned Kelly
Calendar, Music, Opera, Performing arts, Perth Festival

Music: Ned Kelly

15 – 19 February @ No 1 Mill, Jarrahdale ·
Presented by Lost & Found Opera ·

Lost & Found’s mission is to discover lost or forgotten works and present them in unique found spaces. This specially commissioned world premiere invites you into an old timber mill to discover a very different side to one of Australia’s iconic figures.

Composer Luke Styles and librettist Peter Goldsworthy weave together the common myth with lesser known extraordinary facts about the politics, loves and quirks of Australia’s legendary bushranger. Cross dressing, pig stealing, bee keeping, opium smoking, devout republican supporting, armour wearing loyal family men — that’s just part of the story of the notorious Kelly gang.

Superstar Australian baritone Samuel Dundas takes on the title role in a new-found space on the outskirts of Perth that provides the perfect setting, backdrop and link to Australia’s frontier past.

A Perth Festival Co-Commission

Presented in association with West Australian Symphony Orchestra

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Pictured: Ned Kelly, credit: Jacqui Stockdale, Historia


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The Magic Flute
Calendar, Music, Opera, Performing arts, Perth Festival

Music: Mozart’s The Magic Flute

20 – 23 February @ His Majesty’s Theatre ·
Presented by Komische Oper Berlin, Barry Kosky, 1927 ·

Presented in association with West Australian Opera and West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Mozart’s master comedy opera is richly reimagined in a boundary-busting production created by internationally-renowned opera director Barrie Kosky and British theatre group 1927.

Blending animated film and live action in a gloriously ingenious kaleidoscope of 1920s silent movies, Weimar cabaret, dark humour and German expressionism, this visual fantasia is made for film buffs and art lovers, as well as fans of fine opera.

Kosky’s Komische Oper Berlin comes to Australia for the first time, accompanied here by West Australian Symphony Orchestra and 1927’s magical projected animations. Immense three-storey spiders, flappers and demons, butterflies and wolves – this wildly inventive The Magic Flute is like no other.

With its captivating and innovative staging, where film animation interacts with live singers, this production has thrilled audiences around the world. Now Australian audiences have the chance to see this most popular of operas performed as never before.

Presented by arrangement with Arts Projects Australia.

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Pictured: The Magic Flute, credit: Iko Freese

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Echo Drummer
Calendar, Children, Music, October 18, Performing arts

Music: EChO Kids’ Concert – Kwinana

24 October @ Darius Wells Library & Resource Centre ·
Presented by West Australian Symphony Orchestra ·

Join EChO (WASO’s 15-piece Education Chamber Orchestra) and presenter Libby Hammer for a selection of favourite, well-known nursery rhymes alongside exciting original works and fun new songs.

24 October at 10.30 am at the Darius Wells Library & Resource Centre, 2 Robbos Way, Kwinana

FREE – bookings essential: phone Lily 9326 0002

More info: Lily: or 9326 0002

Pictured: EChO Kids’ Concerts Kwinana

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Classical music, Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Stepping outside the box

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, ‘Cédric Tiberghien Plays Rachmaninov 3’ ·
Perth Concert Hall, 25 August ·
Review by Tiffany Ha ·

Sergei Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto (“Rach 3” for short) begins like a lot of other canonical piano repertoire from the late-Romantic era: with a simple, unadorned melody. Visiting French pianist Cedric Tiberghien played the opening subject in cleanly articulated octaves, with an understated piano dynamic that shone through the swirling textures of the orchestra behind him. In such a dense and challenging work, each iteration of the main melodic material becomes a beacon of light to the listener – guiding them through the landscape, unifying the events of the piece through the lens of a kind of hero’s journey. Tiberghien was a captivating, capable hero. He certainly looked the part: young, tall and fit, with a blonde, Luke Skywalker-esque mop of hair. Indeed, as he grappled with the immense technical and expressive demands of the twenty-five minute concerto, displaying remarkable physical and mental stamina, he was reminiscent of a troubled Skywalker in Return of The Jedi, dressed in black, having to recall all his previous training and experience to conquer some of the biggest challenges of his life. And when you see Tiberghien execute those fierce double octave runs at break-neck vivacissimo, it’s hard to believe that he’s not using “the force”.

At the conclusion of the third movement, Tiberghien released the final thundering chord with a dramatic upward swing of the arms, his head and torso recoiling. He sprung from his seat to give conductor Asher Fisch a warm embrace – a refreshing, endearing alternative to the traditional handshake. You could tell they had good chemistry; Fisch seemed to regard the young soloist as both a teammate and a protégé. After several rounds of applause and some scattered ovations, Tiberghien returned to the stage for his encore: a transcription of a Bach prelude, arranged by Alexander Siloti – Rachmaninov’s piano teacher and first cousin. The prelude – with its slow harmonic progression and sparse, transparent texture – served as a lovely palate cleanser after a heavy first course.

The second half of the concert featured two works by Hungarian modernist composer Béla Bartók: the orchestral Dance Suite and The Miraculous Mandarin: Suite. The 1923 Dance Suite was commissioned by Budapest municipal authorities to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the union of Buda, Óbuda and Pest. The suite’s six contrasting movements flow on from one another, weaving in threads from Hungarian, Romanian and Arabic folk tunes to create what Bartók described as “a kind of idealised peasant music”. The orchestra, led by Fisch’s animated yet measured baton, played with their usual level of musicianship – cut-offs were crisp, the sound was unified, they were true to the score. It was also exciting to see the not-so-common instruments featured, such as the celeste, harp, bass clarinet and contrabassoon. The orchestra’s enjoyment of this piece was evident in the joy and vibrance of their performance.

The Miraculous Mandarin ballet, which Bartók scored, first premiered in 1926. His orchestral suite version – essentially a collection of musical scenes from the ballet – premiered two years later. The ballet depicts the tale of a girl and three ruffians who attempt to swindle unsuspecting passers-by, through seduction and violent robbery. The rather taboo subject matter and the often jarring musical style of The Miraculous Mandarin is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s work with the Ballet Russes (most notably The Rite of Spring). While the orchestra did well to evoke a range of moods and scenes – sleazy trombone slides, heart-fluttering flute flutter-tonguing (try saying that quickly three times!), clamouring percussion – it can be hard to understand and fully appreciate the music without the visual element of the ballet. It’s akin to listening to the soundtrack for a film you’ve never seen. However enjoyable it may be, you can’t help but feel that you’re missing part of the package. As a fan of Bartók, and as someone who will read the concert program cover to cover, I still struggled to fully engage with this suite.

Nevertheless – I love that WASO are taking chances with their programming and stepping outside the box.

Pictured top: Cedric Tiberghien. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega.

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A woman, a man and a bird surrounded by flowers.
Circus, Music, Musical theatre, News, Opera, Performing arts, Theatre

First peek at 2019 Perth Festival

Perth Festival has given us a tantalising glimpse of its 2019 programme, revealing four of the works on the line-up.

Returning to open the Festival will be Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak, a nocturnal wonderland that will, once again, light up Kings Park over four nights. This free, outdoor event is a celebration of Noongar culture and the beauty and biodiversity of the South West of WA, that sees audiences take a kaleidoscopic walk through projections, animation, sound and lighting effect along Fraser Avenue and deep into Kings Park.’

Balls of light in a park at night
‘Boorna Waanginy’. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

That weekend will also see two international shows, both Australian exclusives, open in Perth. The first, Lang Toi, by Nouveau Cirque de Vietnam, is a daring display of acrobatics, physical theatre, live traditional music and playful bamboo constructions, that transports the audience into the heart of a Vietnamese village.

an acrobat standing on one hand
A scene from ‘Lang Toi’. Photo: Nguyen Duc Minh.

The second work, The Great Tamer, sees Greece’s Dimitris Papaioannou explore the mysteries of life, death and the beauty of humanity with enigmatic, dreamlike scenes and visual riddles. Using ten performers and a shape-shifting floor that undulates to Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube”, Papaioannou’s magical stagecraft brings to life a series of inventive live paintings.

Last – for now – but not least, flying elephants, gaudy 1920s flappers, comic-book villains, gigantic spiders, butterflies and wolves run rampant as performers interact with animated characters in Barrie Kosky’s exhilarating production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, presented by Kosky’s Komische Oper Berlin, British theatre group 1927 in association with West Australian Opera and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.

The full 2019 Perth Festival program will be announced 1 November 2018.

Pictured top is a scene from Komische Oper Berlin’s “The Magic Flute”.

A man throwing seeds over his head
A scene from ‘The Great Tamer’. Photo: Julian Mommert.
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Pablo Ferrández
Classical music, Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Exciting musical chemistry

Review: WASO Classics Series, Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony & Pablo Ferrández plays Dvořák’s Cello Concerto ·
Perth Concert Hall, 14 July ·
Review by Tiffany Ha ·

It’s always exciting to see young, up-and-coming musicians perform with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO) for the first time. There’s so much talent lurking in all corners of the globe that it can be hard to keep track of all the fresh faces and names. And frankly, I’m surprised that so many of these internationally-renowned classical musicians even make it to Perth; the fact that they come all the way from their prestigious conservatories and institutions on the other side of the world must be testimony to the calibre of our own orchestra. On Saturday night we had a duo of rising stars: American conductor Joshua Weilerstein and Spanish cellist Pablo Ferrández. We were in for some unique and exciting musical chemistry.

Looking no more than 35 years old, Weilerstein appears clean-cut and unassuming. He greeted the audience with a warm smile and gave a short, well-rehearsed speech about the programmed works. Then, he turned to the orchestra and – baton in hand – launched straight into the first piece of the night: Masquerade by American composer Anna Clyne. Composed in 2013, the piece is an extravagant whirlwind of musical celebration, beginning with silky strands of interwoven string glissandi that entice the listener into Clyne’s imaginary world. We hear evocative musical scenes of dancers, acrobats, exotic street entertainers, fireworks, busy promenades, merry drinkers and guests in elaborate costumery. I particularly enjoyed watching the percussion section, who got to play some wacky-sounding instruments. In fact, the entire orchestra looked like they were having fun. My feelings about the piece were adequately summed up by the one audience member who shouted “yeah!” with fist-pumping enthusiasm at its conclusion.

Next up was the Dvořák Cello Concerto. Soloist Pablo Ferrández – twenty-seven, from Madrid – walked on stage with his 1696 “Lord Aylesford” Stradivarius cello. He looked comfortable, having opted for a crisp white shirt with bluish-grey trousers over the traditional suit and tie (which must be restrictive of arm movement, anyway). He sat down in front of the orchestra and made himself at home; he would have to wait a while before his entry in the first movement. During the long orchestral exposition, I was so entranced – by the mellow woodwinds, the folky dotted rhythms and the subtle rhythmic momentum – that I forgot Ferrández was even there. I was taken aback when he cast his first decisive bow, summoning a deep, rich and woody tone from his cello. He played with passion and intensity, with a wide but beautifully-controlled vibrato. He executed a series of death-defying double stops like they were a walk in the park. He had a great musical connection with both conductor and orchestra, blending seamlessly for tutti sections and singing out with full-toned presence for solos.

The final feature was Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. The entire work was completed in the summer of 1944, while Prokofiev was living it up at a government-run artists’ colony, alongside other big-name composers like Shostakovich and Khachaturian. Prokofiev, like many of his contemporaries, was in and out of favour with the Soviet Union throughout his career. His Fifth Symphony is epic in scale and optimistic in mood. When it premiered in 1945, it became a symbol for Soviet victory against German forces in the later stages of World War II. The first movement begins in a slow and stately manner with the lower strings, gradually unfolding into high lyricism and full-scoring. The sounds of war are echoed through blasting horns, huge gongs, rousing snares and swelling clusters of harmonic dissonance. Throughout the symphony’s four movements, Prokofiev seems to deploy everything in his compositional arsenal – from stomping militaristic textures, to obsessive ticking rhythms – generously painted in rich orchestral colours, with a splash of tongue-in-cheek wit.

WASO and conductor Weilerstein moved through the demands of the piece as if they were a tight-knit brotherhood in combat. And like any great military commander, Weilerstein didn’t simply demand respect; he earned it by leading his troops with confidence, integrity and tenacity. I was impressed by the togetherness of the orchestra under Weilerstein’s direction – by the clean cut-offs, the delicately attuned balance of dynamics, and the carefully considered expressive intent. There is something undeniably stirring about seeing a large group come together under a unified goal – whether it’s nationalism, revolution, or art.

Pictured top is  passionate and intense cellist, Pablo Ferrández.

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circus oz
Calendar, Circus, December 18, Music, November 18, Performing arts

Circus: Circus Oz with WASO

30 Nov, 8pm & 1 Dec, 2pm @ Perth Concert Hall ·
Presented by West Australian Symphony Orchestra ·

Join WASO as they entwine their music around the acrobatic limbs of Circus Oz in a spectacular fusion of two extraordinary and dramatically different art forms. Be swept up by the power of the live orchestra as Australia’s daredevil stunt masters defy the laws of physics, tickle your funny-bone and push the boundaries of impossibility.

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Katie Noonan with Elixir
Calendar, Choral, Jazz, Music, October 18, Performing arts, Spoken word poetry

Music: Katie Noonan’s Elixir with Michael Leunig & WASO

26 Oct 8pm @ Perth Concert Hall ·
Presented by West Australian Symphony Orchestra ·

Multi-Platinum selling and five-time ARIA award-winning singer and songwriter Katie Noonan returns to the West Australian Symphony Orchestra with Australia’s ‘poet laureate’ Michael Leunig and her ARIA Award winning jazz trio Elixir featuring Zac Hurren and Stephen Magnusson.

The concert will feature the new ‘Gratitude and Grief’ collaboration between Elixir and Leunig, showcasing a unique combination of spoken-word poetry, angelic vocals and sublime improvisation. With some of Elixir’s previous catalogue and a few of their favourite songs by other artists, this promises to be a truly special evening.

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