Saturday, April 22, 2017


I am listening to Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin right now.  Peter Mattei is a good singer, and no doubt he's a good Onegin, but it still hurts somewhat to think that Dmitri Hvorostovsky had to cancel his performance in this same role in this same production due to cancer.  I wish good luck for Mattei and a swift recovery and a speeedy return to the stage for Dima. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Morgado's Misstep

Two years ago I wrote a rather scathing review of the movie Son of God, and one of negative points I listed was having and attractive actor play Jesus as though having Christ look attractive was bad thing.  In retrospect this was unfairly harsh as Christ has been portrayed as beautiful for centuries.  
      I now recognize that this has more to do with reverence for His deity more than anything else.  Even if Isaiah did prophesy that Christ would "have no beauty that we should desire Him", we still want to be reverent in how we depict Him.  And portraying Him as looking rather plain just wouldn't fit.  Also, Isaiah's prophesy refers more to a flash-and-bang style of charisma than physical appearance.

I guess what bothered me about Diogo Morgado's portrayal of Christ in Son of God was the fact that he looked too handsome.  This wasn't the reverent beauty so often found in art, this was the Hollywood-It-Guy variety.  And having Jesus look like the hottest male celebrity distracts the audience and takes away from our LORD's deity.  
     And the performance was too soft.  There was no righteous fury evident in the Cleansing of the Temple scene, nor did Morgado seem to show any real emotion other than hippie-style tranquility, the only major exception of course being the crucifixion.  Heck, he even smiled after turning the tables over, whatever happened to, "IT IS WRITTEN, 'MY HOUSE IS TO BE A HOUSE OF PRAYER', AND YOU HAVE TURNED INTO A DEN OF THIEVES!"?  Yes, Jesus would have roared those words at the top of His lungs.  The veins in His forehead would have been popping.  He was literally flipping over tables and driving the thieving merchants off the premises!  He was releasing animals out of their cages and out of the temple.  He. was. furious.  And to not see that present was a major misstep. 

To make a long story short, irreverent Hollywood good looks and a Nice-Guy portrayal of Jesus Christ derailed the film Son of God

Tuesday, March 7, 2017


Many years ago my maternal grandfather boasted that he was old enough to remember when the weatherman was right.  Well, considering the mild inaccuracies I'm seeing in tonight's forecast, I think he may have had a point.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Organ Arrangments, Sometime They Work, And Sometimes They Don't.

Yesterday saw another organ concert at the Overture Center in Madison.  A little history behind these: At the turn of the 20th Century many cities were competing to build bigger auditoriums with bigger pipe organs.  Because people in smaller towns could not get access to big orchestra performances, many people started arranging various orchestral and operatic works for pipe organ.  These arrangements would be performed in the auditoriums for people in these small cities.  

At yesterday's concert the program was divided into two parts, one Oratorio section and one Opera section.  Sun Prairie's own resident opera singer Kyle Ketelsen and tenor Andrew Bidlack performed alongside Madison Symphony Orchestra Principal Organist Samuel Hutchinson.  I have no complaints about their performances at all, they were pure gold (although seriously, do you really expect me to have any criticism of Mr. Ketelsen at all?).  The program included works from Handel's famous oratorio The Messiah (known mostly by the "Hallelujah" chorus taken from The Book of Revelation) Mendelssohn's Elijah (which I've hardly heard in twenty years), and excerpts from Rossini's Stabat Mater.  These pieces fit perfectly with organ.  
       The opera section was more hit or miss.  Not that the men's performances were hit or missquite the contrary, they knocked it out of the park!—but unfortunately some of the tunes just didn't have the same oomph that the regular orchestral pieces did.  The excerpts featured in this section included the Intermezzo from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (best known for being double-billed with Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci), themes and the Toreador song from Bizet's Carmen (one the Big Four), the Polonaise and Lensky's Lament from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (perhaps the most famous Russian opera in the world), and the Waltz and Act 1 duet from Gounod's Faust (one of only two of his works that's still regularly performed in our day).  

The trouble is that the organ seems to work better for sacred works and oratorio pieces than it does for opera.  Operas may have music for the organ, but transcriptions are another species entirely.  The Polonaise and Intermezzo worked well with the organ, but many of the themes from Carmen are just too jaunty and brassy to work well on the organ.  It was Mr. Ketelsen's talented singing and acting that made this arrangement of the Toreador Song enjoyable.  And the Waltz from Faust also came off as less of a dance piece and more like a carousel ride.  But there was no issue with the duet and the organ.  

This was a good concert, but I think that there are limits as to which pieces sound good when transcribed for organ and some that don't.  

Monday, February 13, 2017

How To Tell A Good Documentary From A Bad One

We've all seen documentaries at some point or another.  They are all over movies, television, and the internet, and they cover everything from dinosaurs to Operation Desert Storm.  Some are less than half and hour in length while others can go on for two hours.  And often they are part of a long series with a particular theme, like disasters, mummies, scandals, etc..  I have watched numerous documentaries over the course of twenty three years and have recently started to learn how to tell the difference between a good documentary and a bad one.  Now this can be tricky, so the way to vet your sources is to actively research the topic on your own.

How can you tell a good documentary from a bad one?  Well, here are a few things to look for.
1) How is the language being used?  Are the people being precise?  Are they repeating themselves?  Are they going out their way to be dramatic?  Being precise is very important because you want the audience to understand what you are saying.  No one is going to understand you if you are being vague and unclear with what you are trying to get across.  And persistent repetition is a sure sign that you are just trying to fill in the spaces and hoping that if you repeat yourself over and over again, people will believe what you are saying.  It is very tempting to be dramatic in order to hold the audience's attention, but many of these topics are dramatic already, so trying to make them even more so is Coals to Newcastle. 

2) How are the makers supporting their claimsWhat evidence are they using to back up their arguments?  And are they exploring other possibilities in case they are wrong?  Sometimes the evidence being examined is good, but sometimes it is less than insufficient.     
       For example, a story that sounds juicy might have some good insight into a situation, but then again it could be the exception rather than the rule.  You may decide you want to use it to support your claim, but the use of juicy stories when doing documentaries is dubious at best and dishonest at worst.  And there may be other possible reasons for something, so give some time to those possibilities as well.  Biased sampling tends to skew results.
3) How is the documentary presented?  Be mindful of the use of visuals.  There are two ways to do this.  One is to use either Live Actors or CGI, the other is to use pictures, artifacts, and location shots.  Let's look at these two methods.
          Using live actors and/or Computer Generated Imagery isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but it is all too easy for them to upstage everything else.  A good director knows how to use live actors and CGI to illustrate the point and not overpower the audience's retinas
        Live actors have been used in documentaries for years.  There are some advantages to this.  Being able to present a historical event with real people acting out the parts can make history look more alive and real.  And it means that someone can get into another person's mind in order to try to understand them.  However, one problem with this method is that the audience just sees one person's interpretation of a historical person, and so that's the one that sticks with them, which could skew someone's perception of history.  Also, people tend to cast actors whose are photogenic, so the audience may not realize that King Tutankhamen was actually club-footed and had an overbite.  

       CGI has its uses as well.  Aside from bringing dinosaurs, mammoths, and other prehistoric creatures back to life, it has been used in live-action documentaries when working with such things historic volcanic eruptions and major battles.  It can digitally restore ruined buildings and illustrate the incredible world of microorganisms.  All in all, CGI has been a great tool for demonstration in documentaries.  That being said, CGI has to be used very carefullySpectacular special effects can distract very easily from the main point, resulting in a visual feast that doesn't really serve any purpose.  
The second option involves panning the camera over photographs, paintings, statues, etc. if live footage cannot be used*.  Often music and sound effects will be used to help evoke particular scene. This particular style is known as the Ken Burns effect, named after a filmmaker who made much use of this technique is his documentaries.  
    The advantages to using static images is that is much less expensive than hiring actors and spending money on complex animation programs.  You can evoke the scene just by panning over a lithograph of the Battle of Antietam and adding in prerecording sound effects of gunshots and cannon fire.  And it also means that typically you'll be looking at a picture from that era rather than animation where you'd just be making up the scene.  
    The disadvantages of just panning over static images is that it doesn't represent fully what you're trying to accomplish.  A painting of Colonel Chamberlain's Charge at Little Round Top may look lifelike, but it cannot accomplish the same thing that a group of Civil War reenactors can.  And unlike photographs which are taken with cameras at the scene, paintings, lithographs, and engravings are more likely to be stylized, and thus not fully representative of the event.  

 4) What sources are being used?  This is absolutely criticalPeople who are active in science, history, etc., will know the ins and outs of the subject matterThey will ask questions and seek the answers to them, and usually they will find them even if it isn't the answer they may have originally had in mind.  For example, an archeologist trying to understand how the people of Herculaneum lived before the 79 A.D. eruption of Mt. Vesuvius might examine the contents of the sewer in order to ascertain the diet of the average person.  Further information can be obtained be chemical analysis of the bones found in the boathouses.  And the resulting information gives not just the archeologist but the audience watching the documentary a new insight into the lives of a group of people who lived 2,000 years ago.   
      The danger in this case is putting the emphasis on speculation and mystery.  While mystery may be part of the appeal of dinosaurs, most of us actually want to solve the mystery and see how these creatures really lived.  As C.S. Lewis once said, "Inquiry was made for truth,".  And we ask questions because we want to know the answers even if we cannot fully know them because the dinosaurs all died 65 million years before humans came along.  If the people making the documentary go out of their way to be all about speculation without any real answers, then they have not done anything to benefit the audience
       And then there are speculative documentaries about things like aliens, ghosts, and that sort of claptrap.  Neither of those things are real and while it's fun to write all sorts of amazing stories about them, it's a waste of time trying to figure out if they even exist.  So don't even bother with that sort of thing.   

I myself do not claim to be an expert on history and science, but I do love learning about both, and I want to know that when I'm watching a documentary that the people who made tried to teach me something.  I once had to sit through a very biased documentary on the American Justice System, and I tried to watch one that spent ten minutes saying how bad the devastation of Carthage was.  I like documentaries that teach me something new as the one on Life and Death in Herculaneum did.  

Of course even the best documentaries cannot compare with books. 

*Thank you Wikipedia.  

Updated 3-6-17 at 6:14 pm.