Spring Into Dance: University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, May 4, 2014

Posted May 6, 2014 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
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The University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra performed a fully choreographed version of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” on Sunday afternoon at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. They didn’t accompany the dancing; they were the dancers, throwing themselves into choreography by famed dance-maker Liz Lerman. This follows up on a UMSO/Lerman triumph of two years previous, a similar effort to the strains of Claude Debussy’s “Prelude a l’après-midi d’une faune,” which you can kind of get the idea of from this video. I watched the video from the previous concert but didn’t attend, and so I didn’t realize how much the movement would transform the music as well as the visual experience of a concert. The word’s overused, but this truly was an unforgettable experience.

And it was an experience framed in memory: Martha Wittman came onto the dark stage and sat down: an older woman paging slowly through a book with a smile on her face. Wittman, who not only danced but also collaborated on the choreography, seemed to be awakening the opening measures with her reminiscences; she eventually found a younger foil in U-Md. conducting student Enrico Lopez-Yanez, whose energy inspired Wittman to match as the music sped merrily along. The framing actions (no program was supplied) served to make the stage into a festive reminiscence, with the musicians garbed in rustic attire appropriate to an Appalachian get-together.

Some of the musicians danced with more ease than others, which is to be expected, but they all threw themselves into their moves and played more than creditably while doing so. Indeed, every so often Lerman, along with choreographic collaborator Vincent Thomas, pressed the students to the edge of reasonable possibility, and the UMSO accepted all the challenges: A double-bassist scrambling across the stage carrying his instrument above his head, a bassoonist standing on a fellow musician’s back and delivering a fine solo, a flautist throwing himself into vigorous dancing one minute and playing with perfect breath in the next. That’s commitment, folks.

This is from rehearsal, but it totally happened live. Photo by Kirsten Poulsen-House.

This is from rehearsal, but it totally happened live. Photo by Kirsten Poulsen-House.

Still, the revelation for me came not in the dancing itself, but what it did to the music when the musicians formed and dissolved their various constellations on the Dekelboum Concert Hall’s stage. Instrumental combos that would never sit next to each other (trumpets and violins side-by-side? Sure!) made familiar sounds newly piquant. Textures thinned out, opened up, and at times felt kaleidoscopic, as when string players walked in circles, and you could hear individual notes from the unison playing fade in and out ever so slightly. Woodwinds scattered across the stage to call to each other, underlining Copland’s playful writing and giving it a visual dimension. Especially vigorous rhythms actually got stomped out by the musicians who were playing them, as they advanced from the rear risers. Music that’s always evoked a country celebration in my mind seemed to actually belong to one. And I got goosebumps when a bunch of the musicians strode purposefully to the very front of the stage to blast the climactic statement of “Simple Gifts,” both from the earnest straightforwardness and the sheer volume of sound.

James Ross, the artistic director of the UMSO, masterminded all this effort but was nowhere to be found on stage until the applause started. Being conductorless, too, seemed to liberate and excite the musicians; they had so many responsibilities that they had to be really present, all the time. After that final “Simple Gifts” statement, the music recedes into that twilight memory space again, and Wittman’s character returned to her book; the final touching moment for me was watching a percussion player and harpist nodding to each other as they played the sweet final notes under sustained strings.

It was inevitably a bit of a letdown to hear two pieces after intermission in the standard orchestral configuration, with Ross at the front and everyone sitting down, not that I expect any orchestra to be able to put together a fully choreographed program. (Yes, that’s a dare!)

Robert Russell Bennett’s “Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture” clothed George Gershwin’s immortal tunes in sometimes overfine symphonic garb, overemphasizing the blue notes that were natural to Gershwin. The students romped through it anyway, but I filed the arrangement in the category of “fun but I never need to hear it again.” On the other hand, Henri Dutilleux’s Metaboles, five small-scale works for large-scale orchestra, gleamed with clarity and quivered with tension, orchestral colors bursting from every measure – a showpiece well-shown. And yet, in years to come, it’s the dance I’ll remember.

Other People’s Perspectives: Anne Midgette. More photos available here, in case you’re wondering what it looked like. 

Update: Video now available!

Narrative through Notes: Brian Ganz at the Music Center at Strathmore, February 22, 2014

Posted February 25, 2014 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

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The fourth in Brian Ganz‘s series of concerts at the Music Center at Strathmore traversing the piano works of Frederic Chopin was titled “Chopin, the Storyteller,” but Ganz has always been telling stories through Chopin’s music, stories that help to animate everything from the earliest mazurka to the most celebrated ballade. The 2014 installment of the series just put it in the title.

Ganz addressing the Strathmore crowd on Saturday. Photo from his Facebook page.

Ganz addressing the Strathmore crowd on Saturday. Photo from his Facebook page.

As always, Ganz provided some remarks from the stage that were stimulating if you knew Chopin’s music well and helpful to focus your attention if you were exploring the repertoire through this concert. Ganz found evidence of Chopin’s narrative gift in his music’s immediacy (especially as Chopin worked with shorter forms), pacing, and his courage to explore the darker places. Fair assessments all!

Yet I was struck anew at this concert by the tension Chopin gets from ambiguity: the same phrase recast with a slight flicker in harmony that calls into question what’s come before, or a melody proceeding tentatively, doubling back on itself, unsure of where to take its next step. Ganz draws out these details, and it’s what makes his performances of works like the Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17 no. 4, so remarkable. I’ve rarely wanted to both sit in stillness for a minute and stand up and cheer like I did after Ganz played this music on Saturday.

Ganz also keeps a sure rhythmic sense through all his careful explorations, which helped animate performances of the two Op. 65 waltzes that were somewhat slower than you often hear, and which made the Variationes brilliantes and the concert-closing Scherzo No. 4 as dazzling as the composer intended. It’s of a piece with his overall approach, which balances in-the-moment concentration and spontaneity with a keen feeling for the overall shape of the work.

The most dramatic test of Ganz’s concentration and hold over the audience came in his performance of the Ballade no. 4 in F minor. As he wound up to a grand climax of fortissimo chords, he leaned back just a little, milking a pause. During the silence, someone in the chorister seats shouted “All right!”, sounding like Otto the bus driver from “The Simpsons.” The audience tittered, and suddenly the spell cast by the performance seemed fragile. Yet Ganz trusted himself and the music, playing five soft chords slowly, with a ringing tone, to bring everything back to Chopin.

The National Philharmonic of Montgomery County, which sponsors Ganz’s series, will host Ganz on March 8 and 9 to play some more Chopin, specifically the first piano concerto. If you missed last Saturday’s concert, it’s another opportunity to hear an outstanding Chopin interpreter doing what he does best.

THE KIDS WERE KIND OF ANNOYING, THOUGH

The National Philharmonic has a commendable “All Kids Free, All the Time” policy that allows those from ages 7 to 17 to attend without paying. This has undoubtedly exposed many youths to inspiring music. On Saturday, it exposed the 7-year-old-looking boy in front of me to what seemed to be his worst nightmare, as incredibly antsy boredom in the concert’s first half yielded to desperate appeals for sleep in the second half, appeals only answered when he took it upon himself to go to sleep on the floor, to much murmuring from the adults who had dragged him to the concert. He remained asleep after the concert ended and he was picked up from the floor. The whole thing was remarkably distracting. I am not sure whether there are any larger lessons to be drawn from it, but it seemed worth mentioning.

A Place of Greater Safety: 18th Street Singers at First Trinity Lutheran Church, January 24, 2014

Posted January 27, 2014 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
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Unlike the other 18th Street Singers concerts I’ve heard, there was zero pop music in this year’s winter program (which I caught on Friday; it was repeated on Saturday). Instead, artistic director Benjamin Olinksy and the chorus presented a program entitled “Beauty in the Cathedral” (although they sang in their usual winter-concert spot, First Trinity Lutheran Church). The program juxtaposed ancient polyphony by the likes of Josquin Desprez and Tomás Luis de Victoria with modern works influenced by the old styles from composers like Sergei Rachmaninov, Maurice Duruflé, and Herbert Howells.

The music played well to the 18th Streeters’ strengths: With Olinsky conducting, their sound blossoms warmly even in dissonances or tight contrapuntal spaces (although the sopranos sometimes became screechy at the top of their range on Friday, with the altos occasionally disappearing). Just as important as their sound, they make sure you can hear the words they are singing, so you can actually follow the effects the composers used to illuminate the texts.

As if to prove the point, a couple of pairs of settings presented the thoughts of ancients versus moderns, with versions of “Exsultate Deo” by Palestrina and Francis Poulenc providing an especially piquant contrast: smooth Renaissance homophony and rhythmic oddities and dissonances, the same words filtered through different musical notions of joy and exaltation.

The Singers did an especially good thing in presenting Howells’ Requiem, a work underheard in concert. Howells juxtaposes impassioned settings of brief fragments of the requiem text with settings of answering psalms that begin as monody but blossom into more. The whole thing is not a note longer than it needs to be and more powerful for it, as Howells perfectly integrates his Tudor influences into a personal style and structure. Olinsky led a performance that met Howells’ passion with equal fervor from the singers.

Howells would probably have enjoyed this performance. From the Howells Trust.

Howells would probably have enjoyed this performance. From the Howells Trust.

Howells’ Requiem was the only large-scale work on the program; otherwise, shorter works in which rhythm typically took a back seat to harmony dominated. Individually, they expressed the theme of “sanctuary” that Olinsky outlined in remarks during the concert; collectively, they sometimes felt like a series of applications of balm to already well-moisturized skin, especially in the nice warm acoustic of First Trinity. “Tomorrow shall be my dancing-day,” a Christmas carol a little late, got the pulse up before intermission. Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Komm, Jesu, komm,” should have done the same to end the concert, but the choir didn’t bring out rhythmic vigor of the motet’s fugal section.

Still, this concert was an achievement for Olinsky and the 18th Street Singers, who continue to present concerts largely composed of semi-obscure music that becomes fresh and vital in their performances. Plus, they filled a church with people to hear it! As the strains of “Shenandoah,” an obligatory song for this group, echoed in an encore, you could feel the community in the room – the music had become a personal offering from the singers to the audience. In this sense too, the group created a space of sanctuary on Friday night.

I’ll Be Baroque For Christmas: Bach Sinfonia at Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center, December 14, 2013

Posted December 15, 2013 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
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The annually recurring problem for Christmas-concert presenters: Do you gently tweak the standard Holiday Classix and risk boredom among your more inquisitive types? Or do you bring in something completely novel, skirting the edge of that indefinable quality of “Christmassy”?

The Bach Sinfonia, in its first holiday concert, probably had a little more room to operate than most, since people coming to the Sinfonia expect to hear something unfamiliar, or something they know in an unfamiliar way. Saturday’s concert offered both and, despite occasional hiccups, succeeded in both teaching a few things and celebrating the season.

Conductor and artistic director Daniel Abraham told the audience that this was one of the few local concerts to emphasize instrumental Christmas music, and the Sinfonia delivered a sparkling performance of Arcangelo Corelli’s Op. 6 no. 8 concerto grosso, designated as a “Christmas concerto,” with textures clear in the small ensemble and vibrant rhythms driven by the indefatigable Douglas Poplin on violoncello. The performance of Giuseppe Torelli’s Op. 8 no. 6, with its ending pastorale specifically designated for Christmas, had the same virtues but also a few spectacular violin flubs.

Most of the highlights came when Nola Richardson was singing. She has an agile, pretty soprano voice that worked extremely well in Bach’s challenging  cantata “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen.” Richardson confidently traversed its many, many, many runs while pronouncing all those unruly German diphthongs and remembering/managing to ornament the repeats. In the slower aria, with a chance to catch her breath, her voice really shone, with just a little vibrato and expressive tone that captured the anticipation of Advent effectively.

nolarichardson

Photo of Nola Richardson from her website, taken by Joan Pedersen in 2009.

Richardson also sang a wonderful “Let the bright seraphim” from Handel’s “Samson,” with trumpeter Stanley Curtis proving a more effective foil here than he did in the cantata. The “Domine Deus” from Vivaldi’s “Gloria” was an unexpected repertoire choice, but I’d listen to Richardson sing it in almost any context, and the music tied into Abraham’s theme of Christmas as expressed through the pastorale. The “Pifa” pastorale from Handel’s “Messiah” accomplished the triple win of fitting in with the rest of the program, actually being from the Christmas part of that seldom-heard oratorio, and allowing us to hear Richardson sing a really brisk “Rejoice greatly,” which was a good idea.

Richardson was also by far the best singer during the audience sing-alongs. Lacking in significant familial duties and needing pocket money, I reviewed an absolute ton of holiday concerts during my time at the Post, and the single most challenging sing-along in which I have ever participated was on Saturday: Trying to navigate the original rhythm of the “Coventry Carol,” which apparently mixed and matched duple and triple rhythms within the bars of the refrain. It was kind of bewildering, but also strange and beautiful, and I learned something new about the carol while still being plunged into the Christmas spirit.

Other People’s Perspectives: Joan Reinthaler.

In Their Orbits: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore, November 8, 2013

Posted November 10, 2013 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
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The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”  the “Off the Cuff” treatment on Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore. In this series, music director Marin Alsop prefaces the full performance of the lucky opus with a discussion, as the BSO plays little illustrative snippets of the work as well as related music.

Because I am going to complain a bit about the pre-concert discussion, now is the time to state very clearly that the main point of going to a concert is to hear great music, and Alsop and the BSO delivered just about everything you want to hear in a performance of “The Planets” on Friday. The performance burst with color and energy of nearly (wait for it) astronomical proportions. (Joke sold!)

None of those little rocks gets its own movement because no one on Earth believed they had any influence on our personalities. Photo from National Geographic.

None of those little rocks gets its own movement because no one on Earth believed they had any influence on our personalities. Photo from National Geographic.

The horns, in particular, turned it loose, giving their dissonances an almost physcial force in “Mars,” bumping along merrily with a round, rich sound in “Jupiter,” pounding home the rhythm in “Neptune.” The basses, so often playing without cellos over them in Holst’s suite, made a solid shelf of sound even when quietly underpinning the rest of the ensemble. First among its excellent efforts, the BSO’s percussion section gave us some perfectly on-point glockenspiel playing, and I kept being reminded on Friday how important that is in “The Planets.” The offstage chorus in “Neptune,” the women of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, sat way up in the top tier of the hall so no one could tell where they were, giving additional effectiveness to their otherworldly ostinatos. The only quibble I can come up with is that sometimes the internal machinations of the orchestra in fast passages didn’t come off completely clearly, but Alsop did a great job guiding the orchestra through Holst’s complex rhythms and hemiolas while keeping up forceful momentum throughout.

Before the concert, Alsop discussed Holst’s conception of the planets, largely drawn from astrology, and she brought in astrophysicist Dr. Mario Livio, of the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute, to discuss the real planets. No attempt was made to bridge the discussions, and it wasn’t clear which discussion was supposed to be more illuminating for the concert. The gorgeous photos of the real planets shown while the music was being played heightened the confusion, as we saw Venus’ clouds of sulfuric acid and remembered Dr. Livio’s discussion of Venus’ typical high temperatures in the 800s while listening to the winds and (dynamite) glockenspiel paint a peaceful picture.

Alsop also kept pronouncing Holst’s name “Holts,” and in general sounded a little more detatched than she has in some of her discussions, rattling off an evidently prewritten discussion of the life of the composer at hyperspeed. She did a good job highlighting the tritone interval but then almost apologized for having done so, apparently deciding that the info was too technical for a general audience. The “Off the Cuff” people are here to learn — bring on the intervallic discussion!

On the plus side, Alsop made some good jokes, and heaven knows classical music can stand a few more laffs. Dr. Livio brought a similar sense of humor and a genial stage presence worthy of a man who’s made a second professional success in the realm of popularizing science. And the turn of the images onscreen from Neptune to evocations of Voyager leaving the solar system, as the Choral Arts Society folks sang us out, added an extra sensation to the already transcendent fade-out, capping a tremendously satisfying performance. Just a little more care with the “Off the Cuff” elements, specifically the exposition and how to juxtapose astronomy and astrology, would have made for an evening that was (I’m going to do it again) out of this world.

FORGOT ABOUT DRE?

Well, I haven’t. It’s been three years and still no competition for Big Gustav in the realm of instrumental planets-themed suites from the legendary hip-hop producer, meaning I cannot make a playlist juxtaposing G. Holst and A. Young side-by-side, which would pretty much be the highlight of my music-fan life. Oddisee, step into the breach for the DMV!

The Trumpets Shall Sound: Bach Sinfonia at Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center, October 5, 2013

Posted October 6, 2013 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

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Any discussion of a concert of Baroque-period trumpets must keep in mind that the instruments themselves can barely be played. They don’t have valves to help find the sound; you have to find the note yourself and pray that it’s the right one. The mouthpiece gives no mercy if you’re not properly squared up — nothing will happen at all. Hearing these instruments live is like watching a NASCAR race; even if all the drivers are performing to the peak of their capabilities, you know someone’s probably going to crash. It’s hard to find people who can play them at all, much less play them well.

So when seven Baroque trumpeters (plus a trombone player, a timpanist, and an organist) took the stage at Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring under the auspices of the Bach Sinfonia, it was a rare occasion indeed. And in a program that challenged the players with early trumpet repertoire, Barry Baugess, Joshua Cohen, Stanley Curtis, Joelle Monroe, Rick Murrell, Elisa Koehler, and Douglas Wilson showed that they can tussle with this beast of an instrument and get it to make a rousing and accurate noise. Most of the time.

Barry Bauguess, clutching the cutest lil' trumpet used all night. Photo from his website.

Barry Bauguess, clutching the cutest lil’ trumpet used all night. Photo from his website.

Of course, even when played well, the instruments are limited to one key and don’t give composers many timbral variations to work with either. They do make some dynamite entrance music, as monarchs throughout the ages have realized, but two hours of fanfares or music that constantly threatens to become a fanfare occasionally became a little tedious, even with the sheer force of the sonorities pealing out from the stage.

Some composers managed to find novel ways of working with these instruments. Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s music never fails to be interesting, and his “Sonata A7″ for six of the trumpets and Barry Bocaner‘s trombone had a bright, well-articulated antiphonal style (realized somewhat sloppily on Saturday), while the “Sonata Sancti Polycarpi A9″ exploited the trumpets’ lower registers to fine effect. Giovanni Buonaventura Viviani actually tried to write an Adagio for solo trumpet in his second sonata for solo trumpet and organ, which Murrell did a fine job caressing into expressiveness. John Stanley’s Suite no. 1 of trumpet voluntaries had tripping rhythms and peppy melodies, which Cohen rendered in style. And the trumpeters traded bars from the balconies in duets by Biber and Romanus Weichlein, giving an additional element of spatial interest to already-interesting close harmonies and chromatics.

Solo pieces for the timpani and organ served as welcome aural breaks from the brass brightness: Michelle Humphreys played Jacques Danican Philidor’s “March for the Kettledrums” with the warm tone and rhythmic vitality that characterized her playing all evening long, and Joseph Gascho dashed off Stanley’s organ voluntary in E minor with ease and flair.

Still, if there are seven trumpeters in attendance, you probably came to hear ‘em all a-blazing at once. The concerto for all seven trumpets and timpani that closed the evening has been attributed to Johann Ernst Altenburg, although no one knows its true author. Anyone would want to be associated with its splendorous, expansive writing as it was rendered on Saturday: seven brilliant-sounding trumpets in a small space, textures of the shimmering bright sound shifting harmonically and spatially between banks of trumpets, the timpani driving the action. It was exactly what you want to hear when you come to a concert titled “100 Feet of Brass.”

BACH SINFONIA PRE-CONCERT LECTURES ARE WORTH ATTENDING

Normally I am not too fond of the idea of going to a pre-concert lecture, especially on weekdays when attendance would prevent me from eating dinner betwixt work and music. But the Bach Sinfonia concerts are on Saturdays, meaning there’s time to attend such things with careful planning. So I always try to get there for at least some of the pre-concert discussion, where music director Daniel Abraham engages the performers in discussion of the broader historic context of the works being performed, the instruments being used to perform them, and anything else a body might need to know. Because so much of the Sinfonia’s repertoire is rare or underheard, and because the instruments are so different from the modern ones, I generally learn something that deepens my understanding of the music to come. And that’s part of what period-instrument concerts are about – the opportunity to understand, as best we can from our modern vantage point, what was going on back then. For example, on Sunday I got to hear a story about how trumpet guilds used to beat the tar out of anyone who played the trumpet without the proper authorization.

The Royal Treatment: Jeffrey Cohan and the Capitol Hill Chamber Music Festival, July 19, 2013

Posted July 21, 2013 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

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Louis XIV knew how to live. The Sun King, a devotee of music, did not have access to an iPod to play his favorite tunes, so he had the royal music librarian, Andre Danican Philidor, compile from the works of court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully several suites that mix movements from operas and more abstract works just as we would assemble playlists. Then, of course, Louis had an orchestra of royal musicians who essayed these suites every night — these were not considered grand events but rather “les petits Concerts.” It’s good to be the king.

All of that (except the first and last sentences) I learned on Friday at the second and final concert of this year’s Capitol Hill Chamber Music Festival, once again masterminded by flutist and tireless repertoire-diver Jeffrey Cohan. It was Cohan who found the manuscript of Philidor’s work in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, as he engagingly described in pre-concert remarks. For Friday’s concert he brought together veterans of the DMV period-instrument scene to make us all feel like kings for an evening: violinist Risa Browder, violist Leslie Nero, and John Moran on the viola da gamba.

Jeffrey Cohan, from his website.

Jeffrey Cohan, from his website.

I declare it to have been cool simply on a historic level to hear six of the sixty-seven suites Philidor prepared for Louis le Grand: if you closed your eyes, perhaps you were no longer in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill but chillin’ at Versailles after a long day of worrrying about the War of Spanish Succession. However, as the preceding sentence may have implied, from a musical perspective these specific Lully selections had a certain serenity that may have soothed the royal nerves one suite at a time but that was less compelling over the span of a two-hour concert.

Still, Lully wrote a lot of characterful music, and the king could hardly have avoided picking some of it: an aggressive repetition of close notes to suggest a hunting party bearing down on its prey, strutting fanfares for “La Descente de Mars,” a ringing “Chaconne de Cadmus” to close out the evening. And the more sedate music had its own eloquence; I found myself getting more and more into Lully as the evening went on and I became accustomed to his style, seeing the endless variations within patterns that must have delighted the king.

The assembled musicians had some trouble entering and exiting at the appropriate spots, perhaps inevitable given the completely unfamiliar program; “Les Zephirs” had to be restarted after a quiet word from Browder on where exactly everyone was supposed to come in.

But when the musicians alinged, they showed an easy and winning familiarity with French Baroque style that no doubt comes with playing it for about a million hours. (They also managed to keep their instruments in tune throughout, astonishing considering the tropical heatwave conditions outside.) The single most dramatic moment of the concert featured Cohan duetting with Moran, Cohan springing and swaying about as he sustained a poignant melodic line, Moran closely watching him to make sure they landed in the same place. It came off beautifully.

Even with its flaws, this was the best kind of period performance: the one that allows you to imagine yourself in the period, to forget about the nonsense outside and explore a different world. Once again, Cohan’s festival provided an oasis in the midst of summer.

Other People’s Perspectives: Grace Jean.


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