Category Archives: Houston Symphony Chorus

A Seemingly Impossible Beginning to a Glorious Finale

By: Aurelie Desmarais
Senior Director, Artistic Planning
Houston Symphony

Maestro Hans Graf

Photo credit: Bruce Bennett

When the calm of a beautiful morning was shattered on September 11, 2001, it seemed that all normal activity would cease. It was impossible to imagine that regular life would, or could, continue. Yet in the aftermath of this history-altering day, the instinct to move forward prevailed.

Obstacles, though seemingly trivial in the face of such tragedy, did abound. The first concert for Hans Graf as Music Director of the Houston Symphony took place on September 15, 2001, just 4 days after the terrorist attacks. All air traffic was grounded and it seemed that there would be no way to get Hans from Calgary to Houston in time for the Opening Night concert, let alone the rehearsals that preceded it.

Through creativity, persistence and lots of phone calls made by an industrious intern, we were able to locate a private plane that had been en route to Calgary, but was grounded at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. Once air traffic was cleared to start again on September 13th, the first priority was given to flights that had been in progress. The private plane resumed its journey up to Calgary and, for its return trip, Margarita and Hans Graf were the passengers. At around midnight on September 13th, I received a call from Hans to assure me that he was safely on the ground in Houston!

Maestro Graf's baton

Photo credit: Bruce Bennett

The Opening Night concert and post-concert dinner was a balm to all. The collective experience of sharing that concert reminded everyone in attendance of the power of music to soothe, to heal, and to inspire optimism for the future. From the opening moments of that first concert, through a remarkable twelve year tenure, Hans will conclude his time as Music Director with two performances of the Mahler Resurrection Symphony on May 17 and 18, 2013. Resurrection is music that speaks to the soul about the human journey–full of joy, tribulation, longing and the quest for redemption. Hans will close his tenure, as he opened it, on a note of hope for the future.

-Aurelie Desmarais

In the video below, Aurelie Desmarais, Senior Director of Artistic Planning, speaks about Maestro Graf’s final month of concerts as Houston Symphony Music Director:


Known for his wide range of repertoire and creative programming, distinguished Austrian conductor Hans Graf is the Houston Symphony’s 15th Music Director and is its longest serving music director. As one of today’s most highly respected musicians, he is a frequent guest with all of the major North American orchestras, and regularly conducts in the foremost concert halls of Europe, Japan and Australia.

Maestro Hans Graf will conduct the Houston Symphony in his final concerts as Music Director on May 17 and 18. Ending his 12-year tenure, Graf will celebrate with the orchestra, staff and patrons in a grand performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection.
Click here for more information and tickets.

The preceding weekend, May 9, 11 and 12, 2013, Maestro Graf will lead the orchestra in it’s final classical subscription concert of the season, featuring Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with guest pianist Janina Fialkowska, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Eroica.
Click here for more information and tickets.

Watch a video tribute to Maestro Graf, which is being shown before each of the concerts during his final month as Houston Symphony Music Director:

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Handel’s “Messiah”…again.

What is it about Handel’s Messiah that makes it such an amazing masterpiece year after year? At first blush, performing the same piece each season could become repetitive and less interesting, but it doesn’t. How can a piece of music feel different each time you perform it, even though nothing on the page has changed for almost 300 years!

Robert Franz, Associate Conductor

Robert Franz, Associate Conductor

The key to this is how the people participating as performers and audience have evolved over time. What makes the changes even more obvious is that the Messiah stays constant. We are dancing around a masterpiece, and our gait adjusts as we do.

Let me explain.

Each year when I meet with the choir to prepare for our annual undertaking, I begin as usual. I chose a movement and let them sing. I listen intensely and in short order I begin to respond to what I hear. In Baroque music each movement is focused on one “affect” at a time. An affect is an emotional value creating a mood. A movement may feel desperate or elated, subdued or gregarious, etc. In striving to reach the purist understanding of that affect, and the most effective way to communicate it, I start addressing one detail after another. Soon the chorus begins to get the idea. They respond to my sculpting the sounds. I can hear it and feel it. I sense their excitement as their confidence grows.

At this point, I turn into my father. (I am lying on my couch to write this paragraph!) As a child my father was very demanding. No matter how well I did, there was always an expectation that it could be better. I have many memories of wishing for pure praise, and receiving a “That was great, but…”instead. What I didn’t understand until many years later was that the only reason that he did that to me, or for me, was because he could see my potential. He sensed that which I did not know was possible. Now I instinctively seek that in the musicians with which I work. In fact, that is probably the most important aspect of what I do.

Returning to the Boise Philharmonic Master Chorale recently in our performance of the Messiah, I realized that in rehearsal I became my father. I can hear, feel and see the space that the singers can grow into. I see them striving for greatness, and it inspires me. When we get to the performance they open up and sing their hearts out. Their intentions are clear, Handel’s affects are being communicated convincingly, and I can sense the breathlessness of the audience as they hear “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” or the great final “Amen Chorus.” Somehow it feels new and fresh to them.

You see, the piece doesn’t change…we do. We become more aware as we evolve. Even when we are performing at our best, we are striving to improve. We can see the ground beneath us as we sore through the music. We are flying high. Then it dawns on us to look up, and we realize that the sky above us is limitless. This is what performing the Messiah every year “feels” like.

Happy Holidays!

From Robert Franz’s blog Building Bridges with Music. CLICK HERE to read more of his posts.

The Houston Symphony performs Handel’s Messiah December 21, 22, 23, 2012. CLICK HERE for ticket information.

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Andrea Bocelli: In His Own Words

In just over a week’s time on November 28th, the Houston Symphony will have the exciting opportunity to perform once more with one of the world’s most inspiring operatic legends: Andrea Bocelli. Bocelli was last in Houston in December of 2010, and is returning by popular demand. The Tuscany native, who suffered the loss of his vision at a young age, exploded onto the classical and popular music charts nearly 20 years ago with hits like his duet performance of “Time To Say Goodbye” with Sarah Brightman. Since then he has continued to inspire and excite audiences from both the classical and popular music realms, uniting people in the way only music can.

I had the chance to ask Mr. Bocelli a few questions in order to learn a bit more about him before our performance with him next week. His thoughtful and insightful answers are below:

Georgia McBride: Who were your mentors as you were developing as an artist?

Andrea Bocelli

Andrea Bocelli

Andrea Bocelli: The voices of Enrico Caruso, Mario Lanza, Beniamino Gigli, Mario Del Monaco, Aureliano Pertile, Ferruccio Tagliavini, Giuseppe Di Stefano have been the most precious companions of my childhood; through these great artists and through their recordings I have come to know and love opera.

But it was Franco Corelli who was the “coup de foudre” that marked my destiny. I have loved this great tenor since the very first time I listened to him. When I was still a child I received as a gift his recording of the “Improvviso” from the opera Andrea Chenier. He was a legendary singer, a charismatic presence, a fantastic voice. When I was a boy I literally consumed his records. Years later I was so lucky to study with him and later to establish a relationship of mutual esteem which on my side was of true devotion.

I also remember with great affection my first teacher, Luciano Bettarini who had already been the teacher of famous artists such as Fedora Barbieri, Mirto Picchi, Giuseppe Taddei, Ettore Bastianini and Ferruccio Tagliavini, thanks to Mr. Bettarini I have learnt first of all the discipline of singing. A discipline that I had never imagined could be so strict, like the one an athlete must follow to get good results. In the field of singing a teacher is like a doctor, if you find the right one you make great progress, if you find the wrong one, you run the risk to be ruined forever. I think there are two kinds of teachers: the one offering precise technical knowledge on vocalization and who helps in making the exercises useful for all kinds of sport disciplines (because the voice is always the result of the activity of a muscle) like the unforgettable Bettarini, and then there is the teacher who is also a kind of muse who will guide you on the path of emulation. Like the great Franco Corelli.

GM: You have been one of the greatest champions of classical music as you have crossed over into the pop realm. How do you handle that responsibility? What are the artistic rewards you reap from existing in both realms?

AB: There is classical music so beautiful to become popular and popular music so beautiful to become soon “a classic.” Opera singers have always tried to sing even popular pages… just think of Caruso, Gigli, Schipa. Perhaps my path has been different, as twenty years ago when I reached success, it was first as a song singer and then later as a lyrical singer. I think I have been very lucky to be born and grown up in Italy, the country where lyrical opera was born, where music has always been very important in everybody’s daily life. My greatest joy is to be able to bring around the world the music and the culture of my land, even more in the United States, in this marvelous country, where dreams may become true. I prefer opera, and being Italian I love singing, when I can, in my own language. But I do not reject pop, there are lots of songs that I like, every kind of music has its own depths.

I have followed, by now for two decades, the lyrical repertoire as well as the pop one. I do it with much honesty and quality. Sometimes, in environments usually dedicated to the so said “light repertoire” I try to propose also lyrical pages, to share with an audience as large as possible my favorite pieces. I often happen to propose a classical program where in the first part there is a strictly lyrical performance, but where in the second part I love including some pieces which are not pop music but great romanzas by now consigned to history (like “Non ti scordar di me” or “Mamma”), masterpieces from operetta (like the duet “Tace il labbro” from Die lustige Witwe) or traditional sacred pages tied to the Christian festivals (like “Adeste fideles”). In the same way I try to keep apart the two types of music: classical and pop; they are two languages which must be spoken with the purity that distinguishes them.

GM: What is your favorite opera?

AB: My voice is quite flexible and thankfully this allows me to have quite a wide repertoire even if I am not any more twenty! Every time I face an opera I get so involved that it turns out to be the favorite and to a certain extent even the easiest to perform. If I had to express a preference I would choose big titles like Puccini’s, from Manon Lescaut to Turandot, and La Bohème. Not to mention, however, the great French lyrical repertoire which offers pages of a breathtaking beauty. This year I made my debut and recorded the Romeo et Juliette by Charles Gounod under the direction of Fabio Luisi: a masterpiece both for the play by Shakespeare in itself, as well as for the way the French composer was able to put in music the well-known story, thus highlighting a universal message that I cherish, which is that hatred always leads only to evil, and that on the contrary love is the only path we should walk upon.

Andrea Bocelli

Andrea Bocelli

GM: Since many of the people attending your upcoming concert may be less familiar with traditional opera, what is one opera you would recommend that they listen to?

AB: Opera is the paradise of music. It is the result of a smart idea conceived four centuries ago in Tuscany (the land where I was born), a representation where many forms of art are assembled. Melodrama offers a complex experience which has been developed through centuries and which requires self-sacrifice from those who perform it. It is however worth it because it offers such deep sensations so as to remain impressed in one’s heart for a lifetime. I think it is impossible not to be conquered by it. That is why I never get tired of singing and listening to it.

When somebody listens for the first time to pages full of passion, taken for example from La Bohème, from Madame Butterfly, from La Traviata, Tosca they will discover that opera is neither a difficult art to enjoy, nor an elitist one. Primary emotions come into play, the word flourishes through music acquiring such richness in subtexts, to get straight to the heart of the spectator. I always hope that after the first fascination, the neophyte even more if young, may feel the desire to investigate, thus discovering that every drama has an extraordinary series of relationships (with literature, the visual arts, history, society) and it is the key to understand better oneself and the strength of feelings and relationships.

I also advise to live, if possible, the experience of opera, alive, inside that magic box which is the theater, the place where the alchemy of an obvious form of fiction takes place and is interpreted against a scenery made of papier mâché, but nevertheless capable of conveying extraordinary emotions and an invaluable journey in the world of art and imagination.

GM: What made you want to return to Houston to perform again?

AB: I remember with great pleasure the concert I gave in December 2010: the audience of Houston is generous, involved and passionate. They know how to have fun to express their joy and excitement. On that occasion then, Christmas which was approaching was warming the heart of all of us, and we all felt a positive energy and warmth really unforgettable.

And here in Texas I have had, once again a demonstration of strong affection by the American public which I am returning with much gratitude. When I sing in your country I always feel that there is an empathy that has no equal. This is, perhaps, why I feel at home every time I am in United States. And when I come back to sing here, it is like singing in front of an audience of friends. So not to come here to Houston with at least one day of celebration and music together, during my American tour, would seem to me like betraying the expectations of this town and of many.

GM: You have performed with so many orchestras around the world… What makes the Houston Symphony special?

AB: It is an important orchestra, a staff with a prestigious past (thanks also to extraordinary people like Sir John Barberolli, and Sir André Previn) and a present situation adequate to the expectations that its reputations require. I have a great memory of the “sound personality” of the Houston Symphony, so bright and responsive. That is why I am very pleased to return and to share the joy of making music together. -Andrea Bocelli

Learn more about Andrea Bocelli.

Andrea Bocelli Performs Ave Maria:

Andrea Bocelli performs in Houston for one night only with the Houston Symphony!
Wednesday November 28, 2012, 7:30 PM
The Toyota Center

Andrea Bocelli
Houston Symphony and Chorus
Eugene Kohn
, conductor
Maria Aleida, soprano
Katherine Jenkins, guest vocalist

Buy tickets here!

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The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses Preview

The anticipation is palpable here at the Houston Symphony. Everyone is buzzing about this weekend’s upcoming performances of The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses. Check out a preview of what’s in store here:

Balcony seats are now available for Friday and Saturday nights! But hurry, tickets are going quickly!

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Music Inspires! Announcing the 2011-2012 Houston Symphony Season

From left, Eric Larson, double bass, Kiju Joh, violin and Kevin Dvorak, cello

On Sunday morning, the Houston Symphony announced its upcoming 2011-12 season of Classical, Pops and Family concerts.  In line with the Symphony’s mission, enriching concerts fill each weekend with inspiration and bring innovative, first-class performances to the extensive cultural scene in Houston.  Dynamic guest artists, Music Director Hans Graf and Principal Pops Conductor Michael Krajewski will collaborate with the 85 members of the Houston Symphony in performances that span many musical genres and four centuries of composition.  Highlights include season-opening performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; a three-week-long tribute to Rachmaninoff; Orbit – An HD Odyssey, the sequel to the internationally renowned Planets project; ACCESS, a new concert format for today’s ever-evolving audience and appearances by many talented conductors, some of whom are vying to be the Houston Symphony’s next music director, following the end of Hans Graf’s successful tenure in 2013.

Inspiring Music

Music Director Hans Graf

Stellar Artists, Beloved Repertoire
As always, the Houston Symphony brings powerful programming to the fourth largest city in the country.  Under the direction of Music Director Hans Graf, the 2011-12 season will open with two performances of the inspirational “Ode to Joy” Beethoven Symphony No. 9 on September 9 and 10, 2011, and will close with dramatic performances of Carmina Burana by Carl Orff on May 17-20, 2012.  These concerts, along with many others during the season, will also feature the talented Houston Symphony Chorus under the direction of Charles Hausmann.  In addition, the Symphony will showcase a feast of classical offerings including Elgar’s Enigma Variations; a special commissioned work by Pierre Jalbert of Rice University that will honor the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy;  Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5; Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik; and Berg’s Violin Concerto featuring the Symphony’s concertmaster, Frank Huang.

Violinist Hilary Hahn

Many friends of the Houston Symphony will be returning to Jones Hall including violinists James Ehnes and Hilary Hahn, soprano and Houston Grand Opera Studio alum, Albina Shagimuratova, and extraordinary pianists André Watts, Olga Kern and Emanuel Ax.

Debuting artists are in abundance in 2011-12.  The Symphony welcomes cellist Daniel Mueller-Schott, percussionist Colin Currie, violinist Chloe Hanslip, and guest conductors David Afkham, Gilbert Varga, Christoph Koenig, Edward Gardner, Jakub Hrůša, John Storgårds, Vasily Petrenko, Alexander Shelley, and Pablo Heras-Casado.

“The upcoming season demonstrates the impressive breadth of the Houston Symphony,” said Graf.  “We will welcome back to Houston some of the world’s most accomplished guest artists, some young talent just bursting onto the scene and, as always, we offer a bounty of music that will stimulate, excite, entertain and hopefully inspire you.  I am looking forward to it!”

Photo credit: NASA/JPL

Orbit – An HD Odyssey
Orbit – An HD Odyssey is coming!  Following the success of The Planets – An HD Odyssey, with glowing reviews, sell-out concerts, a well-received UK tour, and a best-selling DVD/Blu-ray disc, the sequel is being launched.  The Houston Symphony has once again commissioned producer/director Duncan Copp to create an out-of-this-world, high-definition film to accompany a live orchestral performance by the Houston Symphony.  Orbit – An HD Odyssey will focus on planet Earth.  Featuring John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, high-definition images from NASA’s shuttle missions, the International Space Station and satellites orbiting Earth will be spun together to tell an awe-inspiring story of our home planet’s land, sea and sky.  The world-premiere performance of this Symphony Special concert will occur on February 18, 2012.

Christoph Eschenbach will return in December to conduct Mahler's 5th Symphony.

Christoph Eschenbach
Former Houston Symphony Music Director, Christoph Eschenbach, will return to Jones Hall on December 6 for a one-night-only, Symphony Special performance with the musicians of the Houston Symphony.   Eschenbach returns to the podium, for the first time since February 2002, to lead the Houston Symphony in Mahler’s momentous Symphony No. 5.

Rachmaninoff Festival
It will be a month full of Rachmaninoff programming in January 2012 for a three-weekend concert extravaganza called “Rach Fest.” Included in the line-up will be all four Rachmaninoff piano concertos, performed by celebrated young pianist and 2010 Gilmore Artist Award winner, Kirill Gerstein, who will be serving as an artist in residence during the festival.  Rachmaninoff, a virtuoso pianist in his own right, wrote hugely demanding music for the keyboard.  Gerstein’s performance of all four, knuckle-busting concertos in three weeks will be amazing to behold. Interestingly, Houston has a special relationship with Gerstein.  In his early years as a fresh face in the industry, he was embraced by the Houston Symphony as a guest soloist.  Then, in the days before his most recent appearance with the Houston Symphony in January 2010, Gerstein received the news that he had been awarded the prestigious piano prize, the Gilmore Artist Award.

A New Concert Experience

Houston Symphony patrons’ yearning for a deeper connection to music and musicians inspired the creation of a new interactive concert series for 2011-12.  Along with the aid of celebrity guest host, Miles Hoffman of National Public Radio fame, the ACCESS Series is designed to be a highly accessible and informative approach to a symphony concert.  The concerts, a collection of three Friday evenings, will begin an hour earlier at 7:00 p.m. and will be shorter in length (approximately 80 minutes) with no intermission.  As ACCESS host, Mr. Hoffman will bring an interactive spin to the performances such as interviewing artists, conductors, orchestra members or discussing repertoire throughout the concerts.  In addition to the music, a pre-concert cocktail party is planned for each night along with post-concert question-and-answer sessions.

“With the ACCESS series, we are aiming to attract both new and current audiences who are eager to know more about the music being performed and the musicians involved,” said Mark Hanson, Houston Symphony Executive Director and CEO of the Houston Symphony.  “Our host, Miles Hoffman, will engage and excite anyone who loves great music!  This series is tangible proof of the Houston Symphony’s commitment to innovation, experimentation, and engagement.”

Even More Music!

Idina Menzel, known for her roles as Elphaba in Wicked and Maureen in Rent, as well as from TV's Glee, will perform with the Symphony in October.

The Pops season continues to provide the “Music You Know, Music You Love” in 2011-12.  Kicking off the year on September 2-4 will be “Viva Italia!”, an evening of iconic Italian hits like music from The Godfather and Jersey Boys, La Traviata and “Nessun Dorma!,”– all performed by Poperazzi, a pop-opera vocal trio from Las Vegas.  Glee fans and Baby Boomers alike will delight in several shows.  Idina Menzel, star of Broadway’s Rent, Wicked and TV’s Glee, debuts with the Houston Symphony on October 14-16.  “Live and Let Die:  The Music of Paul McCartney” comes to Jones Hall with Michael Krajewski conducting on November 4-6 along with a “Tribute to John Denver” on April 5-7, 2012.  Also in April, “Cole Porter’s Great American Songbook” will entertain audiences with song classics from Broadway and Hollywood.  Likewise, movie music will be the star of another concert weekend in January 2012.  “The Best of Williams and Spielberg” will showcase the Houston Symphony and Krajewski performing epic music from Stephen Spielberg and John Williams’ films.  Bowfire! will electrify the stage in March 2012 with their virtuosi fiddle players  who play a wide spectrum of musical genres with a show including choreography, dramatic lighting, set design and costumes.  The dance-inducing Latin music group, Tiempo Libre, will close the Pops season in May 2012 with their Cuban flair and fusion of classical music and Afro-Cuban rhythms.

“I invite you to experience these incomparable musical evenings featuring tributes to Paul McCartney, John Denver and Cole Porter, journeys to Cuba and Italy, and salutes Hollywood and Broadway. You’ll hear the music you love performed by one of America’s finest orchestras – your very own Houston Symphony! Come and join us for the fun. I’ll see you there,” said Krajewski.

Associate Conductor Robert Franz

Houston Symphony Associate Conductor, Robert Franz, has created another captivating season of family offerings.  Fairy tales, The Little Mermaid and Houston Astros’ Milo Hamilton are all part of the 2011-12 Weatherford Family Concert Series.  Families can enjoy an engaging, entertaining experience full of wonderful orchestral music on four Saturday mornings during the season. “Once Upon A Dream:  Princes & Princesses” will kick-off the Family series on October 15 with music by composers featuring brave princes and beautiful princesses.  “The Night Before Christmas” will be the Family holiday concert on December 3, and the “Music of Little Mermaid” will delight audiences on March 10, 2012.  Rounding out the four-concert series will be “Perfect Pitch:  Music of Baseball” on April 28, 2012, where the Houston Astros’ announcer and Hall of Fame award-winner, Milo Hamilton, will narrate Casey at the Bat.

“I love putting these concerts together for our family audiences,” said Franz.  “As a fairly new uncle, these concerts are an extension of the time that my niece and I spend dancing and singing together…on a bit of a larger scale! But don’t be misled; these concerts are as much for parents and grandparents as they are for kids. The fact that all generations in a family can enjoy the Houston Symphony together makes these concerts very special.”

Houston Symphony On The Road

Return to Carnegie Hall
The Houston Symphony has been invited back to Carnegie Hall to participate in the 2012 Spring for Music Festival.  With a tag line of “Uncommon Concerts for $25”, the festival is a new and innovative collection of concerts featuring North American symphony and chamber orchestras with a focus on unique programming at affordable prices.  The Houston Symphony will kick-off the 2012 festival with the first performance on May 7, 2012.  The week-long event is designed to allow chosen orchestras to showcase their artistic philosophies through distinctive and creative programming in one of the world’s most competitive musical environments, Carnegie Hall.  The 2012 festival will mark Spring for Music’s second festival; May 2011 will be the inaugural run.

Expanding the Symphony’s Footprint in Houston

Sugar Land Series
In 2011-12, the Symphony is setting-up shop in Sugar Land in bustling Fort Bend County for a series of three concerts on Thursday evenings beginning at 8:00 p.m.  The first two concerts in this new Sugar Land series will feature the Houston Symphony and Chorus in performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Handel’s Messiah.  The third series performance will be presented in the new ACCESS format – an informative and interactive approach to a symphony concert hosted by Miles Hoffman of National Public Radio fame. The location will be the high-tech, multi-functional, and easy-access performance facilities at Sugar Land Baptist Church on Highway 59.

Looking Ahead

Music Director Search
The Houston Symphony’s 2011-12 season will mark the second year in its search for a new music director.  As previously announced in October 2009, Hans Graf will end his tenure at the end of the 2012-13 season as the longest serving music director in the organization’s history.  In January 2010, the Symphony formed a committee of musicians, staff, board members and community leaders to begin the search for a replacement.  Among the many guest conductors who visit Jones Hall each season, there are possible music director candidates who are being assessed for their musical leadership, on-stage charisma and communication abilities.

Special Note for Current Houston Symphony Subscribers:

Guess what? You can already renew for the 2011-2012 season! Please click here for more information, and here to view the Classical Season Brochure.

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