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Now that you’ve given to friends, family, and (hint) all those worthy arts nonprofits, how about treating yourself to a gift of Oregon music? We heard only a fraction of the classical, jazz and world music released by Oregon artists this year, but we sure enjoyed a lot of what we did hear. We’re dividing our year-end wrap into three segments this time, beginning with two Portland based groups that usually perform music before 1800 and frequently work together, as in this month’s Messiah performances. And don’t forget our past Oregon CD recommendations in 2012, 2013, and 2014.

Cappella Romana

The Portland vocal ensemble released three recordings this year.

GoodFridayInJerusalem-300x300Good Friday in Jerusalem: Medieval Byzantine Chant from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Re-read James McQuillen’s ArtsWatch review. You can hear the ensemble sing some of this music next week; see our Wednesday weekend previews for details.
cappella romana steinberg
Maximilian Steinberg’s Passion Week

Read my Wall Street Journal review of the Portland vocal ensemble’s world premiere performance of the long lost choral masterpiece they recorded and released this year. This new recording sounds just as moving as that performance, and contains not only the Lithuanian-born Steinberg’s early 20th century sacred music masterpiece, but also five Chant Arrangements for Holy Week composed by Steinberg’s father in law, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose shimmering beauty, if not innovation, approaches that of his son in law’s work.

Cyprus: Between Greek East & Latin West
Nicosia, Cyprus in the 15th century: crossroads of East and West; way station for Crusaders; a prize captured by Richard the Lionheart; a successive vassal of French, Italian and Ottoman rulers; a multicultural community that included significant populations of Christians both European and Middle Eastern, Armenians, Jews, and Muslims. There are moments in history when the right combination of people and historical forces converges on a particular provincial community (like ‘60s Motown or Memphis in pop music) and transforms a cultural outpost into a surprising artistic fountain. The Portland vocal ensemble’s third (!) 2015 release imagines what a listener might have heard at one of those fertile junctures.

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In Mulieribus review: Approaching perfection

Women's vocal ensemble gives pristine performances of medieval and Renaissance music

by BRUCE BROWNE

“Perfection is the child of time” – Joseph Hall

We don’t see it, we don’t hear it; most of us don’t know it, at least not intimately. But if Hall is right, then by taking time to plan, listen, experiment, change – rehearsal time in our art – we hone a sonic product toward perfection.

What we heard December 21 at Portland’s St. Philip Neri church was pretty darn close. The eight women of In Mulieribus have reached a certain pinnacle in a number of ways: chief among these is their very clear sensitivity and empathy with one another. If breathing together is a promoter of good health, then these singers must be among the most fit humans on the planet. Phrasing and articulation were particularly well cloned in this performance.

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The program’s title, “The Tree of Jessie,” refers to the medieval iconography that “portrays the genealogy of Jesus, back to Jesse, the father of King David,” according to Song’s program notes. The idea of depicting Jesus as a direct descendant of the royal house of David (who descended from Abraham) fulfills Messianic prophecy set forth in the Old Testament, Isaiah 11:1 mentioning Jesse by name and “drawing” the image. “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (King James 2000).

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Most of us will be occupied by other traditional events than live music concerts over the next few days, but never fear: like many of our volcanos, Oregon’s music scene is ever-active, and only seemingly dormant for certain stretches like this one. In fact, some of these musical offerings have become beloved end of year traditions themselves. As always, we can list only a smattering of the available options, so be sure to check the All Classical cultural events calendar for more options.

Portland Youth Philharmonic opened its 90th season at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

David Hattner leads Portland Youth Philharmonic’s annual concert at Christmas at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

The Ensemble
December 26, Central Lutheran Church, 1857 Potter Street, Eugene; December 27, First Christian Church, 1314 SW Park Avenue, Portland.
If you can only make one show this week, make it this one. Read my Willamette Week preview of the superb Portland-based vocal ensemble’s Christmas concerts.

Portland Youth Philharmonic
December 26
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.
Nativity scenes are all the rage this month, but there’s another event at the end of December that signals youthful renewal. The 300 or so young classical musicians who perform Portland Youth Philharmonic’s annual family friendly concert at Christmas remind us that classical music will always be about the future as well as the past. The past will also be present in this edition as PYP’s alumni orchestra brings back 100 musicians who’ve played with the nine-decade orchestra, including some who played under each of its five music directors, including the current one, David Hattner. The program, performed by various PYP ensembles (strings, winds, etc.) includes selections from Handel’s stirring Water Music, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, and more, including Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, the 1918 symphonic poem that musically portrays various aspects of the great city at different times of day and from different perspectives — four of the city’s most famous fountains — with moods ranging from pastoral to playful to triumphant to melancholy. With PYP playing one of classical music’s most colorful sonic postcards, it’s more like a fountain of youth.

ORBOregon Renaissance Band
December 26-7
Community Music Center, 3350 SE Francis St, Portland.
Read my Willamette Week preview of the early music ensemble’s homemade celebration of really old-school Christmas music.

“Bachxing Day”
December 26
Classical Revolution PDX, Vie de Boheme, 1530 SE 7th Ave. Portland.
Venerable Portland cellist (from Portland State University and the Florestan Trio, among many others) likes to tell a story about how a gaggle of Chamber Music Northwest musicians had to take a break after bickering for hours over how their ensemble was going to interpret a particular piece. Finally someone suggested a break, and to ease the grumpiness, Cheifetz asked each which was her or his favorite composer: the unanimous answer, among these strong headed musicians who minutes before couldn’t agree on anything else: JS Bach. So no wonder CRPDX chose the Western classical tradition’s most beloved composer as the subject for its annual December 26 jam — that and the fact that his name perpetrates a pun on Boxing Day. Dozens of community musicians have signed up to play “any Bach, any interpretation, any instrument,” culminating in the signature Big Bach piece: JSB’s Orchestral Suite #2 in B minor, featuring Liberty Broillet, principal flutist of the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra.

Cult of Orpheus
December 27
Jade Lounge, 2348 SE Ankeny St., Portland.
Fresh off selling out the three-day run of his new opera Viva’s Holiday, Portland composer and poet Christopher Corbell is premiering a slew of his new original poetic songs, including his brief Insect Songs, a cycle of settings for flute (Liberty Broillet) and soprano (Camelia Nine) of Robert Hass’s English translations of haiku by 18th century Japanese poet Issa; original sonnets for classical guitar and voice performed by Corbell himself; a new setting of one of the great Bohemian/Swiss poet Rainer Marie Rilke’s celebrated Sonnets to Orpheus that Corbell will play with cellist Betsy Goy; plus a Sylvia Plath setting and a Mussorgsky song from a Rilke poem. Further underscoring the music-poetry connection, local poets Elie Charpentier and KMA Sullivan will also give readings of their work.

Oregon Symphony, Portland Symphonic Choir, Thomas Lauderdale, Meow Meow
December 29-30
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.
Read my Willamette Week preview of the symphony’s annual NYE (approximately) show, one of the city’s most delightful celebrations of that otherwise often woozy holiday.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

ArtsWatch Weekly: a Nutcracker for the ages (all of them)

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

It’s three days until Christmas, and the day after the winter solstice (the day of, if you’re going by Greenwich Mean Time or its less elegantly named successor, Coordinated Universal Time), and that means that visions of nutcrackers keep dancing in our heads. This is not entirely voluntary – “inescapable” might be a more accurate word – but it’s not entirely unwelcome, either. As much as the inevitable annual return of The Nutcracker to ballet stages across America prompts world-weary calculations of budget-balancing and traditions gone wild, it also makes us think about why the thing’s so undyingly popular.

Lauren Kessler, right, as Clara's Aunt Rose in Eugene Ballet's version of "The Nutcracker." Photo courtesy Lauren Kessler.

Lauren Kessler, right, as Clara’s Aunt Rose in Eugene Ballet’s version of “The Nutcracker.” Photo courtesy Lauren Kessler.

Tchaikovsky’s score, steely and lush and brilliant, has a great deal to do with it: I’ve been known to give recordings of it a spin in mid-July, entirely out of season, and will put on Duke Ellington’s jazz-suite adaptation at the snowdrop of a hat. The ballet’s odd construction provides a neat children’s-perspective view of the season: the hubbub and excitement of Christmas Eve, with its scary visitor, fierce mouse army, and sibling spat, in the first act; the sheer pleasure, as the parade of divertissements rolls out in the second act, of opening all the gifts on Christmas morning. The ballet may be Russian and German in origin, but it’s also the height of Victoriana at a time of year when Victoria still rules. And if its story is less dark and enthralling than E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original 1816 story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the ballet more than compensates with its music, dancing, and visual spectacle: I still miss Campbell Baird’s exquisite designs, based on Fabergé eggs, that Oregon Ballet Theatre used for several years in the James Canfield days.

The writer Lauren Kessler has long felt the enchantment, and unlike most of us, she did something about it. Kessler, long past ordinary ballet age, decided she wanted to perform in The Nutcracker, and so she cold-called Eugene Ballet’s Toni Pimble, looking for a chance to audition. As Angie Jabine notes for ArtsWatch in her fascinating review of Kessler’s book Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest To Dance The Nutcracker, Pimble said “sure” (or words to that effect), and Kessler set out to pursue her dream. Oh: and to write her book.

That meant, partly, getting her middle-aged body in shape. As Jabine writes: “Like Rocky Balboa in a leotard, she trained. All her previous weight lifting and track running and bicycle spinning had given her strength and endurance but had also shortened her hamstrings and bulked up her muscles. Now she would need to stretch out those hamstrings, develop her leg extension, and totally redefine her carriage. In early spring of 2014, she plunged into yoga, Pilates, water-jogging, and a machine-assisted workout called Gyrotonics—along with ballet classes, of course. All this, she notes, was just ‘prep for the prep for the real work.’”

In The Nutcracker, miracles happen. And so, gentle reader, Kessler did go on stage, as Clara’s Aunt Rose, last year and this year, too. And that, as both Kessler and Jabine tell it, is a pretty good story. Meanwhile, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s own Nutcracker, the George Balanchine version, continues through Saturday at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. You could watch the Christmas tree grow.

Xuan Cheng as Dewdrop in Oregon Ballet Theatre's production of George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker." It continues through Saturday at Keller Auditorium.

Xuan Cheng as Dewdrop in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” It continues through Saturday at Keller Auditorium. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

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A couple of weeks ago the celebrated cellist Yo Yo Ma was in town for a solo gig at the Schnitz sponsored by the Oregon Symphony. And there, before curtain time, he ran into a group of young musicians called the MYSfits – that “MYS” stands for Metropolitan Youth Symphony – who were providing a little pre-show music from the second-floor landing. The kids didn’t have tickets for the show (they were scarce, and expensive), but the chance to play at the Schnitz before a major concert was too good to pass up. And then an older fellow showed up and asked if he could sit in for a bit, and then … but don’t let me spoil the story. Read it yourself, as ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell relates it. Something extraordinary, and entirely fitting the season, occurred. You’ll remember this story. You might find yourself retelling it to your friends.

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Blackbird singing in the dead of night, Lennon and McCartney wrote, and Rachel Tess is taking it a few steps farther: On Monday, she’ll be dancing in the dead of night. At 5:30 in the morning, to be precise, when it’ll still be midwinter dark, on the sidewalks of the still-sleeping city, outside 1210 Northwest 10th Avenue in Portland. She and choreographer Peter Mills will collaborate on RACHEL, a performance for the dead of night, which will keep its audience out-of-doors for up to an hour, so bundle up. Reservations are required; make them by emailing rtess@rachelvtess.org. And set your alarm.

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Also on Monday, at a likely more conducive hour (10 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon) the Portland Art Museum will be open. The museum is open most days, of course, but it’s almost always closed Mondays, so this is something special. If you still want to walk off Christmas dinner and you don’t want to join the mob at the new Star Wars movie, this is an excellent dish to add to your plate. No need to set your alarm.


ArtsWatch links

 

The Mousai review: the importance of now. Ah, that’s more like it, Tristan Bliss writes: a concert made up entirely of work by contemporary composers, “the rare concert that doesn’t coerce nostalgia for a time gone-by that none of us have known, but sounds with torrential excitement to be alive now.”

The Moth: close to the flame. “The only thing missing was a campfire; and maybe some animal on a spit; otherwise, we were at home with our ancestors,” Christa Morletti McIntyre wrote about the celebrated storytelling program’s recent visit to Portland.

 


 

About ArtsWatch Weekly

We’ve been sending a letter like this every Tuesday to a select group of email subscribers. Now we’re also posting it weekly on the ArtsWatch home page. In ArtsWatch Weekly, we take a look at stories we’ve covered in the previous week, give early warning of events coming up, and sometimes head off on little arts rambles we don’t include anywhere else. You can read this report here. Or, you can get it delivered weekly to your email inbox, and get a quick look at all the stories you might have missed (we have links galore) and the events you want to add to your calendar. It’s easy to sign up. Just click here, and leave us your name and e-address.


And finally…

We end with a couple of requests. First, if you have friends or family members who you think would enjoy our cultural writing online, could you please forward this letter to them? The bigger our circle of friends, the more we can accomplish. Second, if you’re not already a member of ArtsWatch, may we ask you to please take a moment and sign on? What you give (and your donation is tax-deductible) makes it possible for us to continue and expand our reporting and commenting on our shared culture in Oregon. Thanks, and welcome!

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Yo-Yo Ma in Portland: Youth served

Legendary cellist joins young orchestra players in impromptu performance, and gives them the best seats in the house

When Yo-Yo Ma walked into Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Wednesday, December 9, he wasn’t expecting to hear anyone but himself play music. While the legendary cellist was joining the Eugene Symphony for a sold out concert two days later, his Portland show, though presented by the Oregon Symphony, was a solo gig.

So what, he asked his escort from the Oregon Symphony, was the obviously live music he was hearing as he entered the lobby?

image2As anyone who’s seen the OSO lately knows, its concerts are usually preceded by Prelude performances by local musicians, almost always young ones. “We love to give young performers a place to perform and an appreciative audience,” says the OSO Vice President for Communications Jim Fullan. “In addition, it provides our patrons with some pre-concert entertainment, which they always enjoy.” Held on the second floor landing where patrons can get really close to the musicians and the music, the brief performances make a tasty appetizer to an evening with the Oregon Symphony.

IMG_2171This evening’s Prelude performers, a string ensemble drawn from the ranks of Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s Symphony Orchestra, were in the middle of playing Edvard Grieg’s ever-popular Holberg Suite, conductor-less, which they sometimes do, when maybe the most renowned figure in classical music walked up to hear their set.

After the MYSfits started the fifth movement, Ma moved behind the group to observe the cellists. After watching for a bit, he asked MYS cellist Tommy Cohen, “Can I borrow your cello?” He sat down, and suddenly, 15 young Portland musicians were playing in Yo-Yo Ma’s band, or he in theirs. At the time, several of the musicians did not even realize that Ma was performing with them – it was quite a shock to finish the piece and see him there in the cello section.

Yo-Yo Ma, of course, isn’t just any celebrity soloist. The 60-year-0ld virtuoso is known as much for his restless curiosity and an eagerness to break boundaries, from his world music explorations to his Bach PBS special working with artists in different fields, to his Americana oriented Appalachia Waltz project and many more. He’s made 90 albums, collecting 18 Grammy awards to go with his National Medal of Arts, his Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Polar Music Prize, among multitudinous other laurels. He’s also played Barack Obama’s Presidential inaugural (continuing a string of Presidential appearances that began with his eight year old performance before President Eisenhower), collaborated with a broad range of musicians from the Dixie Chicks to Philip Glass to Bobby McFerrin. And he’s involved in many non-musical causes as well.

YYM MYSMa began to chat with the young musicians, offering general words of encouragement, telling them how impressed he was with the group. It was a nice gesture, something that all of them would tell their friends and families about for the rest of their lives, before the star headed off to his dressing room to prepare for his recital. The experience of playing with an idol, up close and personal, was something they would never forget.

“Above all,” recalled MYS music director William White, “Yo-Yo’s message was to have fun, perform, and communicate through music.”

Alas, a concert by Yo-Yo Ma is pretty much a guaranteed sellout anywhere in the world, ticket prices are dear, and none of the kids had tickets to his Schnitzer performance. But that didn’t stop their new bandmate from including them. He spoke to Oregon Symphony reps backstage, and about ten minutes before his recital began, 16 chairs appeared on the Schnitzer stage, flanking the star, and the MYS musicians got the word that they would be joining the great cellist. And that’s how the young musicians of MYS wound up with the best seats in the house.

Ma proceeded to play three of J.S. Bach’s legendary solo suites for cello, along with music by 20th century Turkish composer Ahmed Adnan Saygun (a friend of Bartok’s), a 2004 work Ma’s own world music Silk Road Ensemble commissioned from Chinese composer Zhao Jiping, and the popular “Appalachia Waltz” written by Ma’s fiddle buddy Mark O’Connor, who is to his instrument what Ma is to the cello.

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“What’s amazing about Yo-Yo Ma is that he made the kids part of the performance,” White says, “personally engaging each of them on stage through his performance, directing little winks, nods, and smiles at each of our students, seemingly trying to point out what he was doing, musically, with each of the pieces.”

“Let me be absolutely clear,” Ma announced to the startled Schnitzer audience at the close of his set. “I am the MYSfit on this stage.”

photoAfter his performance, Ma met with his new young colleagues, praising their skill and ability to play precisely without a conductor, dispensing advice (including some repertoire to try out), and even tips on presenting concerts in fresh ways. The students’ social media accounts quickly propagated with messages of gratitude and astonishment for the great cellist’s generosity. Yo-Yo Ma may not have expected to play in a band when he entered the Schnitzer Concert Hall, but by the time he left, he had a new one.

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Worn-out laughs at the trailer park

Stumptown's "Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical" gets bogged down in cheap put-downs and sodden jokes

By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE

In comedy circles, nobody gets made the butt of the joke more readily than American Southerners, especially in the North. It’s an easy laugh – so easy that it can be both lazy and sloppy.

A good comic can make it work. When Jon Stewart, famous and former host of the satirical Daily Show, gave us Florida Man, the idea that there’s a mashup of Aileen Wuornos the prostitute-turned-serial killer and Ezra “Penny” Baxter the native-swamp-citizen-full-of-mistrust-for-nature out in the poor man’s version of Louisiana didn’t seem farfetched. News reports continue to support this stereotype. But, let’s be fair: there are places in the South that are poorer than most, but no region of the nation can’t say the same.

From left: Andy Mangels as Jackie; Kelly Stewart as Pickles; Sherrie Van Hine as Betty; Elizabeth Hadley as Darlene; Sheila Bruhn as Lin; Steve Coker as Rufus. Photo: Paul Fardig

From left: Andy Mangels as Jackie; Kelly Stewart as Pickles; Sherrie Van Hine as Betty; Elizabeth Hadley as Darlene; Sheila Bruhn as Lin; Steve Coker as Rufus. Photo: Paul Fardig

David Nehis and Betsy Kelso wrote The Great American Trailer Park Musical a few years back and have followed up with a holiday version, The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical, which has now opened in Portland at Stumptown Stages.

The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical doesn’t ask much of its audience: mostly, it’s just a mean-spirited joke. Plenty of recent works look into the political and social tensions that make up the mosaic of American culture. But it becomes apparent by the second act of this musical that the composers and writers had little experience with the characters they wrote, and as much, no insight that would bring out the real the purpose of comedy: to make a truthful, if comical, story that shows something of our common humanity as it entertains.

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The Mousai review: The importance of now

Portland chamber ensemble’s concert of music by living American composers delivers emotional excitement

by TRISTAN BLISS

… enter the stillness of Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall on December 4, escaping the incessant drizzle and oil-slicked roads of Portland nights stretching the city’s west side, much of which I had just walked with my companions – having just escaped the daily salt mines – trying to smoke and be punctual: being young and alive in Portland is a gift of time and place. The Mousai (Janet Bebb, flute, Ann van Bever, oboe, Chris Cox, clarinet, ArtsWatch contributor Maria Choban, piano) programmed and performed the rare concert that doesn’t coerce nostalgia for a time gone-by that none of us have known, but sounds with torrential excitement to be alive now. Propelling the tornadic relationship of art imitating life forward new music, young and young-at-heart American composers, the Mousai reminded us on a murky Oregon Friday why life should imitate art.

No announcement, no pre-show pretense or sales pitch — City Vignettes (composed 2014) by Los Angeles composer George N. Gianopoulos kicked off the show, like much of life, without warning. Cox sauntered on stage as if “we’ll always have [Portland]” to Choban’s piano ramblings to a woolgathering audience, myself included, and, with no Now-Art-Begins pomp, began reciting a Sara Teasdale poem, catching the audience vulnerable to actual emotional involvement and holding them rapt. Gianopoulos’s City Vignettes for flute, piano, and narrator successfully borrowed noir sounds – deep unresolved existential piano arpeggiations with melancholy flute melodies – without sounding pastiche. Embracing Teasdale’s challenge to live life — “The dreams wear thin, men turn upon their beds, And hear the milk cart jangle by alone” — Gianopoulos audiated a somber acknowledgment that the dream of past music is wearing thin, and if composers don’t turn upon their beds, we’ll hear music history jangle by alone with nothing to say of our time or place.

The Mousai's happy ending to Schlosberg's premiere.

The Mousai’s happy ending to Schlosberg’s premiere.

Unwilling to accept that our time is mute, Daniel Schlosberg, a Brooklyn-based composer dissatisfied with the passivity of merely tossing his two cents onto the music history cart, composed pandemonium and quiescence intoxicated by life. Opening with an eclectic ragtime meets Dixieland Buster Keaton-esque free-for-all where the intentionality of everything is questionable yet brilliantly executed, including three butt-cluster chords perpetrated by Choban, Schlosberg dissolved our emotional defenses with laughter and took them captive. Dividing his Two Remarks (2015) into the “Clarinet Remoulade,” described above, and the quiescent timbral modulations and unaccompanied high pitched piano pedal tone of the second movement, “Bated Breath,” Chamber Music Northwest’s 2014 Protege Project composer enchanted the auditorium by the drama of contrast. Night and day, summer/winter, love/indifference etc. … life is dependent upon contrast for comprehension: contrast is as necessary to art as it is to life and Two Remarks, commissioned by the Mousai, made me feel alive.

Ann van Bever introduced popular Washington DC composer Scott Pender’s Variations as the Hollywood piece of the concert, and bad-news-Babbitt it was, and that’s not bad! While not my personal aesthetic preference, it was music to share a strawberry milkshake with a pretty girl to, and engage new audience members with music composed in 2010 that doesn’t demand fluency in 20th century compositional practices.

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