30 Days of Performing Arts

Day 7: A Symphony Concert: It’s not what you think

A general aim of these posts is to provide some sense of what to expect at  performing arts event, and to answer the questions, “what’s it like?” & “what’s in it for you?” Both turn out to be a little hard for me to answer–in part because of the wide variety of what people want to do with their recreational time, but also because my perspective is informed, and limited, by already being interested in this. The insider status doesn’t always help.

(If somebody were trying to convince me I would enjoy watching cricket, and came at it from the perspective of an intense expertise and enthusiasm, I would appreciate the fervor, but that probably wouldn’t, in itself be persausive*).

So that end, sharing something that caught my eye this morning, the last episode of a a PBS web series on the Louisville Orchestra and their charismatic young conductor (is there any other kind) Teddy Abrams,

He, and they, may or may not grab you, but I’m betting it’s contrast with what you might have had in mind as a conductor from central casting, to wit:

The great Arthur Nikisch conducting one of the earliest recordings of Beethoven’s 5th (with a expressive elan and freedom of tempo that even the most renegade of conductors today probably wouldn’t dare). Reports of of Nikisch disclose that he controlled the orchestra mostl with his extraordinary eyes.

30 Days of Attending Performing Arts

Day 6: When to Clap?

The whole clapping thing, like clothes, is one of these concerns that looms large–larger than it should. The problem: in classical music concerts, works are often composed of several movements, and or performed in sets. If you are unfamiliar with the music, it’s not necessarily clear whether a stop in the music represents the conclusion or just a pause between movements.

The program may or may not help.

To wit, if you see:

Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C-minor, Opus 67

Allegro con brio
Andante con moto
Scherzo. Allegro

But all you have ever heard are the famous first measures, what do you about the rest? How do you know when the whole thing ends? How do you keep from being the only person in the concert hall who reveals that you don’t know when to clap?

My first advice is not to worry about it. You are not on trial. (And even you were, the most you might be sentenced to is a raised eyebrow of a neighbor.) Although it’s not appropriate to clap (or make any sound) during the music, after it ends–particularly when there is a big finale–somebody is likely to clap. Sometimes the conductor or soloist will acknowledge and even appreciate it, other times, if they want to go on and maintain the mood, they will you let you know that too. (I once heard Renée Fleming ask a Boston audience not to clap between songs in a lieder recital and the arresting Jaap Van Zweden, a conductor to see if you get the chance, managed, with a shrug of his shoulders, to silence a hall that began to erupt after a radiant movement in a Rachmaninoff Symphony.)

Context is all too. A singer doing a star turn in an opera or a dancer executing an extraordinary solo in a ballet will get applause. It’s a human connection.  (The clapping for the reveal of a set is another matter, and that usually seems a little weird to me. Although I have seen shows in which the set was by far the most impressive creative achievement, so I guess it makes sense.)

Part of the context is community. The pleasure (at least in ideal circumstances) of going to a live performance is that you are there with the artists and with your fellow listeners. (That sometimes this is a mixed bag, I’ll address in a future post). When something special is happening–I recall the rapt magic that Leontyne Price could summon in her recitals, something that was followed by a tumultuous roar of applause–everybody is in it together, listening, rejoicing, then clapping. If you are tuned into that, your applause will join in with your fellow listeners. A wonderful thing.




30 Days of Attending Performing Arts

Day 5: What to Wear?

tuxedoWhen I worked at an opera company, I was surprised that one of the most frequent questions from patrons at the box office was about what to wear. Given that I’m not particularly tuned into to clothing, I had underestimated the concern–or interest–in concert going clothing.

Despite widespread assumptions to the contrary, attending formal live arts events (I’m thinking opera and ballet in specific) does not call for formal evening wear; there is nothing special to buy. Unless you are going to a gala opening night, or  invite-only event that has attire requirements listed on the ticket or invitation, you can wear what you want. That said, most people do end up wearing something along the lines of business casual (meaning a button shirt for men and slacks, if not a sport jacket or suit and something at a similar level of formality for women.)

But the range is wide…I go fairly regularly to the Boston Symphony on Friday afternoons, a concert heavy with retirees, who general just come as they are (particularly near my seat up in the second balcony). My uncle, a life long opera fanatic, has not worn a tie or sport jacket to a performing arts event in my memory, and is usually wearing casual slacks, sneakers, and a shirt I will generously describe as ‘vintage.’

From the arts administrator side of the equation, I can assure you that any arts organization I have been involved in as an employee was happy to see people in whatever clothing they wanted to wear. (Well, clean was good, but beyond that no worries.) We were glad you were there–and if you were young, hip, and in jeans, not only would we welcome you, but we’d take a picture of you for next year’s subscription brochure to show that we weren’t hopelessly old-fashioned.

By this point, you might–at least some of you might–be asking “but I want to dress up! What about me?” The good news about the democratizing of dress is it works both ways. Shows and concerts are still opportunities to put on your best ‘going out’ clothes, should you desire. A Friday night at Lincoln Center is certainly a chance to see some elegant clothes (Kennedy Center, not so much, that’s D.C. for you). I personally have taken (after many years of slobitude) to wearing a suit and tie to some performances at least. Not because I particularly love dressing up, but because when it is an event–say a special trip to a show out of town–it somehow feels like it honors the occasion and the artists. But that’s subjective.

I’ll end this somewhat meandering advice with one final note. If you are attending something with other people, it’s worth it to find out what they are wearing. If you are sitting next to strangers who are dressed up or down, it’s not a big deal, but if you are the only person in a group of four in spats or sneakers, it can feel a little weird. If somebody’s regular pleasure for the holidays is getting dressed up for an annual trip to the Nutcracker and taking you along, then don’t show up looking like you are ready for the early bird special at the Olive Garden. By the same token, if you are hanging with a bunch of hard-core new music hipsters and getting to hear the latest Saariaho  String Quartet at the Gowanus Ballroom, probably best to leave the white tie at home and pull out Fluevogs.

30 Days: Performing Arts

Day 4: The mysteries of tickets.

(Yes, I know it’s Nov. 5, I will catch up.)

So you have some sense of what’s out there, what kind of experience are you looking for, and maybe have narrowed things down to a small number of things you want to see. How do you get a ticket?

This, I’m sorry to say, may not always be as trivially easy as it should be. The simplest (and still often best) approach is to go to the venue and buy a ticket in person. This is my approach for the Kennedy Center, because, like many venues, tickets purchased in person don’t have a service charge, but tickets purchased over the phone or online do. (This is counterintuitive…you’d think the automated service might save you money, but it generally doesn’t.) Also, the ticket people at the KC (like their peers at Boston Symphony Hall and many other venues) are knowledgeable and helpful. They will  advise you on finding the right combination of date, performance and seat. Something websites try to do via automation with out much success.

But if you can’t get to the hall, then online or phone is likely your option.  Most venue websites let you pick your seat (some even have images that show you the view from your proposed seat). You should steel yourself for all the fees…as well as a pitch for a contribution. You can print the tickets, have them held at the box office, or, at some venues, get them to email you a digital ticket for your phone.

It’s important to make sure you are on the website that is authorized to sell tickets for the attraction you want to see. This is not a problem for most of what I go to (people are not thick on the ground pirating tickets online for baroque opera for example). But it is a real nuisance for big hits. (Ticket fraud for Hamilton is happening online and on the street.)

It’s also worth untangling subscription versus single ticket sales. Non-profit arts organizations’ business models (by and large) depend on subscriptions. That is what provides them enough capital to do a whole season. Personally, I think this model is getting a little wobbly of late, but for the moment it still is how things work.

As a result, subscribers get first crack at the best seats, generally getting some price break for bundling shows together. You also get other benefits such as the right to exchange tickets. There is a more intangible aspect–feeling connected to a given organization–being “a member.” It is true that certain things–last year’s Ring cycle by Washington National Opera, and Hamilton for instance, are more likely to be available to subscribers than single ticket buyers. Subscriptions also may introduce you to things you wouldn’t have seen on your own. I didn’t much care for last year’s Disgraced at Arena, but I thought Sweat was terrific and beautifully acted and directed. I wouldn’t have gone to either if we hadn’t been subscribers.

That said, subscribing isn’t for everybody. If you are new to performing arts stuff, I would “date around” with different companies before considering subscribing. You’ll get a feel for what style and tone they offer. (Edgy, like Studio Theater in DC, elegant and old school like the Boston Symphony, etc.) And also it’s worth paying attention to whether you like being there, that is in their main venue–whether it’s a place that just seems enjoyable to go to. For many years, I went to (and often reviewed) the free concerts in the Garden Court at the National Gallery of Art. It is far from being an ideal venue–echoing acoustic and poor sight lines. When there was an orchestra, it was a pick up band that wasn’t extensively rehearsed, soloists were sometimes great, other times kind of winging it. yet those concerts had an openness, and generosity that was rare. And ticket wise? You didn’t need any all. Loving the venue is part of it.

In a future post I’ll deal with handling the price (costs can be high, but relatively speaking the performing arts are a good buy, and there a lot of ways to attend on the cheap if you are willing to do some leg work.)




30 Days of Attending Performing Arts

Day 3: Where to start?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, live performing arts opportunities are widely available in large and mid-size cities, and often within reach in smaller areas via colleges, civic organizations, tours and the like.

So how can you decide what to see? This is an idiosyncratic decision–like any choice, but here are some questions that might narrow the choice a bit.

  1. Big or small? performances comes in all sizes, from the intimacy of a lieder singer giving a recital in a hall that seats a couple of hundred, to a blockbuster musical like Phantom playing in a theater that seats thousands. Both can be rewarding, but they are very different kinds of emotional experiences. One acquaintance of mine is mostly interested in seeing grand productions–orchestra performances with huge bands (for instance, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder). Another might want nothing more than an evening with a lone cellist playing the Bach Cello Suites, or a one-person play.
  2. Familiar or unfamiliar? Although you may think you don’t know classical music, opera, Shakespeare, what have you, I bet you do have some context. (Maybe you have heard Ravel’s Bolero, listened to Carmen’s Habanera, read the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet (or seen one of the many film versions.) If any of those struck a chord with you, look for related performance. Great classics are given all the time all over because they are–well–great. It’s fine, probably more than fine, for your first opera to be La Bohème because you saw it Moonstruck. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed by it in person if you liked it there.

stampAlternately, you can go for something alternative. A new music group, a play reading by a new playwright, a work that explores a time, culture, topic far away from your ken. Some of my most memorable evenings have been walking in to an unknown–maybe folk music from a tradition that is new to you, or a composer and performer you have never heard before.

3. Finally, think about what kind of night (or afternoon) you are up for. Performing arts can be a ‘big night out’ –with all the trappings of a special event. Or it can be as simple as listening to a free pick-up concert in somebody’s home. Both are fine, but planning for what kind of experience you want can help. Matching the emotion and the content to the character of the evening.




30 Days of Tips for Attending and Enjoying Live Performing Arts

Day 2: Presenters and Producers

Opera houses used to occupy many small towns…they functioned as civic centers, but did hosting touring opera and Shakespeare.

In the arts management biz, there is a distinction that might be helpful in figuring out the arts offerings in your community, namely the difference (and common ground) between presenters and producers.

To get started, ponder for a moment the difference between your local movie theaters and a studio that creates films. Although they are both in the movie business, their capacity, function, financial structure, etc. are very different. Your local theater is at the ‘retail’ end of things, selling seats (inventory) and working with films (product) from any number of the producers who make the movies.

Live performing arts are similar. Producers are originators who create the work and finance it, and the different venues that sell tickets are presenters. The producers want to create something great–or at least something that finds an audience, and the presenters want “butts in seats” in the unlovely but ubiquitous locution used by arts presenters.

In Washington, DC the Kennedy Center provides an example of both: there are a number of producing organizations (the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington National Opera among them) that have their home there. These groups have control over what they make (artists, repertoire, etc.) This is their artistic home base, just as the Metropolitan Opera’s home base is Lincoln Center in NYC.

The Kennedy Center also presents the work of other producers. (For instance, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and also SF Ballet’s Cinderella which have been up recently). These  originated elsewhere (the play by England’s National Theatre, and the ballet in SF of course).  These shows were on tour, a mode that requires the venues and services around the country–and thus depend on presenters.

So what difference does it make? Not a great deal. It does give you some background knowledge about what is available in any community and at any given time. A large city has both types of things going on all the time. Typically, Broadway hits (meaning Tony winners) spawn touring productions that travel and are presented around the country. (In Boston, On The Town is up for instance). The tours seldom boast the New York casts (although it happens), but can still be great.

Symphony orchestras (particularly the elite tier of the big 5 plus a few others) tour regularly. Individual artists tour (think the famed Sunday afternoon recitals of Vladimir Horowitz) and artists like that depend on presenters to provide gigs that make for a career. Opera companies rarely tour these days (although they once did much more regularly, creating some wild stories.)

This isn’t the whole picture though, small acts do travel, so “presents” doesn’t have to mean big prices and big names. But smaller producers create theater, music, and dance in your community, and sometimes lose out in the hunt for audiences. Yet they can be w0nderful. The best Cyrano de Bergerac I ever saw was in a converted church in Somerville, MA, with a cast of total unknowns. I was more engrossed (and genuinely frightened) by a performance of The Crucible at Catholic U in D.C. than by several professional productions I’ve encountered over the year.

While local groups may not routinely have extraordinary talent they do have surprises:  Great stars start somewhere. If you went to Nevada Opera in the 80s you got to hear Dolora Zajick (among the great operatic mezzos of the last 30 years) hone her craft. Equally important: these producers are in and part of your community–reflecting the people, concerns, places of your world. Small producers also represent jobs and civic effort, something worth rooting for.

So the end of the lecture. Now you know what presenters and producers are, and got nudged to consider both when you are thinking about going to see something live.


Tomorrow: How can I figure out what I might enjoy?




30 Days of Tips for Attending the Performing Arts

Day 1: Introduction

November is national novel writing month, with people pledging to write a novel online in public (a gruesome spectacle) by completing a bit each day.

I’m not up for that, but it is a convenient excuse for doing 30 days of some kind of blogging and my coscreen-shot-2016-11-01-at-9-25-19-amntribution will be 30 thoughts on attending and appreciating live performing arts (one of the few areas were I can claim if not actual expertise, at least a lot of experience).

This is prompted by the realization that although for many attending a play, opera, symphony concert, ballet, or other performance is a pleasurable prospect, for others it can be a burden unto dread. This came out in a chat with a friend about my customary habit of checking out what the local venues have on when I travel to another city for work (more on this in a tip mid-month), and being lucky enough to catch some great things that way (one of Mattila’s final performances as Fidelio in Houston, for instance).

“But that’s such a lot of work was reply, getting the tickets, finding the place, and if it’s something hard studying up!”

Yes, there’s a little bit of prep, involved, but it doesn’t have to be onerous. To that end, here is the first tip.

 How do I find out what is going on? The answer to this is influenced by where you are  (be that home or travel destination). If you are in a big city, the daily newspaper (print and websites) and individual organization websites will have listings. There are non-profits that represent arts groups in many cities (Arts Boston) for instance, and they have calendars http://calendar.artsboston.org/.

The wealth of offerings in a big city can be daunting (I’ll get to that later in the month) so I don’t recommend being a maximizer in search of the absolute best opportunity. (But more anon on that puzzle).

In a small town or rural area, it may be harder to find out what is going on (although it frequently surprises people to learn that there are performing arts in their communities or within a reasonable drive). Most colleges and universities present both their own productions and touring shows.  Check out the calendar listings on their websites. Community centers, religious organizations, and civic groups also present concerts (and these are not necessarily related to being a member of the organization or a particular faith. In downtown D.C. Epiphany Episcopal Church presents a lunch time concert every Tuesday that is just a musical break for workers in nearby office buildings). Sixth and I Synagogue in D.C. has a lively program of music from all over the world. Museums (of many kinds) frequently have public performance programs as well. If you have a regional or local museum in your area, check out their calendar.

This advice (and most of the advice this month) is going to be heavy on classical stuff, only because it’s what I know. But there is also a whole world of pop, folk, jazz etc. with stuff happening in clubs, bookstores, cafes, and the like everywhere. Even the smallest town probably has a singer songwriter happy to have you in the audience for their bookstore debut, just keep your eyes open and see what you can find.

Tomorrow:  Presenters and producers and knowing what they do…

30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Practicing (and an aside on TNR).

Still have a few more things to vapor on about for my “30 Days” music series, didn’t get to my November quota. Tempted to delay that yet again, given that it’s so hard to resist parsing the sad comedy at The New Republic. Then again I couldn’t possibly be funnier than embattled owner Chris Hughes and CEO Guy Vidra‘s own vouchsafing their steadfast stewardship of the TNR in these parlous times. I doubt they will manage, based on the ineptitude of these self-inflicted injuries and the wobbly ideas they have for advancing the paper. But they’ve become the most talked about and loathed leadership team in journalism, and that’s saying something. It ain’t much, but maybe it’s a strategy?

Anyway, </snark> and on to music.

Over the years, I have mused a good bit about practicing, and herewith put together part I of some thoughts on the topic. In addition to my own puzzle over my piano and voice practice (and more often lack thereof). This also responds to the fact that I get the occasional question from parents or adults who are thinking about taking up or reviving music lessons. These are along the lines of how to help your kids keep at it, how to do it yourself? Any tips and tricks?

To start with, I am hardly any model of a great practicer and have never been. Through luck of the draw, I found I was reasonably fluent at sight-reading music from my earliest lessons (I started piano rather late, 5th grade, and this may have had something to do with it). I don’t recall a time when I couldn’t sight read music of intermediate complexity adequately–we’re not talking about reading a Strauss orchestral score at sight at the piano the way a music brain like Renee Fleming’s can–but poking through Rodgers and Hart selections, or even a Mozart sonata–this I can manage.

Tunnel Vision

keyboard_sizedI bring up sight-reading because it has worked against my first advice about practicing. Namely, that it is all about small scale  focusing in (Nancy O’Neill Breth uses the term “tunnel vision” in her useful pamphlet on practicing techniques). Lots of aspects of music and the pleasures therein are the opposite of this: taking in how a whole piece comes together emotionally, layers of melody and harmony, etc. But to get these watch parts to move, you have to take them apart and put them back again. That means breaking things down to ever smaller units, a section, a measure, or the shift of one hand from one position to the other, until you can find a successful approach.

I truly hate this kind of work, but it seems to me a question of cognitive style as much as anything else. Working at really intense level of detail, and being able to turn down the gain on everything except the matter at hand is a probably as much a native talent as any other aspect of musical ability. Oddly, it’s the complete opposite of what a music critic–something I used to be–needs, namely an intuition for the big picture. Still, that piece work is key to practicing–not its entirety–and finding a functional approach to achieving that focus is good. Interestingly, if, like me, this isn’t how you work, then you probably need to practice that kind focus in itself. It’s exhausting for those of us who don’t think that way.

Divergent Thinking

I’m indebted to a great book called “The Musician’s Way” by Gerald Klickstein, for the next insight. Namely, his observation that musical problems are “divergent” in nature, rather than fixed. By this he means that there will be many responses–theoretically infinitely many–to a particular musical problem, be it technical, rhythmic, expressive, whatever. This has helped me in particular because I always assumed two things about my piano playing until recently. 1) There was a correct fingering–some kind of platonic ideal, and 2) Whatever it was, I wasn’t doing it. This stems from a belief the problems in practicing were kind of like math exercises, 2+2=4, or learning your times tables. Sad to say, a view that my earliest piano teachers certainly seemed to endorse. But musical problems really aren’t fixed like that–even things as seemingly cut and dried as rhythms–and thinking about them that way is unproductive. Instead, trying to figure out what is going on, and going wrong, in the section–to see practicing as problem solving, is really helpful. (Klickstein’s book is loaded with other good advice, some other tidbits of which are related here.)

But It Sounds Terrible!

Accept that you don’t  always (or even often) sound good or interesting when you are learning and practicing. This may be a problem that is unique to me, but I have always hated that when you are practicing it sounds to you–and to anybody who is unfortunate enough to be listening–like you can’t even play the piano while you are doing the work. You may be repeating things over and over, with no changes that are audible. It’s not uncommon for things to sound like they are getting worse rather than better as you pick apart and then resolve problems. Tolerating the emotional frustration that comes with that is hard for me, particularly since I can play a lot of other music fluently, and why not just play that?

No less a keyboard wizard than Shura Cherkassky talked about very slow practice in which he concentrated solely on whether he was putting his fingers exactly in the center of each key and that his hand motion was perfect. This was painstaking (see tunnel vision above) and required a level of ‘zooming in’ that no bystander else would understand. Yet, his results speak for themselves.  (He’s 86 in this video, by the way!)

Oddly enough, I’m guessing this kind of issue comes up in anything that requires breaking down things into these ever tinier pieces. Is watching somebody practice 1000 chip shots interesting? Revising thirty, forty or a hundred drafts of a sonnet? I revise writing to the point of ludicrous obsession, sadly, without literary results equivalent to Shura’s musical ones!, and that is sort of fun. Still not there with the piano.

In part II, such things as dailiness, setting goals, and whether demanding that a kid practice ever helps.

30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Day 29, The “seance” of music history

A TLS review of a new music book caught my eye, as it began, “Everything you know about the history of popular music is, in the view of Greil Marcus, most likely wrong.”

Paul Genders follows with a nice precis of Marcus’ argument:

[The] official, non-secret history referred to is the strictly chronological one: of jazz, blues and country giving rise to Elvis Presley, who gave rise to The Beatles, who changed everything – and the evolution has continued, with next year’s sounds emerging out of this year’s, in neat linear fashion. The problem is, of course, that the music itself doesn’t work nearly as prosaically as that narrative suggests. A great piece of popular music is less a “progression of the form” from an earlier work than a “rediscovery of a certain spirit”, or even a “step out of time”; this is an artistic medium best understood not as a sequence of forward manoeuvres but as “a drama of direct and spectral connections” between performers at different moments in history. We have “no reason to be responsible to chronology”, says Marcus, when considering something that moves as mysteriously as rock ’n’ roll.

I love this, and would only add that it’s as true of “classical” music as it is of rock ‘n’ roll. Although the time span goes on a little longer, the official history is still peddling a similar progression: baroque, to classical, to romantic schools, with Beethoven, who gave rise to Wagner, who “changed everything” serving as Elvis and the Beatles.

In fact, progression in music– maybe in any art form?–isn’t ‘forward’ –it’s multidimensional, and performers and composers are always waging restoration and revolution on their predecessors and successors. Does Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre” sound old or new? Is it still new primitive or is it old primitive now? Or consider his once derided opera “The Rake’s Progress,” which converses spectrally with Hogarth, Auden, Kalman, classical and bel canto musical forms, mid-20th century harmony, and, among others, via the medium of Dawn Upshaw, one of the great singers of yet another era.

Here is her performance of the soliloquy, “No Word From Tom,” at once an old-fashion scene and aria, and music that could have been written yesterday or tomorrow.

30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Day 28, In Praise of One Own’s Time (2)

Rosa Ponselle, considered the greatest soprano of the 20th century. She was no Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient,

Longing for the “good ole days” is particularly prevalent in opera. I’ve come to see such nostalgia as silly, even corrosive in large amounts. After all, “the end [of opera] has always been nigh,” as Rupert Christiansen put it in a recent issue of Opera, going on to point out that “in 1834, Richard Mount Edgcumbe was unmoved by Pasta or Malibran and complained that he ‘never expected to hear again…any new music, or new singers, that will make me amends for those which are gone’; in 1906 (considered the heart of one of opera’s many golden ages), W.J. Henderson was lamenting ‘that the race of beautiful singers is diminishing with every year, and in its place there is growing up a generation of harsh, unrefined, tuneless shouters.” Guess that included Ponselle, who was 6 in 1905, Caruso, who was at the height of his powers, Claudio Muzio, Farrar, Journet, McCormack, et al and many more. Now of course these singers are dubbed the best who ever lived, and used to spank the current crop as, “tuneless unmusical shouters” or worse.

Well, there are spectacular talents in our midst; here is one I heard just recently at the Kennedy Center, the young South African soprano Pretty Yende, getting her coloratura on in a Rossini scena.
She is a natural on stage, totally communicative, and it’s also remarkable that her voice is not only fluent and supple, but huge. (Coloratura sopranos often trade agility for tonal richness and full sound, Yende, like many of the greats she is compared with and may well take a place beside, has both). She also communicates things via singing that you don’t get any other way, and believes every moment.

Oh, and she’s 29.

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