Underwhelmed by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO)

(Photos by Pramyth Abeysekra)

After two and a half years in Malaysia, finally watched a performance by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO). The 2016/17 season opening concert “A Musical Journey in Anime”, which incidentally was false advertising given that only half the programme was from Joe Hisaishi’s anime repertoire.

How was the performance? In one word, underwhelming. It was nice to attend an orchestra performance after a long time and listen to some familiar and much loved tunes but for the money spent and the hype around the orchestra, it was quite disappointing.

While sounding really good as an ensemble, mainly thanks to the string section, the solo sections were alarmingly shaky (with exceptions like the principal violin, cello and trumpet). A combination of jarringly wrong notes, issues in tempo and lack of synchronization between instruments, especially in the woodwind section and the violas, all left me scratching my head given the rave reviews I often see for the MPO.

One of the reasons is probably the international boycott of MPO auditions since 2012 due to the management’s poor treatment of musicians. This means the orchestra no longer attracts great talent and probably causes friction within the orchestra as well resulting in little chemistry among players.

I was also curious about the fact that even 18 years after its inception, the MPO is Malaysian only by name. The orchestra comprises of musicians from 25 countries around the world and while that is impressive (at least on paper), one wonders whether the MPO and its education and outreach programmes for nearly two decades have made any contribution towards nurturing and launching new cohorts of musicians given the tiny ratio of local musicians to foreign (at least as far as I could observe) in the orchestra. And I have no idea whether there are set ratios for the composition of the orchestra but lack of local talent is an overused rationale 18 years later. While there are other local orchestras, the MPO remains the most prominent, prestigious and well funded ensemble in the country. There is apparently also an MPO youth orchestra but from what I read in the concert programme, they have not toured since 2012.

The MPO is also expensive. There are concessions for students but apart from that, the target audience seems to be people rich enough to afford the highly priced seasonal passes and tickets (which is probably true of many orchestras around the world except most performances are on a much higher level). I may have been a regular orchestra goer in Sri Lanka (when I was not performing) but in Malaysia I definitely cannot do the same, even with increased earning capacity. We paid RM 162 per ticket for mid-level seats (for comparison, almost LKR 6,000 per ticket) and while that seems reasonable for the quality of the venue and the projected caliber of the orchestra, it’s definitely not worth the actual performance we saw.

So yeah, underwhelming and slightly confusing is what I’d call this first MPO experience. Would I go back? Maybe if there are interesting programmes in the future or irresistible guest performers but otherwise this orchestra comes across as a waste of money in pseudo-intellectualism which I suppose is not my problem if you have the money for it 😋

PS. Maybe due to how powerful Petronas is (the MPO’s principal donor), I couldn’t find much writing on or reviews of the orchestra so these are purely my own observations and hypotheses except for the international boycott and mistreatment of players which is pretty well documented including by the International Federation of Musicians.

Anyway, here’s a cheery (albeit misleading) poster of Totoro to balance the negatives

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Stigmata’s ‘Psalms of Conscious Martyrdom’ – A Decade of Martyrdom has Paid Off

originally published in The Nation

“Here, did you know Stigmata’s new album is coming out this week?”

The question came from a friend’s mother a few days before the launch of Stigmata’ third studio effort, ‘Psalms of Conscious Martyrdom’. A few years ago I couldn’t have imagined a scenario where a parental figure would come up to me and strike up a conversation on heavy metal. It is 2010 and, as Bob Dylan would muse, the times they are a changin’; heavy metal is becoming a fascinating study of demographics with Stigmata, the country’s pioneering metal band, becoming the face of Sri Lankan metal. And they have done all of this on their own terms.

The weeks leading up to the launch saw the band sign up with the country’s leading record label M Entertainment, Sri Lanka’s first heavy metal billboard being put up in Colombo and the band travel around the country with Ian Wright of the Discovery Channel.

But the best proof of how far they have come in the last ten years was the 26th of June, 2010, the day they launched ‘Psalms of Conscious Martyrdom’, dubbed the most anticipated CD launch of the year.

While the number of gigs has increased in the last few years, metalheads still look forward to them with the same fervor. When it’s a Stigmata gig, there’s even more anticipation because it is guaranteed that regardless of circumstances, the ‘Stigz’ will put on a good show. And that is exactly what they did the night the Psalms were unleashed, proving that talent and showmanship can overcome technical glitches.

There is no denial that the sound issues that blighted the performance that night had an anticlimactic effect on the audience after the many months of hype, but fans and naysayers would both be of unanimous agreement that Stigmata is one of the handful of bands that could recover from such difficulties with such élan.

Fifteen songs were performed that night which included the entire track list of the new album, a tribute to the late Ronnie James Dio through a cover of Black Sabbath’s classic ‘Children of the Sea’ and of course the recent crowd favorite, the Stigmata version of Tarzan Boy.

The spirit of camaraderie was palpable. No member of the audience uttered a noise of protest during the times the band halted performing in order to tackle the technical glitches. Frontman Suresh put his charisma to good use as he kept the crowd entertained, ensuring that neither they nor his fellow band members were discouraged.

As someone put it the next day, it was truly a resilient performance and by the time the last track March of the Saints was performed, all earlier troubles were forgotten. There were feet being stamped collectively and row after row of horns being waved.

A decade of martyrdom had paid off.

Guest Post – Review: Cantando Cello Ensemble: Lionel Wendt: July 2nd ’09

By Eshantha Peiris

D minor triad. Multiply by 13 unamplified cellos on the Lionel Wendt stage. Result: one of the most powerful openings to a live concert that I’ve ever experienced. The compositions of J.S. Bach have a knack for being readily adaptable to instruments for which they were not originally written: e.g. from pipe-organ to symphony orchestra (Stokowski), string-band to vocal-jazz-group (Swingle Singers), viola-da-gamba to electric-guitar (Malmsteen), and even apparently, from solo-violin to cello-ensemble. Although listening to the Cantando Cellos’ interpretation of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor from Violin Partita (arr. Laszlo Varga), I was not reminded of a lone fiddle; rather the constantly evolving multiple musical layers shared among the cellos served to create a truly hypnotic sonic landscape of their own (interrupted only occasionally by some very human tuning inaccuracies in the upper notes). Otherworldly music indeed. (no wonder NASA likes sending recordings of Bach on their probes to outer space…) And a fitting introduction to Cantando Cello Ensemble’s 5th annual concert, held on July 2nd.

Jazz-musicians and neuroscientists often marvel at how classical-instrumentalists can synchronize their playing without the aid of a steady beat or a cue-giving conductor. David Popper’s Suite showcased this phenomenon quite vividly, with the cello octet displaying a remarkable sense of group-coordination as they stylishly navigated through fluctuating moods and pulse. I presume they must have rehearsed a lot together.

As with most else on the program, Cesar Franck’s Sonata in A major (originally composed for violin and piano) was presented in an adapted format (featuring Dushy Perera, cello and guest musician Rohan de Silva, piano). I had forgotten what a musically sensitive pianist de Silva can be; the velvety tone he was able to extract from the piano in the first movement was rivaled only by a breathtakingly intuitive sense of ‘rubato’ melodic timing in the solo piano passages. There’s a reason the man is a pro. The second movement, while hectic, was less impressive, but fortunately the cello took over the challenge of driving this brilliant movement to a show-stopping close.

The narrative element of the concert really came to the forefront following the intermission: with the audience comfortably back in their seats (sans noisy cellophane cashew-nut wrappers), the ensemble was successful in immediately drawing the listeners back into the music with a magically quiet vibrato-less chord, before proceeding to conjure up vivid images of fertile landscapes (Dvorak: Largo from ‘New World Symphony’, arr. Lothar Niefind) and dancing skeletons (Saint-Saens: Danse Macabre, arr. Edward Laut). While the use of theatrical lighting cues is not typical of the classical concert format, it did occur to me that more could have been done with the stage-lighting to enhance the dramatic qualities of these two pieces. For future reference I would like to suggest that a music-score-reader be deployed in tandem with the lighting-engineer in order to maximize synchronization of lighting-effects and music.

A curiously witty arrangement of Mancini’s Pink Panther theme by Manilal Weerakoon was able to exploit the full textural vocabulary of the cellos (effects typically relegated to weird experimental music) in service of the musical humour inherent in this famous tune. However, in spite of a grooving walking-bass-line courtesy of Andrea Leitan (double-bass), the rest of the band didn’t quite seem to get the swing-feel required of this music (it felt a bit down-beat-oriented for my taste); but this is a problem with classical-musicians world-wide, so I can’t complain too much. Anyhow, this didn’t stop the audience (and the lighting engineer) from having a ball with this piece!

The excerpts from Bernstein’s West Side Story seem to have become a Cantando trademark, and it seems to sound better every time I hear them play it. With the chorus of Tonight being the ultimate melodic-vehicle for showcasing the ‘cantando’ (i.e. singing) capabilities of the cello, this potentially goose-bump-inducing refrain could have had a bit more support (i.e volume) from the pulsing rhythmic accompaniment, I thought. Bringing in a guest classical percussion player was a nice touch, and added some spice to the music; however I’d love to hear what kind of flavours a specialist Latin-percussionist would be able to bring to the same mix.

Overall, a highly enjoyable concert, now turning into a much-looked-forward-to annual event. Cantando Cello Ensemble must also be commended for maintaining a standard of quality musicianship and ensemble-playing, and in doing so providing a platform for the development of new talent on the local music front. We wish them many more fruitful years of music-making and look forward to hearing more new music from them in the future.

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Dhyan Yathra

Dhyan Yathra took me on a much-looked-forward-to journey. Now if only half of Colombo didn’t turn up merely to socialise and be seen. But more about that later.

It started off with Karunaratne Kiriwattuduwe on santoor accompanied by the tabla. His performance made me wish, not for the first time, that I’d pay more attention when my father listens to Indian classical music. I have listened to Rahul Sharma quite a few times but last night I realized that I had listened on a very superficial level.

This performance couldn’t be enjoyed or even heard for that matter because the audience was not prepared for a long classical piece and therefore the discipline one sees at a classical concert was missing. It was very noisy and had it not been World Temperance Day, it may have been noisier. So everyone missed out on what could have been a very enjoyable performance, one that would have really taken us on a dhyan yathra. I hope we get to see him perform again, in an environment more conducive to classical music.

Next up was Mistake, who really need to come up with a new band name now that they have proven that there is nothing mistaken about them. I was not the only one impressed by their music. They started out a bit stiff, understandably due to nerves but started relaxing towards the middle of their performance. There seemed to be technical difficulties such as with sound balance but none of that stopped them from giving us an idea as to the kind of music they want to make.

There were loose ends and disjointed passages but nothing that couldn’t be rectified with experience since the musicians all showed potential. For a new band, they pulled off the usually difficult task of holding the audience’s attention and I look forward to their future performances with hopefully a tighter sound.

Harsha Makalande along with Alston Joachim, Shiraz Noor Amith, Ravibandhu Vidyapathi and Jithendra Vidyapathi played some of the best live music I’ve heard all year. It still didn’t surpass the last time I saw the same ensemble (minus Jithendra and plus Lakshman Joseph De Saram and Pradeep Ratnayake) but that again may have been due to the noise of the audience and the fact that there was no intimacy between the listeners and the performance.

It was evident that there was a lot of brilliant improvisation going on and the answering passages between Vidyapathy father and son on percussion only added to this musical treat. My only grouse is that there was no piano, which could have enhanced the quality of Makalande’s passages.

Lastly it was Thriloka (excuse me while I shift gears from fan girl to objective critic *cough*) and they just keep lifting the bar for all the other bands around. They started out with Unlucky Number and though I can’t point out the exact how and why, it sounded different from the last time I heard it. It was a good introduction to people who were listening to them for the very first time and it was almost amusing to see people who were as astounded as I was when I heard them for the first time.

The Thriloka version of Thunderblast from Selvaganesh‘s Beat it if you can was one of the best performances during that entire night. There was some fancy playing by the Pabalu, Harshan and Sarani but it was disappointing to note that even that couldn’t stop some people from jabbering nineteen to the dozen (yes I’m aware that I’m starting to sound like a broken record about this issue).

I was very interested in listening to their interpretation of Anna Balan Sanda from the moment I saw it listed in the evening’s programme and I was not disappointed. It proved the point I made in an earlier review about how Thriloka takes the essence of a piece of music and then fuses it to another style rather than simply repeating a well known tune with different instruments. While Sarani Perera on guitar gave a beautiful introduction to the song and then played the chorus itself, what stood out for me were the keyboard passages by Eshantha. For those who haven’t heard the original version, it being sung by Edward Jayakody can be found here.

The last track for the night was Raga De Latino and they keep adding something to this track everytime they play it. There was the answering passages between Sarani and Pabalu on guitar and percussion and that little bit of baila that disappeared as quickly as it appeared. And I love how the entire band seems to be connected by an invisible cord that tugs exactly at the same time.

While Thriloka is undoubtedly excellent at what they do, there were some things lacking. One thing I’ve been noticing (and so had others as I later found out) is that while guitar, keyboard, drums and percussion each has at least one solo to play during a set, the bass seems to be stagnating. All the musicians except for the bass player Uvindu have carved a niche for themselves and display individuality within Thriloka. While the bass parts can be heard more clearly than before, there is still room in their music for more bass. And as Alston Joachim proved last night, there is more to a bass player than standing in a corner, overshadowed by the other musicians.

The ambience was excellent at Barefoot for the kind of music played that evening but it was ruined by some parts of the audience who didn’t respect the musicians enough to keep quiet even if they weren’t interested in the music that was being played. However kudos to Rockapalooza Productions and Fusion Dhyan Arts Circle for putting the show together and for being willing to give exposure to young bands to play along with some of the best in the field.

All in all, it was an evening well spent with some good music and some even better music.

Regenesis – HollowPoint Halo

Date: Friday, August 8, 2008
Time: 8:00pm – 11:00pm
Location: Club Nuovo, Taj Samudra

I apologize for this review being two weeks late but to use a hackneyed phrase, better late than never so here goes.

I looked forward to this gig from the day I saw their first evasive advertisement in a Sunday newspaper which simply said ‘888’. I looked forward to it so much that I planned a lot of other things around this gig rather than the other way round. There were two reasons for this, one being Thriloka. The other was HollowPoint Halo (HPH) whom I had never watched live (except for a tv appearance a long time back) but about whom there has always been a lot of hype, if I may put it that way. And there was the added bonus that my exams had finished two days ago and so I was eagerly anticipating to be musically spoiled. I’m sorry to say that it didn’t exactly go according to plan.

The opening act was Powercut Circus and in all honesty I was not expecting anything great from them because I saw them perform a while back and wasn’t impressed by them. So my plan was to get to the gig around the time the second band would play but as it is with gigs, it got delayed and Powercut Circus started playing a few minutes after I walked in. And I’m glad I was able to catch their set because they completely changed my opinion about them.

I’m not very familiar with their songs (though I did recognize Red Spit and Arrack Attack) and I must say their set started off very well. I liked the fact that while their music was for most part technically unchallenging, they were constantly experimenting, especially the vocalist who had vastly improved from the last time I heard him sing. Maybe it was the venue or the fact that the audience was still pretty thinly spread out by that time but either way, I was able to observe the vocalist better and he is a much better singer than I initially took him to be. There was a very nice texture to his voice and the use of the pedal and the megaphone only enhanced it.

This band would have more potential if they would push themselves a bit further and explore their style because towards the last ten minutes or so of their set, I found their music to be redundant. But it was a job well done as the opening act and they set the appropriate tone for the gig.

Next up was Thriloka and at the risk of sounding subjective, I need to state at least once that I love these boys. If their own gig Almost Acoustic showed that they are ever evolving, then their set at Regenesis showed the adaptability of their music and talent.

While their lineup was the same, they had opted for an electric guitar and an organ for this gig and it changed their sound to a great extent. I believe it was different to the usual Thriloka sound (though I’m open to correction here) and was more in keeping with what their set was leading to; HPH. Due to a variety of reasons I couldn’t keep track of all the songs they played, a task made no easier by the fact that the song changes were seamless. What I can say for sure is that they had the complete attention of the entire audience and those who had watched Thriloka before as well as those who were seeing them for the very first time were mesmerized alike. It was a superb set which included some fancy drum work by Harshana Gallage and the band had good chemistry as well.

One of the shortcomings I saw in their performance was that though the bass line could be heard better this time, it was still capable of going unnoticed unless you strained your ears. I still can’t help feeling that the Thriloka experience is not complete without hearing all of them properly. And from everyone I spoke to later that night, it was evident that the only shortcoming most of them found was that the set was not long enough.

Next came what was supposed to be the climax of the show, HPH. And what an anticlimax that was after the excellent buildup by Powercut Circus and Thriloka. First of all, I don’t believe in paying money to listen to more cover songs than originals. I understand why bands need to play a few covers and there have been several covers by bands such as Paranoid Earthling which I have immensely enjoyed. But playing cover after cover is ridiculous, especially when the event description says, “Re-birth – a renewal of everything that lies at the core and a reinvention of all that surrounds and encapsulates it. When we started out as a Collective of artistes, 4 years ago, we wanted to experiment, we wanted to engage people and, most importantly, we wanted to enjoy the creative process. That still remains true today. Of course, we have changed, we have fought, we have braved and we have faltered, but one thing that we have never done, is submit…”. HPH needs to seriously rethink their vision (and I don’t mean change it to ‘we are a Tool tribute band’) or show evidence of an actual creative process because even their original songs sound like the covers.

Marsh Dodanwela has a very good voice but he has to realize that if he is to attempt the kind of music they play, he would have to put much more strain on it which would mean more vocal training. He sounded very weak at certain points. And although I don’t want to use the same adjective twice, ridiculous is all that springs to mind about HPH taking the Maynard tribute a tad too far with Marsh singing several songs while standing behind a screen. There was nothing in his voice to hold your attention and towards the end of their set, the noise made by audience members chatting to each other was increasing rapidly.

HPH was a disappointment and I was not alone in thinking this. Had not the other two bands been as good as they were that night, I’d have considered Regenesis as a waste of my time and money. HPH was greatly overshadowed by Powercut Circus and Thriloka and while there may not have been such a stark contrast had the gig been solely HPH, it would still have been apparent that HPH was not walking the talk. Rather than marking the rebirth of the band, this gig marked its demise and hopefully they take necessary steps to remedy the situation.

All in all, I’d still call it an average gig because the two opening acts almost made up for what the other lacked and would have completely made up for it if their sets were longer. I just hope the rest of the gigs in the coming months would be better than Regenesis.

Thriloka – Almost Acoustic

Thriloka – Almost Acoustic
Friday 18th July, 2008
Russian Cultural Centre Hall,
Colombo 7

I have an aversion towards Sri Lankan fusion music. One reason for this may be that I grew up listening to a healthy balance of different genres and therefore have a real love for what is loosely termed as Sinhala music. Whether it is vannam or nurthi songs or music from the gramophone era onwards, I love good (there is a need for emphasis since there is an incredible amount of the not-so-good kind) Sinhala music. There are beautiful melodies, meaningful lyrics and amazing talent, though for the past few years it has been becoming more and more mechanical.

Therefore when someone takes one of these melodies, plays it with an electric guitar with traditional drums backing it up or adds a few hiphop beats to it or inserts meaningless rapping in between the melody and then calls it fusion music, I believe my aversion towards it is justified. For me, fusion music should be much more than a shallow experiment. The musician should recognize the essence of a certain genre of music, understand its structure and meaning and then fuse it with another genre.

Needless to say, I was slightly apprehensive about Almost Acoustic. Thriloka is called a Sri Lankan Fusion Band and though the band comprised of talent I knew of or had heard of and though the few tracks I had heard were good, I still had reservations about the evening ahead. But by the end of the evening, I had rephrased my stance to ‘I have an aversion towards most Sri Lankan fusion music’ and hopefully this review would tell you why.

First on what they called ‘tonight’s fusion menu’ was Monsoon Rain, an arrangement based on a tune by Ananda Premasiri, a veteran musician at the SLBC (Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation) and a member of the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka. I must confess I paid more attention to the individual musicians during this song because there was so much to observe. It was evident that each musician had excellent technique but it was not great technique that made them special. There was an almost tangible energy that pulled them together, something that was more evident in pieces like Unlucky Number and Seven 2 Six which had complex time changes. And most of all, they undoubtedly enjoyed themselves and despite there being no over the top showmanship, kept the audience glued to the performance.

My favorite was Loophole which featured Ranil Goonewardane of Hollow Point Halo. The answering passages between Sarani Perera and Ranil on guitar and between Sarani on guitar and Eshantha Peiris on piano were excellent. Arahatha Vandanava was based on a tune which was very familiar and the fusion was very subtle. Each time the tune was revisited, you realized that the diversion was so subtle as to leave you unconscious of it. With Seven 2 Six, Thriloka proved that they were constantly experimenting and evolving because the arrangement was completely different from the original in their debut album Bisura.

Harshan Gallage was probably born with drumsticks in his hands, as his solo performance proved. The drumming genes inherited from his father Hemapala Gallage who is a familiar face in the oriental music scene, were out in full force as he displayed technique I am yet to see in any other drummer in Sri Lanka. If I’m not good enough authority on this, then his teacher Aruna Siriwardena was recently on tv stating that Harshan is probably the best drummer in Sri Lanka to date. Search for ‘Harshan Gallage’ on youtube and you can see it for yourself.
Harshan along with Pabalu Wijegoonawardene who played a variety of percussion instruments were he two most animated musicians in the band and while it was evident that they were both skilled performers, their exuberance sometimes resulted in drowning the other instruments. Uvindu Perera on Bass in particular could not be heard most of the time and though there were initial problems with the sounds, I think the imbalance between the drums/percussion and the other instruments was more responsible for this. I had to strain my ears to hear the bass line complement the melodies.

Sarani Perera’s prowess in guitar was awe inspiring, more so because of how effortless he made it seem. Nebula can be described by one word only; trippy. I found myself closing my eyes and listening to the intricate changes that were hardly discernible. Sri Cuban brought out the performer in pianist Eshantha Peiris who I had so far only seen in his classical avatar. So needless to say I was amazed to see him almost get up from his seat while playing. Any attempt on my part to comment on the musicianship of these two musicians would put me in the danger of praising them too much and losing my credibility, so I think its best that you see them perform yourself.

A cover of Michael Jackson’s Earth Song was done and that was the only dish on that night’s menu that I didn’t like. I felt that it disturbed the flow of the rest of the pieces performed and when a band comprises of such talented musicians, you only want to see them challenge themselves more on each song they play. However guest artist CC who was a winner at last year’s TNL Onstage was surprisingly good. Surprisingly because I thought he was horribly off tune and mediocre when I watched him perform at Onstage finals but his performance at Almost Acoustic made me change my mind. Despite seeming slightly nervous (Thriloka doesn’t seem to be afflicted by nerves at all) his pitching was perfect and it was an enjoyable performance.

The closing item was Last Minute for which Thriloka was joined by Anthony Surendra on guitar and Kalani Perera on violin, who apart from being one of the best violinists in the oriental music scene, is also the proud father of Sarani and Uvindu. Though I can’t pinpoint to one particular snag, I felt that there was a lack of coordination between the band and the guest artists during this performance and I felt my attention drifting at times. Eshantha switched instruments for this piece, settling down on the floor to play a harmonium. I noticed that he was constantly bellowing the instrument, which was unnecessary but I suppose it is because hand coordination in a harmonium is different to that of a piano. But it was nice to see a harmonium being played because it is now an almost extinct instrument seen on stage, the organ having replaced it.

Almost Acoustic is the best live performance I have attended in a long time and there are only two suggestions I would like to make. One is a brief introduction to each piece, either in the printed programme or by the musicians themselves before they start playing. For an example, the programme described Nebula as ‘trip to Hameer from Poorya Dhaneshri’ and I did not understand it. Later Google told me that Purya Dhanashree is a raga but some further information to the uninitiated would have made the audience understand it better.

The other suggestion is about the venue. Understandably, there must be practical issues related to selecting a venue but a more relaxed venue would be better to better enjoy the kind of music Thriloka makes. One place I immediately thought of was Club Nuovo at Taj Samudra where there is a more intimate atmosphere because the audience can sit on the floor closer to the band. Even an outdoor location would be perfect though the unpredictable weather these days would make it difficult. If practicalities can be defied (the band had sponsored itself, which in itself shows that the circumstances may not be ideal), then a different venue would only enhance their performance.
Despite new bands mushrooming everyday, there is still a lacuna in the Sri Lankan music industry for good and original music and Thriloka has, for me, filled that void to a large extent. They are definitely worth your time and money and I look forward to more of their performances in the near future.