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Thor Johnson (1913-1975)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dvorak's 4th (8th) Symphony performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thor Johnson.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cover of Remington R-199-182: Jorge Bolet, piano, playing Prokofiev's 2nd Concerto

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Alec Templeton is the soloist in Gershwin's Concerto in F

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arias, Antherms and Chorales of the American Moravians, performed by the Moravian festival Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Thor Johnson, Columbia Stereo MS 6102.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Sigurd Jorsalfar Suite Op. 56 - incidental music to the play by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson
- composed by Edvard Grieg, was released on Decca LXT 2630 in December 1951, coupled with Vigil by Hugo Alfven.

In 1954 the Sigurd Jorsalfar Suite was issued on a single 10 inch Decca LP with reference LW 5124.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Symphony No. 3 by Robert Ward and "Three Hassidic Dances" by Leon Stein.

From the same plates the release in the Webster Living Sound Series was pressed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Symphony No. 2 of Tchaikovsky

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"The Origin of Fire" and "Pojohla's Daughter" coupled with Glazunov's Violin Concerto

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Decca LW 5328:
Symphony No. 3 (Schubert)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Henry Brant's Saxophone Concerto - coupled with Sinfonietta (Rudhyar) and Gymnopedia (Glanville-Hicks) with Jonel Perlea conducting the RIAS Symphony Orchestra

Sigurd Rascher, saxophone

Saxophone player Sigurd Rascher around 1949.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Search The Remington Site

 

By asking Laszlo Halasz to join Remington Records as Recording Director, in 1952, after Edward Kilenyi had left for Florifa, Don Gabor brought the classical catalog to a higher level. Gabor always had excellent contacts with artists of ethnic popular music and with local jazz musicians. Through conductor Laszlo Halasz, Gabor had access to many more artists and musicians, orchestras of quality, and conductors. One of the conductors was the eminent Thor Johnson in Cincinnati.

In 1947 Thor Johnson had become music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, a quality ensemble, disciplined in the classical repertory and also in the music of modern composers. Thanks to the new conductor, the orchestra's signature was becoming more modern than it had been before. The Cincinnati Symphony not only performed existing compositions of many a modern American composer, but Thor Johnson himself did commission many works himself to be premiered by the orchestra. The current website of the orchestra states that during his 11 years in Cincinnati, Johnson conducted the premieres of 120 American and European works, half of which were commissioned by him.

The liner notes of Remington R-199-168 with Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 4 (No. 8) from 1953 read:


The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has been one of the top ranking symphonic ensembles in the country since its inception in 1895. That year it presented three series of three concerts each, with an orchestral unit of 48 players. Today, this 85-members organization of virtuoso players gives approximately a hundred concerts each season.
Through the years seven men have held the post of music director: Frank van der Stucken; Leopold Stokowski; Ernst Kunwald; Eugene Ysaye; Fritz Reiner and Eugene Goossens. In the 1947-1948 season, the young American conductor, Thor Johnson, was appointed director. Under his brilliant direction, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has attained even greater recognition than at any time in the past.
Aside from its crowded schedule of concert giving in Cincinnati - a schedule which includes regular subscription concerts with world famous soloists, young people's and junior high school series, popular concerts and others - the orchestra tours each season throughout a large part of the country.
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has been a pioneer in the recording industry. Beginning in 1917, records have been made for Columbia, RCA Victor, London ffrr and now Remington. - Arthur Darack, music critic of the Cincinnati Enquirer
(1952-1967) and program annotator for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Thor Johnson of course did inherit from his predecessors a well trained ensemble, but by the very nature of his character, he continued to improve and perfect the playing of the orchestra. He was a good organizer and leader, two assets which a conductor needs. Practically every recording of the orchestra under his baton is the sonic realization of a precise concept. It is probably this strictness and seriousness which Sergei Koussevitzky did like less compared to the more playful, "musical" attitude of a Leonard Bernstein; Thor Johnson was picked on by Koussevitzky during a course in 1940. True, in Johnson's performances beauty for the sake of beauty is in conflict with the organization of the execution of the music. In his music making beauty stands for construction, for architecture and dynamics. Nevertheless a great intuitive feeling can be noticed at times.
All these qualities made him not only a good classical conductor but rather the man to perform often complicated modern scores as his discography shows.

Picture edited by R.A.B., taken from the cover of Remington R-199-168.


Thor Martin Johnson
was born in Wisconsin Rapids (Wisconsin) on June 10th, 1913 in a religious family. His father, Herbert Bernharth Johnson, was of Norwegian descent. He was minister of the Moravian church which originated in that part of Europe what is the Czech republic today. His mother, Anna Josephine Reussnig, was born in a family of German imigrants. When Thor was seven years old his parents took him to a concert of violinist Efraim Zimbalist. This left a great impression on the kid as the day after the concert he was imitating the violinist and taking his bow before an imaginary audience. By the time he was 13 he conducted a choral group and a few years later small ensembles when studying at the University of North Carolina (UNC) and  later at the Universitty of Michigan. In June 1936 he traveled to Europe to follow courses at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and later in Vienna given by Bruno Walter, and courses by Nikolai Malko (Prague), Bernhard Paumgartner (Salzburg), Felix Weingartner (Vienna). With Malko he spent several months studying in Prague, early in 1937.

All these famous names were investing in the younger generation by giving courses and instruction four hours at length. Also significant was attending performances by Arturo Toscanini, Volkmar Andreae, and Max Reinhardt. He met Eugene Ormandy (who attended the Salzburg Mozarteum Festival) and Max Reinhard in person. Ormandy was conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony at the time. When following courses in Leipzig with Herman Abendroth, 23 year old Thor also met with Richard Strauss. In Budapest he met the great Béla Bartók. When Thor visited the Ferenc Liszt Conservatory he was introduced to the head of the academy, Ernö Dohnányi, who asked him about the reception of his compositions in the USA.
The many teachings he received from these great names in music, before the Second World War broke out, must have impressed the young student. Traveling to Europe, in fact to the region where his religious beliefs found their origin, is of significance too.

He returned home to conduct the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra. He went to Chicago to teach at the University of Michgan and led a variety of orchestras and bands, a.o. TheWorld Youth Orchestra. In 1940 he took up the post of conductor of the Grand Rapids Symphony, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 he (with so many other musicians) left the orchestra and enlisted in the US army in 1942 where he became a band leader and performed with pianist Eugene List and Australian composer/pianist Percy Grainger. They also had enlisted.
When on leave one day he visited Eugene Ormandy, now conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Arturo Toscanini was not well to conduct a planned concert and Ormandy proposed that Thor Johnson would conduct the program which listed Symphony No. 5 of Jean Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky's Op. 23 which he performed with pianist Eugene List. In the end he was sent to Great Britain. There he had the opportunity to meet with important people from the music scene there.

When after World War Two things were gradually getting back to normal, Thor Johnson was offered the post of music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra which he accepted in 1947, a post which he held for more than ten years, until 1958.
From 1967 until his death in 1975 he was music director of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.
Johnson was a man of discipline and he also was a man of faith. He founded the Peninsula Music Festival and led the Moravian Music Festival. He did so for the first time in 1950 and for the last time in the summer of 1974, the last season prior to his death.

When he became music director of the Cincinnati Symphony, he was announced as "the youngest native born American to lead a major American orchestra". This fact may have incited English Decca through their American branch, London Records, to make recordings with this relative young conductor and the orchestra of Cincinnati which had of course a great reputation. This resulted in the recordings of five works with which his discography begins.

London LL 405/Decca LXT 2604 - Johann Christian Bach: Sinfonia, coupled with Franz Schubert's Third Symphony (1951). Schubert's 3rd was later also available on a 10" Decca LW5328.

London LL 406/Decca LXT 2630 - Alfven: Midsommervaka, coupled with Sigurd Jorsalvar by Edward Grieg (1951). Sigurd Jorsalfar was reissued on a 10" Decca LW 5124 in 1954.

London 5355/Decca LXT 2605 - Berlioz: Nuits d'été, with Suzanne Danco (released in the nineteen nineties on CD together with recordings by Ernest Ansermet entitled "French Vocal Music").

The recording project was probably not what the sales department had in mind and by the time conductor Laszlo Halasz had joined Remington Records as Recording Director, Johnson and his orchestra were free to record for Don Gabor. The knowledge Laszlo Halasz had not only about music but about the American and European music scenes was a great asset for the Remington label and by the cooperation with the ACA, American Composers Association, Remington Records could gain in importance. In this context the choice for Thor Johnson and his orchestra was a logical consequence. Both Halasz, Gabor and Johnson may have conferred and made suggestions for the repertory to be recorded.

Thor Johnson's Remington recordings (1953-1954):

R-199-168 - Antonin Dvorak: Symphony No. 4 (8) in G Major Op. 88.





At the time when the 8th Symphony of Dvorak was issued, Harold Schonberg reviewed in a Dvorak Discography the available performances of this Symphony. He found the Wolfgang Sawallisch (Angel), George Szell (London/Decca), and Bruno Walter (Columbia) discs the best performances. Rafael Kubelik (RCA) and Gerhard Pflüger (Urania) came second so to speak. And he bluntly stated at the end of the review without any further comment: "The Remington disk is outclassed". And Warren DeMotte wrote in his in 1955 published Long Playing Record Guide: "Johnson is direct and lacking in tonal warmth". That could well have been because of the odd practice of Remington to use the cheap vinyl mix, not adhering to a normalized frequency curve, and that less care was taken when lacquer and matrix were produced.

Nevertheless Thor Johnson's musicianship was appreciated by many and his Remington recordings with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra were generally well received. His approach of whatever score he interpreted with his orchestra was individualistic and surely could have lacked some subtlety here and there, but his recordings show that he had a firm hand, that he had insight in the overall structure of a work, that he knew what the music was about, and that he was well in command of his orchestra.

A good example is exactly his recording of Dvorak's 4th (8th) Symphony in G Major Op. 88 which shows at several instances beautiful melodic lines and phrasing, and sometimes prominent brass which may be less appreciated by some but is well a part of this score and may have been emphasized somewhat by the microphone placement used by Remington at the time.

The original Musirama pressing of this symphony does not completely reveal the merits of this performance. The Remington disk is not very detailed in clusters and sudden outbursts, and it is easy to say that the performance of Johnson is not precise and would lack the right intensity. Right, the orchestra of Cincinnati is of course in a different league if compared to the orchestras of Philadelphia, Cleveland, Boston, New York, etc. And we should not expect the level of Rafael Kubelik's 8th recorded for Deutsche Grammophon many years later or Karajan's for Decca/London.

However there is more to Johnson's performance and that can be heard in its full glory, strength, assertiveness, nervousness, power, suspense and - yes - nuances as the signal of the Varèse-Sarabande Stereo LP VC 81044 reveals. The disk is cut from the original taped recording which was done in stereo by engineer Robert Blake way back in the fall of 1953; the production was supervised by Don Gabor and Laszlo Halasz. The Varèse LP was prepared for release by Tom Null, Dub Taylor, and Chris Kuchler and was issued in 1979 in The Remington Series. Thanks to Robert Blake and of course to Tom Null c.s., it has magnificent sound for a 1953 stereo recording, and lets us hear also the virtuoso side of the members of the Cincinnati Symphony.

 Most of us do agree that Johnson did so very well in the performances of the Gershwin Concerto with Alec Templeton and in Jorge Bolet's performance of Prokofiev's Opus 16. He brings exitement and passion to the Sibelius recordings, specifically to Pohjolah's daughter. The Varèse-Sarabande disc of Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 shows once more that Thor Johnson was a good conductor and this is particularly illustrated in the impressive and emotional rendering of the symphony's Second Movement (a reminiscence of a hardanger fiddle - hardingfele as they call the instrument in Norway - included). No doubt that attending courses given by Bruno Walter in Austria, Nicolai Malko in Prague, and Hermann Abendroth in Leipzig, did form the conductor.

On top of that, while comparing the old mono from the early 1950s to the modern Varèse stereo disc, one gets another proof how important the technical aspects of lacquer cutting, matrix production and finally vinyl pressing are, be it in its original form or in a more modern release - even if some inconstancy of speed can be noticed (whether it originates from the tape or the pressing is not sure). The quality of the technique can make or break a performance. It is also evident that many reviewers are constantly overloaded with discs and if they are not captivated right after the needle has been dropped in the groove or after the play-button has been pressed on the CD-player, they mentally discard a release. Whatever may be the case, the Varèse LP is revealing the truth about Thor Johnson's artistry in a beautiful way. - R.A.B.

Click here for a Sound Clip of the Second Movement of Dvorak's 4th (8th) Symphony conducted by Thor Johnson.


NOTE
The arrival of the tape recorder - the German invention brought back from Europe by Jack Mullin, after World War Two had ended, and which was first built by Ampex, in 1947 - inspired many a company to design recorders for use by audiophiles and amateurs in and outside the home. The tape recorder became a popular medium on both sides of the Atlantic, but the simultaneous release of music on disk and pre-recorded tape belonged more to the American way if compared to the European practice .  Soon systems, also suited for the playback of binaural tapes (in fact 2-track tapes with material recorded in stereo or quasi stereo) became available as well long before the actual stereo record was launched. A-V Tape Libraries, located at 730, Fifth Avenue, New York 19, was a pioneer in the field of pre-recorded tape. The company offered a vast catalog of titels originating from various record companies that licensed their recordings to be issued.

The recording of Dvorak's 8th ymphony with the Cincinnati Symphony under Johnson, became available on A-V Tape Libraries in the Spring of 1954. The recording was not yet released by Remington on disk. The Sibelius program recorded by Remington with the Helsinki University Chorus and the orchestra from Cincinnati became available on A-V Tape at the same time. Also this recording was only released on disk much later. Both tape issues were reviewed by John M. Conly in High Fidelity Magazine of May, 1954. Conly was less positive (to put it mildly) about the Dvorak performance than about the recording of the works of Sibelius. However he found that the microphone placement in the Dvorak was much better. Mr. Conly listened to the mono tape issue of A-V Tape Libraries and not to the binaural (stereo) tape which became available sometime later. This may have well influenced his more or less negative opinion. We should also bear in mind that Don Gabor's technician, Robert Blake, was pioneering in the domain of stereo recording and he had not established a definitive technique yet. About Thor Johnson's artistry M. Conly wrote in his review: "Thor Johnson is completely over his head and this is no foul blow to him". If Mr. Conly could have heard the stereo tape or the transfer of the original tape to a modern medium, he would have been more positive about the performance no doubt.

Remington was the first company to tape performances in stereo. The Remington stereo recordings were issued on mono disks at the time, naturally. Possibly Emory Cook made his first binaural recordings in Boston around the same time for release on his Cook Binaural Records Label. The Cook Binaural records had to be played back by a special arm with two cartridges.
The stereo LP record with the two signals engraved in one single groove, the technique invented by Alan Blumlein in the 1930s, came into being in 1958 and was officially launched in September of that year. - R.A.B.

R-199-173 - Ulysses Kay: Concerto for Orchestra, Norman Lockwood: Concerto for Organ and Brasses; Quiet Design.
Marilyn Mason (Organ), brass ensemble, Thor Johnson conducting. Recorded in St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia University.

R-199-173 was reviewed in High Fidelity Magazine of July 1954 by Paul Affelder. His conclusion: "The Kay performance is excellent and the Lockwood is superb; both recordings are first rate, with sonorous organ and properly clangerous brasses."
(Photograph Frank Donato.)

R-199-182 - Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 with pianist Jorge Bolet. (reissued in 1974 in simulated stereo on Turnabout TV-S 34543).

R-199-184 - George Gershwin: Concerto in F with pianist Alec Templeton.
Johnson's leading the orchestra in Gershwin's Concerto in F played by pianist Alec Templeton has style and the structure is well balanced, this certainly also being the result of the chemistry between Templeton and Johnson.
That things could be different is illustrated by the performances of Oscar Levant with Thor Johnson given in Chicago Orchestra Hall in the 1952-53 season. Tchaikovsky's First and Gershwin's Concerto in F were on the program. There was no rehearsal time and Oscar Levant complained that Johnson's tempi were too fast. At the end of the Tchaikovsky, irritated Levant dragged Johnson with such a firm hand to the grand piano in front of the stage that Thor Johnson almost fell face flat on the stage.
Afterwards critic Irvin Sablosky reported in the Chicago Times that the Cincinnati Orchestra "is not a good orchestra. Thor Johnson is not a very good conductor." Another critic wrote that Johnson did not have the feeling for Gershwin's music. It must be said however that R-199-184 with the recording of Gershwin's Concerto in F clearly demonstrates the opposite.
The ill behavior of Oscar Levant resulted in a letter from the Union to Columbia Records who managed Levant, to forbid Oscar Levant to perform again with whatever orchestra, because Levant did not honor contracts.

R-199-185 - Robert Ward: Third Symphony; Leon Stein: Three Hassidic Dances.
It is interesrting to read what Warren DeMotte wrote: "This is a symphony of satisfying proportions, skillful in construction, deep in emotional content, unmistakably American in character. Thor Johnson is at home in this contemporay music, more so it seems than in the older music he conducts. His performance is lyrical, supple, and assured, and variegated in color and dynamics. The orchestra plays with enthusiasm and finish; and the recording stands high in the scale of Remington achievement.

 R-199-187 - Peter Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2.
It is true that Thor Johnson had his own style. In a review from 1955 the recording of Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony was compared to the performance by Sir Thomas Beecham released on Columbia (USA and Great Britain), and on Philips A 01130 L (Europe). However the reviewer preferred the pace of Johnson rather than the slow tempi of Beecham. Only in the Andantino Johnson's concept did not work too well.
Another trait of Thor Johnson - so the reviewer noted - was that he could make climaxes and tutti sound rather loud. Nevertheless the technical quality of the Remington recording was judged the equal of the Columbia/Philips Minigroove with Beecham.

R-199-188 - Henry Brant: Concerto for Alto Saxophone, Sigurd Rascher soloist (coupled with Glanville-Hicks: Gymnopedies 1, 2 and 3; Rudhyar: Sinfonietta; performed by the RIAS Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jonel Perlea).

The recordings of works by Ward, Stein, Brant (and of course those of Glanville-Hicks and Rudhyar led by Jonel Perlea) were all done in cooperation with the American Composer's Alliance (ACA). It is not sure who came up with the idea to make recordings of modern music, Halasz, Gabor or Johnson, but in view of Johnson's interest it is suspected that he proposed to record from the vast reservoir of compositions of modern American composers.
The cooperation with the ACA resulted in a few more records in the Remington catalog of modern American music, performed by other artists, like the Musirama edition of Ulysses Kay's Concerto for orchestra and Concerto for Organ and Brass, Lockwood's Quiet design (organ solo), cello music of Harrison Kerr, and violin music of Otto Luening.

NOTE: In Berlin the unique recording was made of John Freeman's String Quartet No. 1, performed by the Koeckert Quartet (Rudolf Koeckert, Willi Buchner, Oskar Riedl and Josef Merz). However Freeman's Quartet was never issued on a Remington disc.

 Unfortunately the cooperation between Remington and the ACA (and Thor Johnson for that matter) was not continued. When Remington Records ceased to exist, Composers Recordings Inc. from New York continued making recordings of modern American music. One of the releases was CRI 122 with works performed at the Peninsula Music Festival in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, in 1957, with music of four composers:
Hungarian Set for Strings and Celeste by Irvin Fischer who had studied with Zoltan Kodaly in Budapest in 1936.
Concerto for Trumpet and Strings, Op. 8 by Robert Nagel.
Landscapes by Chou Wen-Chung who initially studied to be an engineer but later studied composition and devoted himself completely to music.
Concerto for Flute, Clarinet, Bassoon, String Quartet and String Orchestra by John Lessard who, like Hine Arthur Brown and many other Americans studied at one time with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

Members of the Helsinki University Chorus in front of Cincinnati's Music Hall in November 1953, while taking a break during the rehearsals of the recording of works by Jean Sibelius.
Image courtesy The Helsinki University Chorus - Ylioppilaskunnan Laulajat - edited by R.A.B.

R-199-191 - Jean Sibelius: The Origin of Fire with the Helsinki University Chorus and soloist Sulus Saarits, baritone, and Pohjola’s Daughter, Op. 49 (coupled with Glazunov's Violin Concerto, played by André Gabriel (Roman Totenberg) with the RIAS Symphony Orchestra conducted by Georg Ludwig Jochum). Tom Null issued the Sibelius recordings for the first time in stereo on Varèse-Sarabande VC 81941. See The Remington Series.

Conductor Thor Johnson and baritone Sulus Saarits.
Image courtesy The Helsinki University Chorus - Ylioppilaskunnan Laulajat - edited by R.A.B.

 "The Origin of Fire" was in good hands with Thor Johnson leading the musicians of Cincinnati and the Helsinki University Chorus. Thor Johnson was a great admirer of the music of Jean Sibelius. When two years earlier, in 1951, a festival was scheduled in Helsinki devoted entirely to the music of Sibelius, Thor Johnson flew to Finland to attend the seven concerts. But Jean Sibelius himself was not present, this to the disappointment of Johnson. Luckily he met Mrs. Eva Palleheimo, oldest daughter of Sibelius, and he was also introduced to Mrs. Jussi Jalas, youngest sister of Eva Palleheimo and wife of conductor Jussi Jalas (who also recorded for Remington conducting the RIAS Symphony). In a telephone conversation with their father the daughters arranged that Thor Johnson would join them and their children to visit Jean Sibelius to say goodbye for the summer. That was one of Johnson's most cherished encounters.

Johnson commissioned many compositions. For example: Lord of the Ascendant (Ellis B. Kohs; 1955). Henry Cowell wrote Variations for Orchestra for Thor Johnson and his orchestra (1956, revised in 1959). Johnson commissioned and first performed T.J. Anderson's Chamber Symphony with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra (1969). Ulysses Simpson Kay wrote the overture "Of New Horizons", commissioned already in 1944 by Thor Johnson.
Johnson himself arranged Georg Frederick Handel's Music for the Royal Firework.
He gave the first performance of William Schuman's Credendum-Article of Faith (1955) and with the Cincinnati Symphony in 1951 the American premiere of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, not sung in English as Schoenberg had asked, but in the original German text.

When rehearsing with cellist Zara Nelzova in November 1974, all of a sudden Thor Johnson had difficulty turning the pages. On December 8, 1974, a brain tumor was diagnosed which was operated upon on December 24. But Thor Johnson never regained strength and mental alertness. On January 16, 1975, he passed away. On the same evening it was Thomas Schippers who conducted in memory of Thor Johnson a Bruckner Mass which Johnson himself had planned and prepared with the orchestra.

Page written by Rudolf A. Bruil and first published in March 2004 and updated since. (c) Rudolf A. Bruil

Data about Thor Johnson's studies in Europe, the period prior to his appointment in Cincinnati, the Oscar Levant incident, and his visit to Finland are from the biography "Thor Johnson - American Conductor" written by Louis Nicholas, published in 1982 by The Music Festival Committee of the Peninsula Arts Association, Ephraim, Wisconsin.

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