Keith Porter & the Itals In This Time: previewing the Aug. 21 show at BB’s

Keith Porter - "Ital is vital."

by Michael Kuelker

It’s 2013 and so much has changed in roots reggae music, but some things remain the same: The Itals mashing it up in St. Louis.

Keith Porter, lead singer and prime mover of The Itals, returns for a performance at BB’s Jazz Blues & Soups on Wednesday, August 21. Porter will be backed by Yard Squad of St. Louis, and his hand-picked backing vocalists will be St. Louis’ own Irie Trinity – Sherita Edwards, Desirae Dobbins and Franny Taylor.

Sav-la-Mar, Jamaica native Porter headlines, but the St. Louis-based artists behind him and on the undercard are well worth the trod on their own terms: Aaron Kamm & the One Drops, Mario Pascal, Konchus and in a separate opening set, Irie Trinity, who are also producing the BB’s concert.

Longtime reggae fans know that The Itals’ relationship with St. Louis stretches back more than 30 years, when the St. Louis-based Nighthawk label began working with three singers from Sav-la-Mar on Jamaica’s southwest coast. Since forming in 1976, Nighthawk had released 10 blues reissues but in the late seventies it delved into reggae-Jamaica. Wiser Dread, the first Nighthawk reggae release (1981), was a potent various artists anthology which contained The Itals’ “In a Disya Time” and “Don’t Wake the Lion.” The Itals would soon be Nighthawk’s flagship artist. New original reggae would quickly eclipse pre-WWII blues as the label’s focus.

It bears noting that Yard Squad and Irie Trinity are singers and players of instruments whose talents have been tapped recently by a host of artists including Zion, Everton Blender, Frankie Paul, Kenyatta ‘Culture’ Hill and Warrior King. Yard Squad backed Porter for a series of dates in spring 2013 and he called again for shows this month in Missouri, Texas and Louisiana. In September Dobbins will fly to Phoenix, Arizona to do a solo set on a bill with roots legend Don Carlos. An Irie Trinity album is in the works.

And how about the other talents on this bill and the fine music they are making for any ear which will hear. Aaron Kamm & the One Drops are among the region’s hardest working and most popular jam bands, playing the reggae in a very satisfying post-Sublime; AK1D’s music is also very blues-infused and ultimately quite original. Mario Pascal plays original compositions, too, a reggae/world fusion. His 2012 song “Stand Ya Ground” gets a lot of airplay on my radio show because it’s topical and timeless – it definitely pertains to the Trayvon Martin case but it’s ultimately about more than perpetrator/victim; it’s about consciousness itself and how we educate ourselves. Mario Pascal is building a catalog of noteworthy songs. The only one in the mix I haven’t yet seen perform is Konchus.

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St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of August 12, 2013

Highly Distracted Productions presents Asperger’s: A High Functioning Musical Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 2 PM, August 16-18. “Back by popular demand after three sold out performances at the St. Lou Finge Festival, Asperger’s: A High Functioning Musical tells the story of six young adults with Asperger’s attending a support group as they face the problems of entering adulthood and leaving the pain of childhood behind. The songs can be rollicking and tender. Come celebrate the geek in all of us.” Performances take place in the Little Theater at Clayton High School, 1 Mark Twain Circle in Clayton. For more information: aspergermusical.brownpapertickets.com.

Moonlighting Theatre presents Charles Mee’s Big Love, based on The Suppliants by Aeschylus, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 PM and Sunday at 2 PM, August 16-18. Performances take place at the Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar. For more information, visit moonlightingtheatre.org.

The Pub Theater Company presents Bye Bye Liver: The St. Louis Drinking Play, a comedic romp through the joys and pitfalls of The Gateway to the West’s favorite pastime. Performances take place on Saturdays at 9 PM at Maggie O’Brien’s, 2000 Market Street. For more information, you may call 314-827-4185, email stlouis at byebyeliver.com, or visit byebyeliver.com/stlouis.

The Lemp Mansion Comedy-Mystery Dinner Theater presents Dead Like Me through November 16. The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place. For more information: lempmansion.com

Peter Wochniak

Stages St. Louis presents Legally Blonde, the Musical through August 18. Performances take place in the Robert G. Reim Theatre at the Kirkwood Community Center, 111 South Geyer Road in Kirkwood. “Sorority sister Elle thinks she has her future all tied up with a nice, little pink ribbon, until her boyfriend suddenly dumps her for someone more “serious.” But don’t break out the tissues just yet! This is one girl who doesn’t take “no” for an answer as she sets out to prove that being true to yourself and going after “what you want” never goes out of style.” For more information, visit stagesstlouis.org or call 314-821-2407. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

Encore! Theater Group presents John Logan’s two-character drama Red, about 20th Century abstract painter Mark Rothko. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8, August 16 and 17, at the Warehouse at All Trades Supply located at 10 Kirkham Industrial Drive, Webster Groves. “Mark Rothko is at the height of his powers. His work, long rejected by critics, is suddenly hailed as some of the most important of this century. He is the new king of art in New York, and his coronation will be the flashiest commission in the history of painting: $35,000 for a series of epic murals at the Four Seasons restaurant. But…canvases this large cannot be lifted by a single man, not even a titan. So he hires an assistant (Ken). This young artist and his fiery ideas force Rothko, the surest thing in the world of modern art, to question everything. John Logan’s 90-minute intellectual thrill-ride serves as a puzzling reminder of how difficult and dangerous the climb towards an artistic vision can be, and how worthwhile. “ The cast includes 88.1 KDHX theatre critic Steve Callahan as Mark Rothko. For more information: email encoretheatergroup at gmail.com, call (314) 329-8998, or visit squareup.com/market/noxp-entertainment-corp/red-tickets.

Photo: John Lamb

The Theatre Lab presents Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited through August 17. “The play involves only two nameless characters, designated “White” and “Black”, their respective skin colors. Offstage, just before the play begins, Black saves White from throwing himself in front of a train. The title, The Sunset Limited, is derived from the name of a passenger train that travels from New Orleans to Los Angeles. All of the action takes place in Black’s sparse apartment, where the characters go (at the behest of Black) after their encounter on the platform. Black is an ex-convict and an evangelical Christian. White is an atheist and a professor. They debate the meaning of human suffering, the existence of God, and the propriety of White’s attempted suicide.” Performances take place at the Gaslight Theater on North Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: (314) 599-3309

Insight Theatre Company presents Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies August 15-25. Performances take place in the Heagney Theatre, 530 East Lockwood on the campus of Nerinx Hall High School in Webster Groves. For more information, call 314-556-1293 or visit insighttheatrecompany.com.

St. Louis Shakespeare presents Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsmen August 16-25. “During a war waged by Theseus of Athens against Thebes, two Theban cousins, Palamon and Arcite are captured and imprisoned. Their lifelong friendship is disrupted when first Palamon, then Arcite, sees and instantly falls in love with Emilia, sister to Theseus’ wife Hippolyta. Meanwhile their jailer’s daughter has fallen in love with Palamon. When Arcite is freed and exiled, she helps Palamon escape. Lost, knowing the hopelessness of her love and fearing the consequences of her actions, she goes mad. Palamon and Arcite’s conflict over Emilia is resolved by Theseus’ decree that the two will fight a public duel; the winner will receive the hand of Emilia; the loser will be executed.” Performances take place in the Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road. For more information, call 314-361-5664 or visit stlshakespeare.org.

Union Avenue Opera presents Wagner’s Die Walküre, the second of the four “Ring” operas, in a condensed and reduced version by English composer Jonathan Dove, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, August 16-24. Performances take place at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End. The opera is sung in German with projected English text. For more information, visit unionavenueopera.org or call 314-361-2881.

Justin Hinds: Postcards from the Idren

1950s postcard of the Jamaica Hilton on the island's north coast

by Michael Kuelker

Independence for Jamaica arrived on August 6, 1962. The island’s music industry then was in its infant bloom, and a new original music called ska was moving the youth. Sometime in the autumn of 1962, a young man made the journey from his little north coast village home to the sprawling capital city of Kingston to cut a record, “Carry Go Bring Come.” It became a ska sensation, and the tune set in motion a recording career for Justin Hinds (1942-2005) not only in ska but also in rocksteady, reggae and nyahbinghi, producing a musical legacy which brought Hinds wide renown.

In Steer Town, where Justin lived all of his life and where many of his family and friends remain, his memory remains as strong as a phantom limb.

This is a special artist to me. I listen to Justin’s music at home and jam it on “Positive Vibrations,” and the three occasions in the late 1990s when I saw Justin and his fabulous band perform in St. Louis are among my top-shelf reggae experiences. I’ve trod to Steer Town twice and spoken to many of Justin’s musical compatriots and family. Below, you’ll find excerpts from 11 of them.

A year ago, I found a new angle of vision to Justin’s depth and timelessness when I participated in a symposium in Jamaica titled “Justin Hinds @ 70.”

The St. Ann Heritage Foundation staged the symposium on the long wide verandah of the Seville Great House in St. Ann’s Bay. Across an expansive lawn, the Caribbean Sea is in full view. The venue is not far from Steer Town in the parish of St. Ann, a place rife with cultural history and famous sons (Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley and Burning Spear – and Justin Hinds, who deserves mention in the same breath).

The August 5, 2012 symposium coincided with celebrations island-wide of Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of independence. Outside our mellow gathering, the island was feting itself loudly and inna fine style, flags flying high. The same afternoon, one of the biggest television events of the year was taking place: Jamaican Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt racing in London. Given the near-synchronous Olympic dash and the start of the symposium, some of us were left wondering whether anyone would show at all. But 50 people attended and lingered for both the program and informal chat-and-jam time.

 

Justin Hinds in 1999 in St. Louis (photo by Michael Kuelker)

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On the other hand

Photo: Joanne Savio

The history of pianist Leon Fleisher’s career is one of the great comeback stories in American life.

His genius was apparent as early as age 9, when he became the youngest pupil ever to be taught by the great Artur Schnabel. By age 16 he was appearing with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Monteux. When he signed a deal with Columbia/Epic in 1954 to record every major piano and orchestra work from the standard repertoire with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, it was a bit of musical history in the making—and he was only in him mid-20s. The recordings he made for the label between 1954 and 1963 are still considered classics.

Then, at the height of Fleisher’s career, disaster struck in the form of focal dystonia of the right hand in 1965. Undaunted, he continued to record and perform, concentrating on works for the left hand alone. There’s more of that than you might think thanks, in part, to the many works written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein (older brother of famed philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), who lost his right hand in World War I.

By the early years of the 21st century, though, Fleisher began to recover the use of his right hand as a result of botox injections and the system of soft tissue manipulation known as Rolfing. In 2004 he made his first two-handed recording in forty years and continues to concertize today. In a review for 88.1 KDHX of his performance of Ravel’s “Concerto for the Left Hand” with the St. Louis Symphony last April, I described his playing as “both powerful and elegant.” “Mr. Fleisher may walk like an octogenarian,” I wrote, “but he doesn’t play like one.”

In recognition of Fleisher’s fifty-five year career, Sony Classical (which now owns the Columbia/Epic library) is issuing a 23-CD set titled “Leon Fleisher: The Complete Album.” It’s scheduled for release on July 16th, in anticipation of Fleisher’s 85th birthday on the 23rd. Fleisher himself will observe his birthday year with a concert tour that will include a performance with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival on July 28th.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously claimed that there were “no second acts in American life.” Leon Fleisher is one of the more famous examples of how wrong that assessment can be.

‘Whenever it comes to song writing, my second line is always the most important’: An Interview with Taj Weekes

Photo courtesy of Jatta Records

by Michael Kuelker

St. Lucian reggae artist Taj Weekes and his band Adowa return to St. Louis with a performance on Saturday, June 15 at 2720. KDHX’s Mr Roots will be spinning tunes that evening, too. Mr Weekes is one of the most compelling and original artists in roots reggae today, and I spoke to him by telephone on May 28, 2013.

KUELKER: Your new live album, Pariah in Transit [Jatta Records 2013], is a remarkable piece of work [reviewed here].  And it feels like a capstone on this first phase of your career, encompassing seven or eight years and three studio albums. One wonders, then, what comes next?

WEEKES: You said exactly what it is, the live album captured the last three. So we have moved on past that. What I am thinking of doing for [the next] album is a different studio. I produced everything on the last four albums so I would like to let somebody else come in and let them direct a little bit. Just a different vibe. I’ve done the last four albums, I have produced every one, it’s been my point of view. I would like to alternate points of view on the next album, so we can move into a different phase – not too different, still me and the band. And the idea is to bring other guest musicians in. It will still be roots but we’re gonna tweak it a little bit.

One of the strongest tracks on Pariah is a brand new composition, “Jordan,” and I wanted to ask you about the inspiration behind it.

‘Jordan’ is a song I made up on the spot. We had played some venue someplace and they had some issues with the equipment, so by the time the equipment came, the show was 45 minutes late and it wasn’t our fault. I pride myself on always being early, and we were as usual. When the show was done – when I thought the show was done – the promoter asked if we could play for an additional 45 minutes. But I had played for over two and a half hours and I had run through all the songs that I wanted to play that I thought were appropriate for the setting. So I just said to the guys, ‘hold two chords and follow me and we’ll do something with it.’ So I held two chords, the brothers followed me and ‘Jordan’ came out.

After it came out and I sang it a few times as I liked it. I recorded the song on my phone, and it’s become a staple ever since.

 

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Cliburn final round, second concert: Tomoki Sakata, Sean Chen, and Vadym Kholodenko

Tonight was the second of the four concerts in the final round of the Cliburn Competition. All concerts feature the Fort Worth Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

The Friday concerts were marked by generally strong playing all the way around. Thursday night we had, in my estimation, two good performances and one disappointing one. Tonight we had two that were very good and one that was so outstanding I had to stop taking notes and just listen.

Tomoki Sakata (Japan) got things off to a fine start with a very persuasive Mozart Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466. Mr. Sakata and the orchestra adopted a brisk pace in the first movement that made the most of its drama (although his first entrance was a bit hesitant) and included a fine performance of the Beethoven cadenza. The second movement Romanze was elegantly played but a bit too slow for my taste and never quite took flight, but the final movement flowed along nicely. Overall it was a well-proportioned reading and neatly played.

Mr. Sakata is not a demonstrative performer (a rarity in this group, it seems), choosing to express himself entirely through his music.

Sean Chen (USA) took on the Beethoven Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major (Op. 73), known as the “Emperor.” His performance was marked by extreme dynamic contrasts and, at one point towards the end of the first movement, a bit of banging away at the keyboard that distorted his sound. For the most part, though, this approach worked well for him and enhanced the work’s grandeur. Tempi were a bit slow, but not so much so that the music ever lost energy, and the second movement (Adagio un poco mosso) was quite lovely. As with Mr. Sakata’s Mozart, this was not a flawless performance, but quite a fine one nevertheless.

Unlike Mr. Sakata, Mr. Chen is not shy about playing to the audience. This is neither good nor bad as long as it serves the music, which (mostly), it did.

Judging from his Prokofiev Concerto No. 3 in C Major (Op. 26), Vadym Kholodenko (Ukraine) is a powerhouse of a pianist who is also capable of great delicacy. His concentration was intense and he seemed to be entirely caught up in the music. The Prokofiev 3rd is the music of youth, with ample wit, nose-thumbing cheer, and some ridiculously difficult writing for the soloist, especially in the final movement. Mr. Kholodenko captured all of that, and did it with precision and flare. There seemed to me to be a real joy in his playing that communicated itself to the highly appreciative audience. It certainly won me over.

The third concert of the final round is tomorrow night (Saturday, June 8). It will feature Mozart’s 20th again (with Nikita Mndoyants), Beethoven’s 4th (Fei-Fei Dong), and Prokofiev’s 2nd (Beatrice Rana; I’m very much looking forward to that one).

The Cliburn Report 16: The Impresario

Leonard Slatkin conducts the

Prokofiev 2nd with Nikita Mndoyants

Photo: Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Not all the important events at the Cliburn Competition involve making music; some of them involve talking about it. This morning’s event, for instance, was a free public symposium with Leonard Slatkin, hosted by Fred Child of PRI’s Performance Today (which will broadcast a performance by the gold medal winner on Monday, June 10). Mr. Slatkin is a familiar and much-loved figure in St. Louis, of course, since he led the symphony here for many years. He’s also conducting the Fort Worth Symphony for the final round concerts and had some interesting insights on that process.

Mr. Slatkin has expressed some skepticism about competitions in the past, once noting that he normally avoids “this display of music as sport,” but observed this morning that competitions can still offer opportunities for performers and producers alike by focusing attention of promising artists. In the case of the Cliburn, he was moved to participate in part by a personal appeal from the late Mr. Cliburn himself.

Asked if he has any advice for competitors, Mr. Slatkin said they should always try to satisfy themselves first rather than try to second-guess judges. Ask how you can best grown within yourself, he noted, and everything else will follow.

Mr. Slatkin recounted a number of fascinating and funny anecdotes from his years growing up in a Hollywood musical family. His parents played for film orchestras, his father conducted the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and his uncle provided the piano tracks for many films, including the classic Warner Brothers cartoon sting to “That’s All, Folks”. As my fellow St. Louis residents will recall, Mr. Slatkin is quite the raconteur. I won’t attempt to repeat them here, as I couldn’t do it nearly as well. Fortunately, the Cliburn folks recorded the whole thing and will be streaming it at their web site.

Returning to the competition, Mr. Slatkin noted that conducting for the final round is a somewhat thankless task. He only gets fifty minutes rehearsal with each pianist. Since the concerti themselves are usually over thirty minutes long, this means he’s usually calling out directions to the pianist and orchestra while they’re rehearsing. He see establishing rapport with the orchestra and supporting the soloist (who might not have ever had a chance to hear his or her piece played by a live orchestra) as his primary task. They’re called concertos for piano and orchestra, not orchestra and piano, he noted.

Mr. Child pointed out that in concert last night, Mr. Slatkin’s gestures were economical but that his face spoke volumes and asked why he decided to work without a baton. The answer: he forgot to bring it (a reminder of the influence of chance on art, I think).

This led to a discussion of the changing role of the conductor. Mr. Slatkin feels the end of the era of the conductor as autocrat is a good thing and feels the relationship should be more collaborative, as it generally is now.

Mr. Child put Mr. Slatkin on the spot a bit by asking if he would offer the gold medalist an engagement with one of the orchestras he conducts. His response: no, but there are one or two finalists (whom, of course, he could not name) who might get an offer.

Asked about how he listens to music, Mr. Slatkin said that he always asks why a performer has made a particular decision, as this tells you a great deal about the performer’s intent. He asks the same question of his own decisions. If you can’t answer that question, he said, it suggests you haven’t really thought through the piece you’re performing.

Asked about his attitude towards YouTube, social media, and related phenomena, Mr. Slatkin said that while piracy—making money from someone else’s work without their permission—is always wrong, he doesn’t see any problem with making audio or video recordings of performances available for free. He noted that the Detroit Symphony streams all their concerts live and, rather than reduce their audience, it has actually increased it.

This segued into a discussion of the dire straits in which many orchestras now find themselves and possible remedies. Mr. Slatkin feels strongly that community involvement and musical education are the keys. If a community values its arts institutions, it will find ways to support them. He acknowledged that this is not always easy, but it is nevertheless essential.

Regarding the inclusion of new music on programs, he feels this is a good thing, but also feels that orchestras should not allow this to crowd out the classic American composers of the 20th century such as Ives, Schumann, Harris and the like.

Asked about how he feels conducting works that have already been recorded by their composers, Mr. Slatkin noted that most composers are lousy conductors and not always the best advocates for their own music. Works of music are living things, and there is no one “perfect” performance of anything.

Tomorrow’s morning symposium will be with the competition judges. Expect some interesting questions at that one.

The Cliburn Report 14: 40 Great Unclaimed Melodies

[Thanks to The Firesign Theatre for the title of this post. If you haven’t heard the hilarious 1970 sketch in question, you owe it to your sense of humor to check it out. Some of you may even be old enough to remember the commercial—featuring Jack Benny’s long-time announcer Don Wilson—that inspired it.]

[Note: this has been corrected based on information obtained from tinyurl.com/cliburn2013rep; viz. the anonymous comment]

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes. – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Silver Blaze”

“I would while away the hours / Conversin’ with the flowers,” but since I’m “leavin’ on a jet plane” for the finals of the Cliburn International Piano Competition, I thought I’d use the flight time to devote some attention the musical canines that were silent, or very nearly so—that is, composers whose work was poorly represented or entirely absent during the three rounds of preliminary and semi-final recitals.

Let’s start with the dogs that didn’t bark at all.

One of only two knownphotos of Alkan

Charles Valentin Alkan – Not a household name but certainly known among pianists. Granted, most of his stuff is fiercely difficult, but somebody could have taken on (say) Aesop’s Feast, the Sonatine, or the Barcarolle (with its prescient “blue” notes)—any of which would have been well within the capabilities of these technically proficient pianists. Besides, none of them appeared to shy away from technical challenges;  Stravinsky’s thorny Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka was heard often as were  works by Liszt (including 11 of the Transcendental Études by Vadym Kholodenko).

And, speaking of Stravinsky, the Pétrouchka suite was the only work of his on the bill.

François Couperin – Yes, he wrote for the harpsichord and organ rather than the piano, but so did Bach and that didn’t keep him off the program (although he didn’t appear that often either; three performances including a Siloti transcription).

Charles Ives

John Field – Nothing from the inventor of the nocturne. In fact, no nocturnes at all. Maybe everyone was afraid of putting the audience to sleep?

George Gershwin – He’s marginal in this context, perhaps, but surely his Preludes would have made an interesting addition.

Charles Ives – Ives only wrote two piano sonatas, but they’re amazing pieces—and would surely have been appropriate for a competition held in America. Indeed, American composers were poorly represented in general.

Dimitri Shostakovich – Granted, Shostakovich might not be as well known for his piano works as Prokofiev (see below), but his Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues are real gems. It would have been nice to see a few performed.

These dogs, meanwhile, barked so little you could easily have missed them.

Albèniz – A prolific and popular composer for the piano, he’s represented only by Book 2 of Iberia (Tomoki Sakata)

Bartok – Again, a composer well known for his piano works, but represented by only three performances: the 1926 Sonata (Luca Burrato), the Étude, op. 18, no. 3 (Alexy Chernov), and Out of Doors (Beatrice Rana).

Grieg – Another prolific and popular composer of piano miniatures and one massively popular concerto, Grieg is represented by a whopping total of three waltzes (performed by Alexey Chernov). I find this odd, to say the least. Is it because most of his work doesn’t offer the kinds of opportunities for flash that one finds in the work of (say) Liszt (who is very well represented)? Or has he simply fallen out of fashion?

Mendelssohn – Only three works: the Fantasy in F-sharp Minor, op. 28 (Scottish Sonata), the Sonata no. 3 in B-flat Major, op. 106, and Variations serieuses, op. 54.

Liszt by Lehmann

So who is well represented? Well, after Liszt, the biggies were Chopin, Schumann, Beethoven (including the challenging “Hammerklavier” sonata), Brahms, Rachmaninov, and Prokofiev.

Ravel looks to be well represented—sixteen performances—but those performances covered only five works including the multiples of Gaspard de la nuit. Still, they’re major works, so maybe that’s not a big deal.

What, if anything, does this mean? The Cliburn and other competitions have been criticized for encouraging safe repertoire and performance choices—a kind of reversion to the mean, in which idiosyncrasies are weeded out. I didn’t see enough of the preliminary and semi-final rounds to comment on the performance side, but it certainly does appear that, given the ability to choose their own music, contestants tend to go with the tried and true. What do you think?

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