Category Archives: Reviews

SCO / Emelyanychev

City Halls, Glasgow

Perhaps more than any other outfit, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has contrived to combine elements of the season that fell victim to the pandemic with the work it did online during the hiatus in its programming since audiences were again permitted into concert halls.

This journey back in time from John Adams via Mozart to Bach’s Brandenburg No 5 was a case in point, as well as being another illustration of the sparkling relationship that now exists between the SCO and its principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.

The young Russian seemed especially hyper on Friday night, even as he introduced and then absented himself from the stage for Mozart’s Gran Partita. That was perhaps not entirely to the benefit of Adams’s Shaker Loops. The composer’s breakthrough work was much better in its more delicate moments than in the opening Shaking and Trembling, which was less precision-tooled and sharp-edged than the music requires. The many discrete string sections were not as distinct as they needed to be, and of the three violin groups, it was Marcus Barcham Stevens’s thirds that seemed the crispest.

The higher the volume, it seemed, the less the ensemble cohered and it is tempting to conclude that the excitable Emelyanychev’s expansive gestures at such moments were part of the problem.

Lovers of symmetry and mathematical precision in music were in hog heaven with this programme, and as much in the Mozart as the two composers either side. With string bass Ciro Vigilante flanked by pairs of horns and quartets of single and double reeds facing one another, principal clarinet Maximiliano Martin was in the leader’s chair for a truly expert and pretty much flawless account of the work. The third movement variations were delightfully individual and the balance of the 13 players in the City Hall acoustic about perfect, which was arguably especially impressive from the four natural horns.

The Brandenburg, from half a century before, could almost seem free-form by comparison, a showcase for soloists first violin Stephanie Gonley, flautist Andre Cebrian and Emelyanychev at the harpsichord, with a four-man string continuo led by cellist Philip Higham, who had added a fine solo to the Adams.

Cebrian looked to be running away with the show in the first movement but his lovely fluid playing drew a virtuoso response from Emelyanychev at the keyboard before the trio settled into a beautifully-measured account of the Affettuoso slow movement. The Allegro finale was a masterful example of warm, bubbling, ensemble playing, and the icing on the cake was an encore of a short Martinu Promenade.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Chauhan

City Halls, Glasgow 

Does the BBC SSO have its eye on Alpesh Chauhan as a possible successor to Thomas Dausgaard as principal conductor, whose contract ends next year? He’s certainly an interesting prospect – young, determined and confident – though Thursday’s appearance with the SSO revealed once again that, while he ignites a spark in certain areas of repertoire, his mastery of such core Romantic repertory as Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6, the “Pathétique”, is still work in progress.

Chauhan opened this live broadcast programme with Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No 2, a work completed by the composer three decades after leaving it unfinished, which consequently bears the post-Romantic excess of his pre-dodecaphonic music but with the ultra-clean textural discipline of his maturer style. A reduced SSO ensemble made the most of the challenge, producing a gritty, precise and virtuosic performance.

But it was the calculated insistence on Chauhan’s part that characterised it. The initial journey from soft teasing woodwind phrases to the seething tumult of the first big climax was as much a result of pumped adrenalin as clear thinking. And where the first movement wrestled with its dense emotional heat, the second – initially an assertive, jaunty Con fuoco – pinned its outgoing exhilaration on a combination of Schoenberg’s stabilising old-style rhythmic regularity and the elusiveness of its post-Romantic language.

This was the big hit of the evening, with mezzo soprano Karen Cargill’s pre-interval encore of Richard Strauss’s idyllic Morgen well up there with it. The latter followed Cargill’s official contribution to the programme, Erich Korngold’s achingly beautiful Absecheidslieder (Songs of Farewell), which suited the characteristically molten, earthy quality of her lower voice. 

In the opening song the mood was one of reflective seduction; the powerful Wagnerian in Cargill coloured the ensuing Dies eine kann mein Sehen with a thrilling euphoric glow; the more mystical Mond, so gest du wieder auf, with its otherworldliness and ethereal religiosity, gave way to the deeply personal Gefasster Abschied, sumptuously Straussian in mood and manner.

It was hard at times to catch all of Cargill’s performance above the wholesome orchestration, and the higher reaches of her voice seemed a little less comfortable than usual, but there was no escaping the emotive connection she has with this music, and with the exquisite Morgen that followed, featuring also the poised, poignantly understated solo violin of SSO associate leader Kanako Ita. It was just a shame that no-one saw fit to give her the curtain call she so thoroughly deserved.

Chauhan’s Tchaikovsky was a curious combination of fluid efficiency and heavy-duty indulgence. The latter turned the opening movement into a journey plagued by too many wrong turnings – agonising extremes of tempi, especially the slow ones, that jarred with the overall flow and which effected audible signs of insecurity at key attack points. When he let the music express itself in the central movements, however, things made much more sense. From that, the finale emerged with convincing gravitas, albeit susceptible – as in several previous instances – to a brass section given too free a rein at the expense of the modest string forces. 

Ken Walton

Available to stream or download for 30 days.

RSNO / Stockhammer

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

We’re getting very used to last minute changes of guest artists, thanks to Covid. It happened again last week with the RSNO, where the advertised conductor Finnish Eva Olikainen, unable to travel, had to be replaced by the German-based American maestro Jonathan Stockhammer.

The call went out to him on Monday, and by Friday he had the originally advertised programme – a slightly chilled cocktail of German, Finnish and Icelandic repertoire – ready for Edinburgh, repeated on Saturday in Glasgow. 

He’s a versatile operator, equally at home composing for, and performing with, the Pet Shop Boys as he is engaging in cutting edge classical music with the likes of Ensemble Modern. So this relatively straightforward programme presented him with few problems. 

Everything seemed to run smoothly and confidently: a mood-setting Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin that segued dramatically into the mystical turbulence of Anna Þorvaldsdóttir’s Metacosmos, in turn setting the scene for Sibelius’ thick-set Tapiola; and a second half exclusively dedicated to Brahms’ muscular Piano Concerto No 1 with soloist Sunwook Kim.

What pervaded most of this, however, was a sense that the partnership had not quite had sufficient time to fully embed. How else could you explain the palpable nervousness of the upper-strings in the opening (and closing) bars of the Lohengrin, which short-changed this transcendent music of its inner warmth and subliminal lustre? 

The segue to Metacosmos was inspired, taking us in the blink of an eye from Wagner’s floating heaven-bound strings to the deep, subterranean growls that open Þorvaldsdóttir’s restless soundscape. Stockhammer sourced the powerful underlying gravitas of the latter, but there was something characterless in the more detailed texturing that may actually have come from the writing itself, a disappointing naivety informing its more prominently exposed melodies. 

There’s nothing naive about Sibelius’ last completed orchestral work, the wild and dreamy tone poem Tapiola of 1926, the challenge being to elicit a sense of momentum from its gnawing deliberations. There were many powerful moments in this performance, like a humanly emotional response to the elemental grit of Þorvaldsdóttir’s Metacosmos, but it lacked visceral inevitability.

Sunwook Kim’s Brahms proved to be a much-needed spark. Again, it’s a heavy-going piece, and there was a suitably firm-handed, symphonic seriousness throughout its three movements, especially from the rock-solid Kim. Stockhammer, in turn, inspired a more instinctive response from the RSNO. It was meatily argued, grandiose in scale, but with enough spontaneous bursts to bring colour at last to an evening that had hitherto struggled to take full flight.

Ken Walton 

SCO / Swensen

City Halls, Glasgow

The light and melodic early Mahler that preceded it was not enough to attract anything but a small audience to the more difficult delights of Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto, dedicated to his teacher at the Second Viennese School, Arnold Schoenberg.

Still a radical work almost a century on from its composition, the Berg is open to all sorts of interpretation both in its meaning and in its performance (Pierre Boulez eschewed the long repeat in the last movement). That was clear even before the concert began, with the psychological interpretation favoured by the work’s conductor, Joseph Swensen, in a lengthy spoken preamble, very different from – if not entirely at odds with – the more personal gloss put on the work in the SCO’s online programme.

Swensen, whose long association with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is clearly very close to his heart, took a surprisingly laid back approach to the work at first, which meant it was rather less sharp-edged than is ideal, but his strategy made more sense as the work progressed and the roles for the unusual forces onstage unfolded.

The focus on the soloists, violinist Kolja Blacher and pianist Roman Rabinovich, is far from exclusive, and both – and indeed the conductor – have passages of idleness between bursts of challenging activity. Blacher’s plaintive solos were memorable, but so too were the contributions of every individual in the 13-strong ensemble of winds (and brass).

Trumpeter Peter Franks was the first in the spotlight earlier in the evening, for Mahler’s Blumine, the piece of incidental music he incorporated and then removed from his First Symphony. Far from as sickly as its earliest critics suggested, it also has a long sequence of solos for the wind players before the focus returns to the trumpet.

Continuing the floral theme, Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of What The Wild Flowers Tell Me from Mahler’s Symphony No 3 was the evening’s showcase for the strings. Guest-led by Sarah Kapustin and with a number of unfamiliar faces in their ranks, they were a wonderfully coherent unit just the same, and Kapustin’s brief solos sparkled.

With a full platform for the Mahler and spare instrumentation for the Berg, this was a curious but fascinating programme, and the performance history of the works made for a complex chronology as well. The quality of the playing, however, was consistently high from start to finish.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Ackham

City Halls, Glasgow

All things German seemed to align in this substantial BBC SSO programme, from the repertoire itself to the efficient presence of David Ackham on the podium and violinist Tobias Feldmann replacing the advertised soloist, Viktoria Eberle, who had to withdraw due to Covid-related issues.

As it happened, Feldmann’s appearance turned out to be the surprise of the show, a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto that not only defied expectations though its adoption of Wolfgang Schneiderhan’s fascinating cadenzas, but by virtue of Feldmann’s soulful and effortless virtuosity. There was a sheen to his playing, bright and fulfilling, that presented this Beethoven warhorse as a vital living organism rather than a museum piece.

The cadenzas helped in refreshing our own thoughts. Beethoven never created any himself for this piece, other than through the piano concerto version he made, the so-called “Sixth Piano Concerto”. And it’s from that source that Schneiderhan – a celebrated Austrian violinist who died some 20 years ago – sculpted these 20th century ones. They are grittier than the more familiar ones, and more challenging in the harmonic directions they pursue, and in the way the timpanist accompanies the soloist in that of the first movement. Spot the motivic link here with the concerto’s opening bars.

Ackham established a cool-headed insistence from the SSO right at the start, out of which the effusive sweetness of Feldmann’s solo line emerged with character and vividness. The interplay was magical, one or two momentary lapses in focus aside, with Beethoven’s concerto freshened up in the process.

Beethoven featured again in the second half, though not directly. Unsuk Chin’s Subito con forza, written last year for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, is wonderfully crackpot. The South Korean – Chin lives in Germany – has based her music on stimuli from Beethoven’s Conversation Books, which the composer used to communicate his thoughts as his hearing declined. Her response is impulsive, music that is fitful, often aphoristic. This wasn’t the most incendiary performance, but its contrast to the ensuing Schumann symphony was effective.

Not so effective was Ackham’s gauging of tonal balance in Schumann’s Symphony No 3 “Rhenish”, the soaring strings theme of the opening bars, for instance, subsumed beneath an over-egged welter of brass. This was a frequent issue in the unfolding of the work, yet there was also much to admire in a performance that embraced the sombre mood of the writing, such as the throbbing chorus of trombones in the brief fourth movement, the watery Rhine-like ripples of the scherzo, and the anchored thrill of the finale.

Ken Walton

This performance is repeated in Edinburgh, Sun 27 Nov, and will be broadcasted on BBC Radio 3 on Fri 10 Dec, 7.30pm, Full details at

RSNO / Søndergård

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

About eight years ago, when Thomas Søndergård was appointed principal guest conductor of the RSNO, the late Herald music critic Michael Tumelty rightly suggested that the RSNO badly needed a Sibelius Cycle and in Søndergård they clearly “had the man for the job”.

We may not yet have had that full cycle per se, but Søndergård – who is now, of course, elevated to the main music director’s role – has been slowly chipping away at the symphonies. Last weekend he ended a glorious concert with Sibelius’s Second Symphony, based on which Tumelty’s assessment remains sound as a bell. 

It’s one of the Finnish composer’s better-known symphonies, yet like many of them there is something in its Sibelian DNA that can be as enigmatic for the interpreter as it is for the listener. It takes a very tuned-in mind to negotiate what can often seem like emotional short-circuiting and chilling understatement, and give it visceral meaning. 

There wasn’t one moment in Søndergård’s performance on Saturday that failed to connect with the music’s logic and emotional momentum. There was his supreme attention to detail – those moments where Sibelius suddenly dims the lights to reveal only a feverish swarm of buzzing woodwind, or where sheer economy of texture gives starlit intensity to lightly-scored climaxes.

Yet it was anything but clinical. In the opening Allegretto, Søndergård moulded poetic sense out of its thematic miscellany; the Andante played out its strange life and death tussle with breathtaking extremes; and the restive Vivacissimo held plenty back to make its uninterrupted launch into the Finale the moment of release it aspires to be. Well worth catching this again on the RSNO’s digital platform.

The same goes for Catriona Morison’s captivating interpretation of Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été, which preceded the Sibelius in the first half. The Edinburgh-born mezzo, famous for her winning performance in the 2017 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, is fast developing a maturity in her musical thoughts and delivery that give her performances – think no further than her characterful appearance in Strauss’ Ariadne with the RSNO at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival – a very special appeal. 

This Berlioz was beautifully reined-in, Morison using the darkened lustre of her voice to breathe intense passion into the music. There was nothing trivial or posturing, even – as in the final song – where there is scope for a coquettish wink. Morison played the sophisticated card, but always with enlivening charm and warmth. 

Before all this, Søndergård opened the programme with fellow Dane Bent Sørensen’s Evening Land, an evocative meditation on two experiences of the same vivid, momentary childhood vision, one from the composer’s childhood home looking out to a quiet country landscape, the other revisiting that scene in his mind fifty years later from a noisy New York balcony.

Such contrast shapes the music’s format, a simple, hushed opening, a folk-like fiddle solo and silken nostalgia that gradually bends to the whims of growing dissonant harmonies and the relative harshness that soon feeds the New York music. A gorgeous oboe solo rekindles the opening atmosphere. As with the Sibelius that was eventually to follow, Søndergård sought soulful perfection from his orchestra.

Ken Walton 

BBC SSO / Lintu

City Halls, Glasgow

The dynamic of the symphony orchestra is a peculiar thing. Here, in its regular Thursday evening Glasgow slot, at its home venue (even if the completion of roof repairs had meant rehearsal at Tramway), was a very unfamiliar-looking BBC Scottish, with guest principals in much of the wind section and elsewhere, without its usual leader, and with less-than-regular guest conductor (Finn Hannu Lintu) and piano soloist (American Garrick Ohlsson). Yet the result was a classic SSO concert, with its strengths in all the places you might expect to find them.

The repertoire perhaps explained both that and the good attendance, with Brahms’ last symphony  preceded by Grieg’s perennially-popular Piano Concerto. The exotica was provided by Rautavarra’s Lintukoto (Isle of Bliss), which opened the programme and sat more comfortably with music of the previous century than might have been expected.

Although its sonic palette was quickly recognisable, the pace and tone of this short tone-poem are very different from more often heard works by the Finnish composer and the first bars are almost frantic. There are big sweeps of unison strings, but counterpoint between the sections as well, and some lovely detailing in the horns, winds, and muted brass before principal trumpet Mark O’Keeffe had haunting solo towards the end.

The Fourth Symphony of Johannes Brahms, which concluded the concert, is arguably his most Beethovian, with few notes being made to do a lot of work in the first, second and last movements and the only expansive tune appearing in the overture-like third. Lintu’s account of the symphony was business-like rather than inspired, although again some of the detail along the way was sumptuous, especially the blend of horns and the other winds with the pizzicato strings in the Andante.

The highlight of the evening was the Grieg, which was everything the old warhorse should be. Ohlsson is not a man to be rushed, as his playing of the first movement cadenza made clear, but there was a terrific balance between the relaxed fluidity of his playing and the crispness Lintu asked for from the strings. The conductor was alive to the work’s use of semitone intervals and rhythmic structures at parallel points in each of its movements, so that the concerto came alive as a narrative, and any problems of the fragmentary nature of the finale were swept aside.

As a lovely bonus, Ohlsson brought the same skilful sense of phrasing – and then some – to Chopin’s best-known Waltz, by way of an encore.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Garrick Ohlsson by Dario Acosta

RSNO / Schønwandt

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

It’s 38 years since Michael Schønwandt last guest conducted what was then the Scottish National Orchestra. Since then he has held key opera and orchestral positions in his native Denmark, as well as in Germany and the Netherlands. He brings effortless experience to the podium, which was the visible hallmark of his return last week to the RSNO.

If that resulted in smooth-running, errorless performances of Richard Strauss, Ravel and Rimsky Korsakov, there was also a casualness about Schønwandt’s delivery, at times veering on matter-of-factness, that left areas of this music somewhat featureless. 

Strauss’ tone poem Death and Transfiguration fell most victim. Schønwandt’s presence was one of unflustered efficiency: a clear beat, minimal animation and self-assured, friendly composure. The outcome reflected the input, a performance true to the letter of the law but too often lacking in passion and thrill, as if the RSNO were simply responding with due deference, asked politely to get to the end without risk or upset. 

The opening, in particular, presented a flat landscape, mustering little of the sustained intensity required to stoke this anguished music. Thereafter, it was more plain sailing, but with a welcome boost at the end – notable for the return of a signature melody John Williams surely pinched for one of his Superman movie themes – where a hint of the sublime graced the closing bars.

Would Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein’s presence in Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand add a much-needed spark? His was certainly a grittily probing account of this tough-talking idiosyncratic work, written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein who had tragically lost his right arm in the First World War, and Schønwandt certainly seemed to shift things up a gear, reflected in a more energised response from the RSNO.

Gerstein acknowledged the warmth of the audience reaction with a two-handed encore suited to this annual period of Remembrance, Debussy’s lullaby for a hero, Berceuse héroïque, written in 1914 as a sombre and moving homage to the King of Belgium and his army.

It would be hard not to react to the story book charm and exotic colours of Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade with anything less than the exuberance that greeted this performance. There were still periodic ennuis that underplayed the iridescence of Rimsky’s glittering score, but by and large here was playing that more closely matched expectations. 

Central to everything was leader Maya Iwabuchi’s beguiling solo performance, flawlessly executed, sweetly projected, and laced with sufficient lustre and enchantment to nail the protagonist’s role. At its hottest moments, this was a Scheherazade that sizzled, the final movement especially brimming with emotional heat. Just a pity it took a while for this concert to really get going.

Ken Walton

SCO / MacMillan

City Halls, Glasgow

Those familiar with the work of young Ayrshire composer Jay Capperauld will recognise that he finds inspiration in his eclectic taste in other, non-music related, art, often with a scientific dimension.

That tendency may explain his new work for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the culmination of a concert programme conducted by his mentor, Sir James MacMillan, but it doesn’t make the journey to his composition, Death in a Nutshell, any less bonkers.

The well-to-do American Frances Glessner Lee was a pioneer of forensics as a route to solving crime, and as a teaching aid she created little models of real crime scenes, like rooms in a doll’s house of death. The clues to the mystery are all in the little dioramas, of which the focal point is the corpse.

Exhibited at the Smithsonian a few years ago, Capperauld has taken six of them and created a 20-minute suite of soundtracks to the macabre pictures, which were helpfully reproduced in the SCO’s online programme, with a fat caption beneath outlining each case.

Which is all very curious and fascinating of course, but what about the music? I’ll go out on a limb and say that Capperauld’s colourful composition could happily be enjoyed without any knowledge of the background to Death in a Nutshell, although any listener would guess that there is something cinematic going on, especially if they are also watching the players.

Opening movement Malleus Dei (in the Parsonage Parlour) had percussionist Louise Goodwin wield a steel claw-hammer down upon a sheet of metal, and she and her section associate Ally Kelly were kept on the move throughout the work, on every form of tuned instrument, bass drum, blocks and tom-toms, a full kit and a selection of empty bottles. For the final movement Hanging upon your every word (in the Attic) they were joined by their neighbours in the trumpets on paper-shuffling duties.

There was also a full range of sinister effects required of the strings, as well as delineating every step in the fourth movement’s Interlude pour l’esprit de l’escalier (on the Stairs). The kit and the bottles featured in the preceding A Drowned Sorrow (in the Dark Bathroom), which was dominated by the bluesy alto sax of Capperauld’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland associate Lewis Banks, whose instrument was integral elsewhere in the score, alongside William Stafford’s bass clarinet and Alison Green’s contrabassoon.

Sir James was all over every detail of this, ensuring a performance that understandably had the composer beaming when he took his bow. For the sort of musician who enjoys the challenge of new music, it also looked enormous fun and that infectious enthusiasm transferred easily to the audience.

The skill of Capperauld’s orchestration was particularly appreciable because of the company it was keeping in following a reverse chronological journey through Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll.

Think of any of these works and it is big string chords that come first to mind, but the other elements are just as crucial: the horns, wind ensemble and solo oboe in the Idyll, En Hudson’s harp in the Mahler and Peter Franks’ trumpet, high in the choir stalls and the vibrant wind quartet in the Ives.

Keith Bruce

RSNO / Kopatchinskaja

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

The thought occurred at the end of this adventurous contribution to the cultural programme around COP26 that it is only in very recent times that such an event has been likely to appear on the schedule of the musicians of Scotland’s national orchestra once again. Before that old hands might wistfully recall the SNO’s Musica Nova seasons at the University of Glasgow for any point of comparison.

The architect and soloist of the programme, Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, will return to play the Stravinsky Violin Concerto with the RSNO in February, but here she was leading a chamber ensemble of RSNO players, with a choir of singers from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland directed by Tim Dean and groups of trombone and double bass students, also from the Conservatoire.

The sequence of music Kopatchinskaja had the RSNO musicians play required a range of talents far beyond their stringed instrument skills, with a great deal of percussion and performance, bowing of wine glasses and a final, rather moving procession of metronomes and night lights, slowly silenced and extinguished.

That conclusion was perhaps the clearest evocation of the environmental crisis that inspired it. More broadly, this Dies Irae, as the violinist entitled the whole evening, was a statement of opposition to the powerful as much as faith in God or humanity. Interleaving movements from the baroque pictures of Franz Biber’s Battalia with George Crumb’s anti-Vietnam War Black Angels was a colourful enough beginning, but that was only a taste of what was to come.

Re-purposing more early music in Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus motet and John Dowland’s Lachrimae Antiquae Novae on the way, and with those seven trombones prowling the auditorium, the culmination of the evening was Russian Galina Ustwolskaja’s Komposition No.2.

The only woman in Shostakovich’s composition class in her youth, UIstwolskaja lived until the first decade of the new millennium and wrote this, one her most extreme works, in the early 1970s, scored for eight double basses, piano and a large wooden box to be struck with hammers. Kopatchinskaja forsook her fiddle to play the latter, which had been borne onto the stage like a coffin.

The piece is subtitled Dies Irae, but Ustwolskaja’s precise relationship with the Christian faith, during and after the Soviet era, seems unclear. That we were to hear in it a premonition of the end of days was made explicit in the RCS singers following it with Gregorian chant of the Latin, and the entry of all the participants with those randomly clicking metronomes and flickering lights.

Sponsored by isio.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Symbiosis

To my mind, but probably not in those of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra management and musicians, their guest leader and soloist Pekka Kuusisto or, most pertinently of all, composer Greg Lawson, there is an inescapable irony in the title that has been given to the work that partnership has written, performed and filmed as its cultural contribution to the UN Climate Conference in Scotland this autumn.

In the glory days of Glasgow’s self-confidence as Culture City, the arts activity around COP26 would have been carefully curated, promoted and marketed from an expertly-staffed central office. In 2021, however, everyone has to fend for themselves. National companies and small organisations have all stepped up to make contributions to coincide with the event and mark the occasion, many of them very thoughtful indeed, and often forging new partnerships and premiering new work. You will search in vain, however, for any guide or directory to the artistic side of COP, far less any co-ordination of the programme for the benefit of delegates, activists or interested observers. As a result few of the events are finding the audience they deserve. See Glasgow? See Symbiosis? Not as such.

With the sponsorship support of Aviva Investments, the SCO has commissioned this new piece from the man behind the multi-disciplinary GRIT orchestra and former principal second fiddle with the BBC SSO, Greg Lawson, and – as the composer makes clear-ish in the introductory film segment of the package – his hope of Symbiosis is between humankind and the natural landscape.

The orchestra has built on the expertise it acquired during lockdown, when its online chamber music concerts were some of the most attractive produced in Scotland, to make this short film of the 15-minute piece, preceded by footage of Lawson in his home environment at Moniaive in Dumfries and Galloway at work on it.

The countryside looks terrific, and Lawson’s more practical observations on the reality of turning the inspiration to be found there into a score are well worth hearing, but the meat of the work is the performance, in a beautifully-lit studio, by the strings of the SCO, led from the violin by Finnish star Kuusisto.

Symbiosis is in five neatly-dovetailed movements, beginning and ending with meditations on the nature of time. Anyone expecting Lawson to mine Scottish traditional music for his material, as the GRIT orchestra often has, may be surprised. The themes here owe more to the scales and cadences of Middle Eastern music, and perhaps to Lawson the violinist’s work with the small group Moishe’s Bagel.

The gentle, slow beginning takes a darker tone in the third and fourth movements when “Foreboding and Trouble” leads into “Waltzing to Oblivion”. That triple-time section is the undoubted highlight of the composition and perhaps likely to find a life of its own outside Symbiosis, but it did present the composer with a dilemma about how to end the work, whether as a prophet of doom or on a more optimistic note.

What makes the whole package is the way Lawson side-steps this difficulty by handing the baton to Kuusisto, who supplies a wonderful improvisation – an extended cadenza in a sense – over a simple chordal figure as the last movement. Somehow it is clearly up-beat, but it also explicitly states that the future is in the hands of each of us, individually.

Keith Bruce

Symbiosis is available to watch free on the SCO’s YouTube channel.

RSNO / Midori

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Some things are worth waiting for, in this case Detlev Glanert’s intensely beautiful Violin Concerto No 2. It was originally earmarked for UK premiere by its dedicatee, American-Japanese violinist  Midori, as part of the RSNO’s 2020/21 season. When Covid struck the planned world premiere in Tokyo was cancelled, making a revised Scotland performance date last January, albeit streamed, the world premiere. That, in turn, proved unworkable. 

Finally it has happened, and last weekend’s Edinburgh and Glasgow performances gave us the very first airing of a work Glanert has subtitled “To the Immortal Beloved”, revealing its inspirational source as Beethoven’s famously passionate declaration of love, a letter written but never posted to a mystery woman, thought to be Josephine Brunsvik, in 1812.

Glanert takes three extracts from that letter as the emotional springboard for each of his three uninterrupted movements. In this performance, conducted by RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård, the key cadenzas appeared to have structural significance as apogees of the integral sections. Midori certainly treated them as such, the potency, and at times vehemence, of her playing symbolising emphatically their referential import.

But it was the journey to each of these that offered the true substance, an opening characterised by fitful gestures and antagonistic timpani instilling a dimension of unease that operates variously within the entire work, countered by a calming stream of lyrical consciousness that first materialises in the soloist’s initial appearance. 

Through the initial soul-searching turbulence, the ocean of calm that presents a near-idyllic respite at its heart, that magical moment where Glanert wraps the quietest of pianissimos by the soloist in a shroud of scintillating percussion, and in a home straight that reasserts the concerto’s underlying Romanticism, Midori and the orchestra performed with equal measures of heightened sensitivity and rubescent heat. 

It was, of course, just one work in an artful programme aligned to the current COP26 conference in Glasgow. Besides the Glanert – justified by Midori’s personal role as a United Nations Peace Ambassador – Søndergård conducted insightful performances of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s electroacoustic menagerie Swans Migrating – the final short movement from his so-called Concerto for Birds, Cantus Arcticus – and Dvorak’s Symphony No 9 From the New World

The Rautavaara, combining a crescendoing swarm of taped birdsong with the RSNO’s expressive live performance, was the perfect mood-setter for the Glanert. As for the Dvorak, it was revelatory in the way Søndergård found new points to consider despite the symphony’s well-worn familiarity. It was as if he had taken fine sandpaper to its rougher edges, revealing as a result sensitivities in the scoring that are too often ridden roughshod over. 

That, and Søndergård’s instinctive ebbing and flowing of the tempi, guaranteed a symphonic experience that, to coin a topical phrase in Glasgow at the moment, eschewed “blah-blah-blah” in favour of fresh and productive outcomes.

Ken Walton

Available to view online until 31 January, purchasable at

SCO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

Mozart wrote his “Posthorn” Symphony – or rather modelled it out of existing music from an earlier Serenade – during his younger Salzburg days. Shostakovich’s Symphony No 14, on the other hand, is a product of a composer at the opposite end of his life, written in 1969 while he was recovering from a second heart attack and clearly – given its all-pervading theme of death – consumed by thoughts of mortality. Programme these two works together and the outcome is stark, challenging and thought-provoking.

All the more so when the spectre of Covid still dictates social practices and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra continues to deliver its shortened programmes without an interval. Conductor Mark Wigglesworth took full advantage of this juxtapositional opportunity inspiring performances that expressed the perfection and precision of both works, but equally capitalised on their differential elements to striking effect.

That’s not to say that the Mozart, originating from music originally composed to celebrate the end of the academic year in Salzburg, is all joy and rapture. Right from the start Wigglesworth shaped its gathering moments with thoughtfulness and finesse, its phrases lovingly shaped and gently insistent. There was always a spring in the SCO’s step, though, a light-footed Italianate joie-de-vivre which reached its ultimate outlet in the exuberant finale.

The contrast with the opening bars of the Shostakovich could hardly have been more marked. For this, the orchestra, pared down to strings and percussion, was joined by soprano Elizabeth Atherton and bass Peter Rose, whose reading of this unconventional symphony – effectively a song cycle to texts contemplating the cold reality of unnatural death, but with enough organic cohesion to justify its nomenclature – was laced with palpable emotion, energised containment and neatly-gauged interaction.

The scene was set in an instant, the strings eliciting Shostakovich’s gaunt, austere opening textures with chilling simplicity, amplified by the rich sonority of Rose’s first utterances, Lorca’s De Profundis in Russian, to which the lowest strings issued a sombre undercurrent. The allusions to Britten are tangible, not surprising given he was the work’s dedicatee. But while his shadow looms persistently, Shostakovich’s progressive voice remains singularly probing and magnificent throughout. 

Atherton’s performance identified the symphony’s visceral core, emotionally and visually provocative. Rose cut a more stoical, trenchant persona. Both were acutely reactive to the concentrated brilliance of the orchestral backdrop, a canvas swarming with virtuoso solos and highly-evocative percussion effects. Wigglesworth’s cool control had the effect of heightening the dramatic tension and, at key moments, its iridescent flights of ecstasy. A moving performance, all the more so for the context it appeared in.

Ken Walton

Red Note Ensemble

Perth Concert Hall

It may be unhelpful to say so, but there are certain tropes of the illustration of the climate crisis that are now in danger of becoming just more “blah, blah, blah”. Images of a collapsing glacier wall or plastic bottles bobbing in the ocean are now so familiar that the horror of them has long since dissipated.

Both were present and correct in the film that accompanied this premier of a new composition that is Red Note’s contribution to the artistic activity around COP26. At first the music sounded ominously at risk of going down the same route: fluttering harmonics and percussive use of the bodies of the string instruments and then chords of ambient disquiet from the entire nonet.

Fortunately, this far from unattractive but strangely familiar opening was merely the introduction to sub mari by Martina Corsini and Manuel Figueroa-Bolvaran. For Corsini, who is Weston-Jerwood Creative Fellow with the ensemble following her music studies at the University of the West of Scotland, this was a debut commission, and the singer-songwriter incorporated a showcase for herself at the heart of what was more a 30-minute suite with five distinct sections.

If her song, backed by young choir from Chile (Coro Allegro, directed by Francisco Espinoza) on film and Levenmouth Academy in Fife (directed by Alison Fleming) on tape, made the most immediate impact, it had also given the producers the biggest headaches. With plans for a live appearance by the young Scots scuppered by pandemic restrictions, Red Note artistic director John Harris revealed, in a discussion after the concert, that some pop music auto-tune trickery had been required to bring all the ingredients to the same pitch.

If that accounted for a slight stiltedness in the central section, it was more than made up for by the liquidity of the playing from Red Note’s professionals around it. The work’s inspiration lay in the scarcity of water in Figueroa-Bolvaran’s native Chile, compared to the threat it poses in Crosini’s adopted home of Scotland, and there was a parallel international landscape of sound in the music. Highlights included a memorable combination of Joanna Nicholson’s clarinet, Emil Chakalov’s violin and percussionist Tom Hunter’s floor tom, flautist Ruth Morley soloing over a backbeat of tribal drumming (again involving the strings as percussion instruments), and Malcolm MacFarlane’s gorgeously fluid Hawaiian-flavoured electric guitar.

The final movement, featuring the full group again, had a questioning tone that seemed absolutely correct, and the corollary to all the cliches that have become part of the environmental debate.

The work has further performances at Wellington Church, Glasgow on November 8, at 6pm, and in the Laidlaw Music Centre in the University of St Andrews on November 9, at 3pm.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: John Harris by Wattie Cheung

Vital Signs of the Planet

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

I am unconvinced that it added up as a concert programme, but there were some fine ingredients in the contribution of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to COP26 in Glasgow.

Created in partnership with the Global Climate Uprising Festival invented by the LakeArts Foundation of the US, and supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, it was a showcase for a huge student orchestra of some 110 players under the baton of conductor Emil de Cou, and for half a dozen eloquent young activists from Africa, South America and Scotland whose testimonies separated the musical items.

Those young people would not be born when the first UN “Earth Summit” was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. A film from that event prefaced this one, and prompted the thought that the youth of that era are the generation now being berated for their lack of action on the environmental crisis.

Bannockburn’s Natalie Sinclair, in her role as a National Geographic Explorer, gave an account of her research into whale song as the first of the spoken contributions, after Scots violinist Andrea Gajic was the soloist in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Accompanied by a string orchestra from within the huge forces on stage, it was a performance that grew in rhythmic assurance as the year unfolded, the hesitancy of Autumn more or less dispatched by Winter.

The third movement of Debussy’s La Mer and the broad-palette orchestration of the third movement of the Sinfonia Antartica by Ralph Vaughan Williams gave rein to the full forces on stage, when there were impressive contributions from horns, brass and on the hall’s digital organ.

The revelation of the programme, however, was  a piece the conductor had brought with him. Advent, by film composer Michael Giacchino, was commissioned to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moonlanding. Post-graduate student Claire Lumsden had the starring role here with the wordless soprano solo throughout the work.

It was an evening where young Scots women like her were consistently in the spotlight. At its start a small group of pipes and drums had been notable for the precision and power percussion of its smallest, and sole female, member, and at its end pop star Natasha Bedingfield’s re-written and fully orchestrated version of her hit Unwritten was distinguished by the backing vocals of Rachel Lightbody, Cariss Crosbie and Emilie Boyd, collectively known as Little Acres.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Claire Lumsden

SCO / Whelan

City Halls, Glasgow

Lasting under an hour from start to finish and with around 45 minutes of actual music, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has certainly played longer programmes than this one directed, initially from the harpsichord, by its former principal bassoon Peter Whelan. It is unlikely, however, that anyone felt short-changed, such were the riches within it.

Entitled Hidden Gems, the music would perhaps more accurately be described as “neglected”, although composed by Bach, Mozart and Haydn.

Mozart provided the concert’s show-stopper in the second of two concert arias sung by Anna Dennis. It is probably fair to say that Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio! (Let me explain, o God!) is rarely heard because few sopranos are able to sing it with confidence. Written for his sister-in-law Aloysia Weber, to be dropped into another composer’s opera as a showpiece for her talents, it requires a huge range and features some extraordinary interval leaps from the mezzo range to stratospheric top notes. Dennis was in spectacular voice, and ably supported by the duetting oboe of Michael O’Donnell, although his part did not include the same pyrotechnics.

The other song was also written by Mozart for his wife’s sister, and why it is not more often heard is more of a mystery, as Nehmt meinen Dank, ihr holden Gönner! (Accept my thanks, kind patrons!) is a delightful address to the audience about the musical life. With crisp diction from Dennis and some lovely wind playing, it came across as an 18th century precursor of Abba’s Thank You For The Music.

The Bach in question was Carl Philip Emmanuel, son of J S Bach, a composer more revered in his day than he probably is now, and a trailblazer of his time. That boldness was audible from the start under Whelan in a first movement of his Symphony in F that is more about rhythm and dynamics than tunes, especially in the string parts, with what melody there is lying with the winds. After a brief slow movement, the violins regained the upper hand in the bright finale.

There were wonderfully balanced forces on stage for that work, and for the Haydn symphony, No 102, that ended the concert when the 22 strings (six in the first and second fiddles, four each of violas and cellos and two basses) were joined by four pairs of wind instruments and two natural trumpets. The singular voice was that of Louise Goodwin behind the timpani, in a score that gave the percussionist very little time to sit on her hands.

Throughout the piece she was providing crucial punctuation in a work that is Haydn at the absolute zenith of his powers as an orchestrator, full of variety in its combinations of instruments and ear-catching voicings. After what might be called a book-keeper’s opening bar – there was a distinct double-entry – the musicians responded with enthusiasm and precision to Whelan’s clear direction.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Anna Dennis

BBC SSO: Widmann

City Halls, Glasgow

Jörg Widmann is a human dynamo. When he appeared last season with the RSNO, we had a glimpse – albeit in recorded film format – of that bundled energy, single-minded flamboyance and multi-talent. As clarinet soloist, composer and conductor rolled into one, it was very definitely the Widmann Show, highly idiosyncratic and pretty damn good.

On Thursday, he adopted the same formula with the BBC SSO, this time before a live audience in the City Halls. The performance style was every bit as sparky, spontaneous and eccentric, but this time many of the risks led into trouble waters and what transpired often seemed more skin-of the-teeth than edge-of-the-seat.

There was no greater illustration than the opening concerto, Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No 1, which by the very nature of its frenetic opening movement requires a steady hand on the tiller. Widmann, doubling as soloist-director, concentrated more on the former than the latter, leaving the orchestra, after pressing the initial on-switch, to second guess his edgy, sidestepping interpretational whims and respond accordingly. 

That was no easy task, and plaudits go to leader Laura Samuel for keeping the ship on course, to the extent that a gradually settling SSO elicited more comfortable support in the ensuing movements, particularly the sweet-flowing Adagio, which also revealed a more reflective playing style from Widmann, whose tone at times in the outer movements veered occasionally to the wrong side of harsh.

Widmann’s own Con brio, heard here in a reduced version of an original short concert overture commissioned in 2008 by Mariss Jansons as a partner piece to Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, also seemed like a direct embodiment of his hi-energy persona, the flashing references to Beethoven’s themes exploding on impact, hardly recognisable amid the aftershocks defined by surreal effects on the woodwind and timpani. There’s a bit of overkill in this piece, but it was performed with just the right amount of unbridled panache.

There were idyllic moments in Schumann’s Second Symphony, such as the movingly understated fugue in the Adagio, and clarity of texture in the finale that opened up often undisclosed back-references to the slow movement’s central theme. These were powerful, natural responses to the symphony. But Widmann chose also to take uncomfortable liberties of tempo, and to allow the brass an over-prominence that occasionally masked the tunes that mattered.

For Widmann and the SSO to find a more sustained and successful synergy they need to get to know each other better. And that they will do, now that news has emerged of Widmann’s appointment as the SSO’s artist-in-residence. He’ll be back for two more concerts this season. Sparks could fly.

Ken Walton 

RSNO / Sondergard

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

It is a matter of small debate whether Igor Stravinsky was Diaghilev’s third choice for The Firebird for his Ballets Russes, or the fourth composer to be asked. It is also a score that shamelessly plundered the work of others, not solely folk sources and Rimsky-Korsakov, but also Scriabin and Debussy. All of that is by-the-by, however, when one of the best showcases of the range and power of a symphony orchestra is played with the precision and panache that the RSNO displayed under music director Thomas Sondergard at the climax of their season-opening programme.

If the source of the ingredients is not an issue in a work that is quintessential Stravinsky – music that established his name and precipitated his move to Paris, where it was first performed – the opportunity it presents as one of the concert hall’s most exciting prospects is undiminished. The clarity of the playing across the whole ensemble here, from leader Maya Iwabuchi to the trio of off-stage trumpets, was exemplary. Sondergard’s command of the tempo gradations and dynamic variations of the work was masterly, in a performance that was by turns both hugely moving and terrifically exciting.

Even better, it came at the end of a genius programme that progressed by delicious increments toward the symphonic ballet score. The concerto element at the end of the first half was Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, with the first cello of the Berlin Philharmonic, Bruno Delepelaire as soloist. A player of immaculate poise and fluency, he was matched by string ensemble that incorporated the elements of Baroque crispness and Romantic fluidity that the work demands.

The concert also had the luxury of two opening works, Shostakovich’s Festive Overture itself preceded by Matthew Rooke’s The Isle is Full of Noises!, a world premiere in the orchestra’s “Scotch Snaps” strand.

It is a little gem that is surely certain to be heard regularly, its folk themes predicting those in the Stravinsky later and its filmic quality close kin to to the Shostakovich that followed. The Festive Overture may have been music swiftly written for state purposes, a crowd-pleaser and perhaps Stalin appeaser, but the grand orchestration is of a piece with the whole tone of this evening – announcing the full-scale return of a mighty musical force.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Bruno Delepelaire

BBC SSO: Volkov / Evans

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

This was foreign territory for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, decamped from its home at Glasgow’s City Halls to the Royal Concert Hall due to essential repair works at the former, but in this case it was a helpful move. For there was much in this curious journey into the hinterland of late-20th/21st century American music  – neatly packaged as “States of America” – that could have done serious damage to our ear drums in the smaller City Halls.

It wasn’t so much the loudness of the music – in fact much of it was intensely suppressed in volume – as the unrelenting obsessiveness contained in these four works by Courtney Bryan, Talib Rasul Hakim, Eleanor Hovda and Lucia Dlugoszewski. Two of them – Bryan’s White Gleam of our Bright Star and Dlugoszewski’s Abyss and Caress – were UK premieres.

Needless to say, this was devised and conducted by Ilan Volkov, whose unquenchable thirst for difficult, offbeat contemporary scores has long made Glasgow concert-going the adventure into the unknown it so often is. Once again, he communicated his astute and precise understanding of complex ideas to the obliging SSO, whose realisation of the seemingly impossible was, at times, mind-blowing.

Bryan’s short opener, commissioned by the Colorado Springs Philharmonic in 2016, was relatively easy listening. The density of its colours, shaded with a ghostly fragility, reflects the composer’s preoccupations with “themes of sister/brotherhood, freedom and equality”, heightened by an excessive climax whose dissonance seems to shatter the cosiness of the traditional American big band sound, which it alludes to, and from which softer questioning emerges, still tainted by mildly troubling contradictions.

Hakim’s Visons of Ishawara dates back half a century, and boy does it smack of the grim aesthetic of the 1970s. From the very outset it’s as if we’re thrown into the furious melodrama of a period TV horror soundtrack: the ritualistic pounding of the bass drum; the lugubrious idealism of the wilting flute melody; a febrile hyperactive narrative that tries too hard to keep up with the action. It will have been a trip down memory lane for listeners of a certain vintage, trip being the operative word

If there was promise of calm to follow in the hushed tones of Hovda’s Fields 87, its dynamic and timbral containment ultimately led to an uncomfortable sense of sensory asphyxiation. Operating at a micro level, its journey is an almost imperceptible metamorphosis that, despite one momentary outburst, remains stifling to the end. Nonetheless, the SSO furnished it with the utmost sensitivity.

The single post-interval work provided a much-needed release: Dlugoszewski’s 1975 Abyss and Cares for trumpet and orchestra, which is frankly barmy. Not once does its frenzied tempo let up, nor does its crazed language – superhuman trumpet techniques allied to weird string effects and wind players that double on swanee whistles – offer a moment of conventional respite.

It was superbly performed, the astounding New York trumpeter Peter Evans negotiating Dlugoszewski’s boundless demands with uncanny proficiency, from whispered stratospheric heights to guttural grunts and snorts, and all at twice the speed of sound. Volkov instilled an unrelenting volatility in a performance that could so easily have been the soundtrack to a crazed convention of cartoon heroes. 

Ken Walton

This concert was recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds

OPERA: Utopia, Limited

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

If added value is what you were after this week with Scottish Opera, it was there in spades with Wednesday’s minimally-staged performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia, Limited, inserted as a one-off addition to the current Glasgow run of The Gondoliers (reviewed separately in VoxCarnyx).  

It’s a work usually confined to historical reference books – even then it can be hard to find – given that it never quite grabbed the attention of opera companies generally more tempted by mainstream G&S favourites. Scottish Opera wanted to make a case for its worth, and did so with considerable conviction by editing its notorious prolixity down to an acceptable two-and-a-half hours and utilising the lively cast that was already in town for The Gondoliers.

Economical creativity even saw Dick Bird’s picture-book set for the mythical Barataria scenes in The Gondoliers reutilised as the permanent backdrop for the equally mythical island of Utopia. Yet there was nothing remotely static about his performance, Stuart Maunder’s shrewdly imaginative direction giving his cast plenty scope for expression without embracing a full theatrical presentation.

As such, the focus on the music was intensified. Sullivan clearly took the opportunity in this late collaboration with Gilbert to expand his stylistic fingerprint. Yes, lighter-weight tra-la-las are aplenty, but so too are moments where the composer effuses with a depth and glow that is almost, if not quite, Wagnerian. The juxtaposition is, paradoxically, both strength and weakness, as are the whimsical snatches of popular reference – a recurring Rule Britannia motif, for instance – that colour the score.

But accepting Utopia, Limited for what it is – a satire on the pompous protectionism of the British Empire and hypocrisy of its political establishment, which rings an ironic bell today – there was  much to be enjoyed in this slick, refined version. 

The cast gelled magnificently, no doubt inspired by their current collegiate familiarity as the Scottish Opera Gondoliers team. Ben McAteer, now the main man, presented King Paramount of the mythical Pacific outpost that so desires “Anglification” as an endearingly hapless survivor. Elie Laugharne glowed brilliantly as his daughter Princess Zara, alongside the complementary charm of sisters Nekaya (Catriona Hewitson) and Kalyba (Sioned Gwen Davies). 

Yvonne Howard embraced the glowing sophistication of Lady Sophy with knowing composure. Arthur Bruce and Richard Suart were a dream double act as Utopian wise men Phantis and Scaphio, Suart’s snarling nonchalance neatly countered by Bruce’s winning, agile impatience.

Among the British advisory delegation, the so-called “Flowers of Progress”, the we-know-it-all mantle was gloatingly assumed, Mark Nathan as Mr Goldbury and William Morgan as Captain Battleaxe key among its numerous personnel. 

A solid chorus and a Scottish Opera Orchestra much enjoying the frequent opulence of Sullivan’s music under the baton of Derek Clark were equally at ease in this judiciously edited performance of an opera that may have undoubted flaws, but which, in time-honoured G&S spirit, sets out chiefly to entertain.

Ken Walton

Scottish Opera’s Utopia, Limited is repeated at Edinburgh Festival Theatre on 5 Nov. Full information at

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