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The Chamber of Musical Curiosities: Ep 2

Categories: News & Views: Podcast, News & Views: Strike A Chord

Paul Kildea and Wilma Smith.

In the second episode, Artistic Director Paul Kildea is in conversation with Musica Viva’s own Artistic Director of Competitions, Wilma Smith.

Together they discuss Wilma’s musical journey from New Zealand to the United States, her subsequent studies with the legendary Dorothy DeLay, and the founding of the New Zealand String Quartet.

Wilma shares the fascinating and fortunate story of how her 1761 Guadagnini violin came into her life, and reflects upon the importance of chamber playing in a musician’s career, and the extraordinary talent uncovered by Musica Viva’s latest venture, Strike A Chord.

Click on the play button below to listen.

Wilma Smith and Paul Kildea: Musical journeys, founding ensembles & Strike A Chord

Welcome to the Chamber of Musical Curiosities, a podcast exploring the world in and around Musica Viva Australia. 

Paul: Hello and welcome to the podcast, the Chamber of Musical Curiosities. I'm here with Wilma Smith, the violinist and educator, chamber musician, Concertmaster. Wilma, I want to take you back to 1987 and the invitation to return to New Zealand, where you had grown up and had your initial training. I wonder if you could tell me about the balancing factors and that decision that you had to make, which I imagine was actually quite a profound one?

Wilma: It was indeed, Paul. Goodness, nobody's asked me about that for a long time. Yes, it was an important decision. So I was at that point working with a string quartet in Boston and had been with that group for seven years - the Lydian String Quartet, which I'm pleased to say, still continues to this day with one original member still there. And I keep in touch. In fact, I was there last year playing with them on our 39th anniversary year. Anyway, in 1987 I was invited by Chamber Music New Zealand to go back and start the New Zealand String Quartet. They knew what I had been up to in America. I had kept in touch over the years. So I suppose you know, I was one of the people that was natural to approach for such a thing. The thoughts I was having were to do with the feeling of New Zealand being home, for one thing, although I’d had a wonderful time Boston and it was, at that time, certainly my second home, and I still feel feel very attached to the place, having spent all of my twenties there, you know, it's a very kind of pivotal time of life, I guess, and a vivid time of life. So the thoughts going through my head were okay, if at any time I want to go back to New Zealand, there couldn't be a better reason to go back. I was really impressed by what they were planning, how they were going to start the quartet. It was sort of a joint initiative of Fred Turnovksy, a wonderful patron of the arts, the late Fred Turnovksy, whose foundation still continues to do, you know, great work in New Zealand. Fred was one of the early initiators of the music federation which became Chamber Music New Zealand, after the Second World War, and he also was quite instrumental in the startup of Music Viva too, actually. So he was a very important figure in music in New Zealand. And Fred had wanted to have a resident quartet in New Zealand for a long time and he got together with Chamber Music New Zealand at the time and with the NZSO, so it was a sort of three way deal in a way that they had managed to put together a package, a financial package to get the thing off the ground and persuade, you know, for people to come together and do it, which was that for the first, I think it was year, although my memory is a bit fuzzy now, we would play on a part time basis with the NZSO and we would teach at Victoria University and we would play in the quartet. So that was how the quartet sort of started and was able to, you know, pay four people a salary to go back to New Zealand to do that. So, my decision was not that difficult, as it turned out, although the Lydian Quartet was doing well and we had done well in competitions and our career was going well, I sort of was still very attached to New Zealand as home, and I felt that this was the best possible reason to go back to New Zealand and do something that would have, you know, a lasting kind of contribution to the music scene there, which indeed it has. So the New Zealand String Quartet is still going strong and has been an amazing force for good in New Zealand. So yeah, in the end, it wasn't as difficult as you might think. Of course, it was sad to leave the Lydian Quartet, and I'm still very closely connected with the two surviving members. Sadly, our violist died five years or so ago. But, you know, I think it was the right decision at the right time. It was, you know, something I felt strongly about doing, and I don't have any regrets at all. 

Paul: That's great. I am going to ask you about what took you to America, because that's a kind of interesting story in itself in terms of teaching, legacy and lineages. But first just talk a little bit more about that balancing. I know that of all the musicians that I know, the all the Australian musicians that I know, living and working or studying overseas, there is this idea that one day we might be able to return home and of course, it's just about opportunity. But there is this pull, and I think it changes as we age and the pull gets stronger. So I'd love you to kind of address that a bit, not least of all, because I know that you have mentored a lot of musicians whom you then send or connect with teachers elsewhere and throughout the world, and I'm just interested in that silver thread that connects you to them and them to their home country. 

Wilma: Yes, well, you know, coming from a particularly tiny country like New Zealand, it was almost a given that if you were, you know, serious about becoming a professional musician, that at some point you would leave. I was surprised when I came to Australia, which is a very different country because of its size among other things, that that need to leave was not so strong in all the other musicians I encountered here. Some felt they had everything they needed in Australia because of the population and because of the size. Whereas in New Zealand we didn't and I presume still don't feel that way because it's so isolated and tiny. So I never for one minute thought that I wouldn't go somewhere, even though I had a job at that point. So when I, you know, got a full time job with the NZSO when I was 19 and I was working in that orchestra and I loved it. I really enjoyed the life of being in an orchestra and it was fun and, you know, making some money and all of that. But,nevertheless, I knew that I wasn't there for good at that point. So after a year and a half, I did leave and went to study tomorrow and chose America, largely because my most recent teacher was an American who was the then Concertmaster of the NZSO, and he had studied with the highly respected teacher in Boston called Roman Totenberg. So I, you know, followed his advice. I auditioned for Totenberg and I was accepted to go study with him. As it turned out, when I rocked up to Boston in 1978 I discovered that the school he was teaching it was actually not suitable. It was more of a sort of community, low key, sort of thing, not the professional training ground that I needed. So I actually didn't ever study with him, apart from one lesson at the beginning. He was very nice. And, you know, you understood my situation. So I quickly sidestepped and went to the New England Conservatory, which I had also applied to and, you know, been accepted and had a scholarship to go there but I had turned it down in favor of this other place, the Longy School, which has changed, it’s not as it was then. But I ended up, you know, going back begging and saying I, you know, made a bit of missed a Can I please come back? And luckily they needed you know, they they were low on violins that year so they said yes, you can come back. And so I went to the New England Conservatory and studied with Dorothy DeLay, who at that point, I actually didn't know anything about. I mean, don't forget, this was 1978. The Internet was a long way off, and all our information at the other end of the world came by, you know, snail mail in the form of a brochure from various institutions. And Dorothy DeLay, although she was at that point one of the most famous teachers in America, was unknown to me. So, you know, when I rocked up at the NEC, it’s hilarious now when I think about it, you know, we had to audition for teacher selection. So although we'd been accepted to the school, we didn't know who we'd be studying with. So I basically was asking around people on the ground saying, “Well, who's at the top of your list? Who are you asking? Who are you saying?”. She seemed to be at the top of a lot of people's lists, so I thought, oh I’ll stick her up there, too. 

Paul: Wasn't the clue in the fact that Itzhack Perlman was one of her students? Didn't that give something away?  

Wilma: I didn't know that. My ignorance back then was, you know, stunning. But now I sort of understand why this information was not at our fingertips in those days. Nobody had told me about Dorothy. How would I have researched that? Things were just a lot different back then. Anyway, I fell into the life of being a Dorothy DeLay student, which I later, you know, found out, was very glamorous and had a great time, you know? So honestly, I sort of laugh about it now, but it was really just a whole lot of good fortune that landed in my lap over there. I'm really glad I did go to Boston. It was a wonderful place to be. 

Paul: Talk to me a little, if you wouldn't mind, about her as a personality. As a technician. And then also how much it shaped your personality, because it strikes me that you have this curiosity. You have this real interest in young players. You have a very discursive approach to thinking about music, and I just wonder how much of that is innate, and how much of it was shaped by DeLay’s teaching?

Wilma: That's a really interesting question. I think she is a wonderful teacher, and she was an interesting character. She would basically sit in a room. She had 10 students. Boston was not her base. She was at Juliard mostly, but she was teaching at five institutions then, including one in London. So depending on what day of the week it was,  she'd be somewhere else. So we had her one day every fortnight in Boston and the New England Conservatory. 10 of us in her class there. And on the in-between weeks she had an assistant, who was still teaching at Juilliard, and he was terrific. He was a wonderful teacher. So we had private lessons with him, and then once a fortnight, she’d rock up and we'd have to be there in a little concert hall at the school, all 10 of us, all day, so we would listen to, presumably about 10 hours of masterclass. On the days that she was there, we were sitting on everybody's lesson, so it was a masterclass lesson and it was a wonderful sort of kick up the bum for me, really, because I hadn't been in that sort of intense, student situation. It was much more sort of, you know, I was from New Zealand. It was a much smaller scene and sort of cozy. And suddenly here I was thrust into this, you know, hothouse. And actually it was the big thing I could have fallen into. It was wonderful to have to get up on a stage in front of my peers and have to play something every two weeks. We had to perform. We had to perform every two weeks. The turnover was quick. You know, my first private I was told to bring along the Venyavsky minor and next week, that's all they said. And I was petrified. I thought, Oh my God, doesn't mean I have to learn the whole concerto? So I did, because I thought that's what I had to do. In fact, I only had to do the first movement that lesson. But it was new for me, all this kind of high pressure stuff, but exactly what I needed. She was very low key in her approach as a teacher, and I hear a lot of misinformation about America still, and even then I thought I was going to America to get some technique, you know, I kind of thought okay, well, everybody tells me I'm musical, I must be musical, I'll go to America and, you know, develop my technique. In fact, I couldn't have been further from the truth. What I learned in America was music that was completely the opposite. I learned about how to communicate music and about music. Although, you know, of course, with her she was very pragmatic, as a teacher. She wasn't a sort of charismatic personality. She was very pragmatic and sort of solid and matter of fact and quite sweet. She would say what needed to be said, she would in any lesson, she'd pick on the, you know, two or three things that she could make a difference with that day. And there was a very kind of, clinical is not the right word, but it was very matter of fact and effective, actually, quite effective. She didn't try to change things that were working. It wasn't as though all of the students looked the same or, you know, had the same technical style. She basically, you know, would work with where you were. If something really needed changing cause it wasn't working then absolutely, she went for it, but those 10 people were quite different. Quite different players and from all over the place. You know, different parts of the world, different backgrounds. So that was a really interesting experience. 

Paul: Yeah, that's the thing that you would have also really learned, and that's not necessarily directly from DeLay. But you're actually ranking yourself against these nine other players who do come from different parts of the world with different traditions. Different amounts of experience. And that is invaluable, isn't it? In working out who you are as a musician and where you sit.

Wilma: Absolutely, and that's what surprised me when I first came to Australia and when I talked to a few young musicians who, you know, didn't feel the need to go away, that they felt that they had everything they needed here, and I was sort of surprised by that attitude because, for me, that's exactly what it was. What you just said. It was just a way to see what was in the world and see how you stepped up. It's not that it's all about measuring yourself against everybody else, but just sort of broadening your horizons and, you know, understanding what was out there. Although I was a DeLay student, actually, when I think that on my there was only two years that I was at the New England Conservatory,  then I stayed another seven years in Boston with the quartet. But during those two years, I think that an even bigger influence on me was Louis Krasner, who must have been in his eighties already when I met him there. He was teaching chamber music at New England, and I didn't know anything about him. I mean, I fell into his orbit because everybody did chamber music and we were placed into groups and I was in the quartet, and we started working with him. And actually, you know, he became the biggest influence on me for the whole nine years I was in Boston, in fact, and even as a professional, you know, in the Lydian Quartet, we would go to him for coaching. So I went back to him, you know, as an individual to play stuff. I never saw him with a violin in his hands, you know, he never played a note. But I credit everything I do in my own teaching, although I'm sure that Dorothy DeLay influence is in there, I actually credit him with, you know, most of what I think about and know, in part, about music and the violin. It was interesting to have that other really strong influence at the same time. There's the great privilege of being in Dorothy DeLay's class, but also having these amazing masters just on the periphery, as it were. Another amazing old European master, Eugene Lehner, who premiered Bartok quartets for god’s sake, you know, with Bartok in the room, kind of thing, and studying Bartok with him. I mean, you know, this is sort of life changing stuff for somebody green and, you know, naive from way down under. So yeah, I felt very lucky to have just kind of ended up somewhere without even really knowing what I was getting into. 

Paul: Here's a quick word from our supporters. 

Musica Viva would like to say thanks for the support and ongoing partnership of Wesfarmers Arts. Wesfarmers Arts understand the vital contribution that the arts make to the communities in which we live and work. Bringing people and art together. 

Paul: Now Wilma, I want to talk about Strike A Chord, the astonishingly successful chamber music celebration for secondary school students in Australia, which had its inaugural outing this year. And you're the artistic director of that competition. I'd love you to chat a little bit about your connection with its equivalent, or precursor, in New Zealand. But as a little vignette, I was in Canberra while the competition was on and went to the Wesley Hall and heard the Open Piano Trio of these, I think you're 11 or year 12 students playing together, and it was kind of overwhelming to see this level of performance, and then I went and heard with friends, the Cousin Quartet, and I hadn't heard the audition tape as indeed you had, and was gobsmacked by the musicality and verve and maturity of this quartet. It seemed to me just an absolute tonic in this particularly difficult time. So I'd love you to chat a little bit about the celebration, how it came about and your reaction to what I thought was just a fantastic inaugural event. 

Wilma: Yes, I was thrilled, absolutely thrilled that, you know, we had such a great turnout, for one thing in this very difficult year, and the level of playing. I agree with you,  it was stunning, beautiful playing. It's so knowing about what you need to do to communicate music. I totally agree about the groups you mentioned. I couldn't have been happier about it being the first one and how he sort of ran with it, despite it all, and the response from the young musicians and obviously their teachers. When I was their age, I absolutely loved my participation in the New Zealand equivalent event, which is still going strong. And I've watched the final of the New Zealand event, actually, not long before our final, and as always I was, you know, gobsmacked by the level of performance. I’ve adjudicated theres on a few occasions, and it's always inspirational and exciting and, you know, moving what can be done by that age group, and we certainly saw some of that in our own musicians and particularly in the finals. But even in the non finalists, there was some really superb playing. Some superb musicianship. And, you know, I feel vindicated by sort of pushing so hard for this competition at this level. I think that this is the age group where so much about music can be soaked up by playing chamber music by actually doing it and understanding how things fit together and how you need to communicate and all of that. I think it's, you know, a wonderful age to be involved in playing. And, you know, that's why I still love playing with young musicians myself. I find it inspiring and to watch these young kids, many of whom were who hadn't done a lot, you know, coming to it quite knew, you could just see the level of engagement and how it's not possible to do it without engagement, really. 

Paul: I've heard some lovely stories come out of the chamber music competition in New Zealand, Wilma, I wonder if you’d like to share one of your favorites?

Wilma: Oh, absolutely. Well, the last time I adjudicated was just a few years ago. Actually, it's a little bit relevant to the Cousin Quartet, too. So there was a gorgeous quartet. They played the first movement of Schubert's Death and the Maiden, and they were all from one family. There were three siblings and some kind of relative, and furthermore, they were all Maori. So, you know, this was unheard off even 10 years earlier, and they were from a small town in the far north of Whangarei, so out of Auckland or any of the main cities. Presumably they had access to very good teachers because they were all excellent players. Anyway, they played this piece totally from memory, totally convincingly and not a moment of doubt, and it was so gorgeous. Anyway, they were the winners that year, and when we were awarding the prizes, and they got up and received their trophy and certificates, somebody in the audience leapt up, a man, leapt up in the middle of the audience and did the most hair raising and spine tingling and moving Haka spontaneously. I mean, I love watching them. The Haka at the beginning of an All Blacks game, you know, sometimes it's a real highlight. But I had never heard one in this context, and I had been just heard a chamber music performance, the finals. And, you know, I'm sure there wasn't a dry eye in the room, you know, it was amazingly powerful, very moving, and you know that marked a kind of coming of age, I guess, of the competition, the fact that such a group from such a place could win that competition was amazing, really incredible. And then this time, listening to the Cousin Quartet I was, you know, reminded about my own early experience with competitions, international quartet competitions and in particular, meeting the Hagen Quartet at the very first BANFF competition, I think way back in the early eighties, and the Hagen Quartet, who I adore and are one of the world's great quartets now and for a long time have been. In fact, Lucas Hagen is going to be on our jury for the next Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition, which is very exciting, but anyway, they're old friends, and I met them when Clemence the cellist was just 16, so they were a very young group and they were all from one family. There were three siblings plus a cousin at that point. And you know, there's something special about that family vibe, just hanging out with them. And, you know, they have played together since they were children, very young children. And I think that's the case with the Cousin Quartet and that quartet in New Zealand. That is a really special thing, I think, to make that kind of close chamber music with your siblings. And, you know, certainly wonderful for the audience, you know, that amazing kind of extra dimension that adds.

Paul: Completely. I want to talk about this in relation to your own career, which, of course, as I said at the introduction, has spanned chamber music to being Concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for a very long and vibrant time. And I'm interested in what you say about these young musicians playing chamber music and in those formative years. Because one would almost expect that actually, what musicians in their teens want to do is have the social advantage and also be instructed, you know, within an orchestra. Almost that they have to abdicate some of the artistic decisions to a great authority figure. So it's really interesting for you to say that actually, this is the time when they really do need to form these ideas and these relationships and their musical and creative personalities for themselves.

Wilma: Yeah. Look, I think that absolutely is still being taught, of course, at that at their age we never stop soaking up other influences. But I know that in my first quartet I played in was when I was about 13 and I was playing with older teenagers. I felt like a baby in the group, and I was. I was significantly younger than the others, and they just asked me, you know, it was a small pool of players. They asked me to play with them, and I don't remember a whole lot about it. But I know that, you know, look forward to those sessions enormously. They were sort of fascinating and kind of engrossing in a way that I hadn't experienced before. And, you know, I think that that is the case for anybody who plays chamber music. At any level. I'm really involved in the amateur music scene in Melbourne too, and some of my best experiences have been coaching chamber music at the Mt. Buller Chamber Music School in the summer that usually happens up in the mountain with people who are very accomplished professionals in other fields. But for whom this week is, you know, a year highlight, and they come together. They're playing quartets on, you know, some of them every Sunday with their friends and all that. And it's so inspiring that what chamber music does for anybody, and for these people, it's complete and utter absorption, engagement and intellectual, spiritual involvement, etcetera. You know these are very clever adults. And then at the other level, you know, I teach at a couple of schools and some of those kids are not going to be professional. They're not all child prodigies or anything, but at any level, you know, you can put them into a group and deal with the same stuff, the same issues exactly the same depth and sort of quality or engagement, and it's inspiring. It's inspiring at whatever level. So that's why I was really keen, and we're still talking about this with Strike A Chord going forward, about making this competition, not just about the elite who are amazing, I mean, you mentioned the Cousin Quartet, if they stick together, they could take on the world. I mean, that is a phenomenal level of playing. And to think that those two boys are just 11 and 12, for goodness sake. They’re children still and they're playing at a level which we would see in arm MICMC competition, where we see the best young professionals from around the world. They could be there. So, you know, from that all the way through, I'm really interested in the engagement at every level because I know what it gives to the lives of amateurs as well. This sort of total, engrossing kind of musical experience that comes from playing chamber music. It's a bit different to... I mean, I love my orchestral career too, don't get me wrong. I love it. And you know, certainly I always treated it as big chamber music, which it is when it's at its best. But there is something about the intimacy and personal responsibility and accountability of, you know, playing in a small group that heightens off everything at whatever level, or whatever your technical expertise. So, yeah, I'm really thrilled that we can go forward with Strike A Chord, and that we're going to keep making efforts to engage at every level with these young kids that, you know, we're going to sort of increase our focus at the novice level to try and encourage people to get involved at the earliest level of playing their instruments. Because, yeah, I've seen what it does. You know, engagement is what gives us a connection to life in general. I think it's great for everybody's mental health, to find something that you can really get stuck into is a wonderful thing. 

Paul: Yeah, to find something that you can call your own. That's the thing that I took away from the competition, the level of engagement, of course. But then this profound understanding of this music that we spend our lives trying to understand, and it's not as though those kids were there saying, you know, we've solved this, tick. You know that they’re at the beginning of this long engagement with these masterworks. That was very, very inspiring to watch. I'd love you to talk a little bit about your violin and its provenance.

Wilma: Oh, my beautiful Guadagnini. Yes. Oh, you know, I feel very lucky. I have felt that I've had a very lucky life and I've been very lucky to have this violent fall into my lap. So I've had it now since when I first went to Boston. It was 1985. I’d met a lovely old man called Eric Lawson when I was home for holidays. I was living in Boston and I came home most Christmases to see my parents. And during one of those visits, through a mutual friend, I met this lovely old man, Eric Lawson. He was in his eighties when I met him, and he had retired as number two deputy leader. As it was in those days, of the NZSO and he was English. He'd come from England after the war with his wife. They'd never had kids. So a large part of his career was in New Zealand. Lovely, gentle, sweet, sweet man. Beautiful personality. Anyway, he played this violent his whole life. He inherited it from his father. When he was about 16. His father died when he was young and his father was quite a well known violinist in Manchester. So his father had bought this violin from Beare in London. 1919, I think, was the year. I have the original bill of sale. It was £400 in 1919 from Beare in London. I had newspaper articles dating from then about Eric's father, Charles, I think was his name, Charles Lawson, who was a, you know, well known professional violinist. Maybe a soloist of some kind in Manchester. Anyway, Eric inherited this violin and so played it for his whole professional life from the age of 16. He still had it when I met him in his eighties as a retired man. He still played for a couple of hours every day, even though his eyesight was going. He had to memorize stuff because even the big notes would not be clearly visible anymore, but he played for a couple of hours every day. He said that if I don't play, that I will forget the stuff. He had another new violin. He bought a modern violin at the time, and I didn't know that he was looking to give the Guadagnini another home. So I met him, it was through a mutual friend, and I played the violin. We played some duets together and we became friends. Anyway, I went back to Boston and out of the blue one day my mother called me and said, Eric’s being in touch and he wants you to have the violin and he wants to know if you want to buy the violin. I was still a student at this point, I said I can’t afford a Guadagnini, do you know what that’s worth? Anyway, she didn't know anything about it. My mother didn't know about the violent markets or what it was worth or anything. And she said, well, Eric said he'd sell it to you for, at the time, $25,000 U.S. Dollars. At the time it was valued at - this was a long time ago, in the eighties -  about $125,000 U.S. Dollars, so he was willing to sell it to me for 20% of its value, which was still a lot of money to me then but I knew that it was practically a gift. So I rushed around. It was my first big expenditure in my life. So I went to a bank, and I managed to get a loan. I bought it for $25,000 U.S. and I worked my butt off for the next two years and paid it off. 

Paul: Wow. That's an amazing story. 

Wilma: I know, it is incredible. I paid the violin off before I left Boston to come back to New Zealand, and I had this Guadagnini, which, you know, it was ludicrous. It was a gift. You know, I probably have to thank the fact that they didn't have children. They didn't have to worry too much about inheritance, etcetera, and basically he would have made it a gift, actually. But he said, I need to just make sure that if I die before my wife that she's got a little bit, you know, of cash just in case. So, you know, he needed a little bit of money. 

Paul: I remember Richard Tognetti telling me about, I think he was playing in New York at one stage, and a violin dealer came into the Green Room because he wanted to introduce Richard to a violin that was not just the same maker, but from the same tree as his own violin. And I think about that when I think about Guadagninis and the family of people who play them. It's a pretty lovely and illustrious crowd that you dwell with. 

Wilma: Yes, And I think about that, too. It's like, you know, they’re close friends. And of course, I've spent my whole life with this instrument now. And you know, I like that I know it back a couple of generations, you know, its history. And every time I went back to New Zealand after that I'd go and see Eric. We’d play together, we’d play duets. He still had his modern one. He was still playing till he died. So, on every visit, you know, I'd give it back to him and he'd have a little play. And, you know, after a couple of years only, he said, oh, this is your violin now,  it doesn't sound anything like it did when I had it. Because they do, depending on who plays them, and they take on different sound characteristics. It’s interesting. They are like little people. 

Paul: We could talk all day, Wilma, but I'll use this opportunity to thank you. Thank you for your continuing musicality, your interest in Musica Viva, the great example that you are to young musicians and it's always a delight when I can spend some time with you, so thank you so much. 

Wilma: Thank you, Paul. My pleasure. 

Thank you for listening. You can find show notes for the episode on our website, musicaviva.com.au/podcast. To learn more about our work and upcoming concerts, find us on Facebook by searching Musica Viva Australia and on Instagram and Twitter with the handle at @MusicaVivaAu. Thanks again and see you next time.