Last Thursday evening, the Vassar community was invited on a musical journey as the first audience of the Modfest season was guided through a variety of locations where they had the chance to experience some of the finest music Vassar has to offer. While Meryl Streep was unfortunately not in attendance, the evening was packed with joy and contemplation as music rang out from the Chapel hall all the way to the library atrium and back. With this opening event, the annual Modfest festival began its 15th season on Vassar’s campus.
A festival celebrating the arts in the 20th and 21st centuries, the spring series of arts events known as Modfest—this year focused on the theme of “Raising Voices”—looks to feature unique voices from across Vassar campus and the local community in the spoken word, visual and performing arts. While the campus is currently buzzing with excitement for Audra Mcdonald’s upcoming appearance at Skinner Hall, the final concert of the festival, Modfest has quietly gone through a changing of hands. As the beloved Professor of Music Richard Wilson retired last semester, he and his wife Adene Wilson stepped down from running the event after 14 years and handed off the reigns to co-chairs Associate Professor and Chair of Music and Director of Choral Activities Christine Howlett and Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator Tom Pacio.
Howlett, who, besides teaching music, conducts many of Vassar’s acclaimed choral groups, is grateful for all the work the Wilsons, especially Adene Wilson, have done in cultivating this event over the years. As Howlett explained, “Dee, who is an alumna, was the lead person on the event. She would connect with the different departments and ask, ‘What can you do? How can we bring these different collaborations to Modfest?’” As Modfest seeks to include as many different departments on campus as possible, successfully putting on an event like this every year is quite the accomplishment.
Howlett asserted, “These are very big shoes to fill. It’s amazing to see how much they accomplished over these 14 years.” Both Howlett and Pacio are excited to begin a new chapter while still carrying on the legacy that the Wilsons worked hard to create. Pacio, who coordinates the Creative Arts Across Disciplines Initiative, said, “We met with the Wilsons several times last spring to understand what was important to them about Modfest. It is our collective goal to keep those priorities in the fabric of the festival, while leaving room for it to grow and change over time.”
This year’s opening concert was entirely new to Modfest, based on one of last year’s most successful and unique musical events. Howlett described the planning process: “We modeled it after an event supported by the Creative Arts Initiative last year called ‘The Sound of Space,’ where we traveled all around campus to experience different musical performances in different spaces. We went from the Chapel to UPC to Kenyon [Hall], and we thought it was a cool way to experience the campus.”
Thursday night began in the Chapel, where the Vassar College Women’s Chorus performed “How to Survive Winter,” a piece by American composer Jocelyn Hagen with poetry by Julia Klatt Singer. Accompanied by a string quartet made up of professional musicians from around the area (the only non-student performers of the evening), the choir, as always, sounded magnificent in the Chapel, whose acoustics are perfect for capturing the human voice.
As the audience was ushered to each new space, any sense of the ordinary vanished, as they were invited into an extraordinary concert experience. The string quartet that performed in the library atrium was a highlight, as the sound of strings echoing through the space was breathtaking. The goal of the evening was to “embrace the space”: letting each location and ensemble work in a collaboration of sorts, creating a refreshing and exciting sound experience at each step along the way. Close to the end of the performance, the grandfather clock behind the string quartet began to ring opposite the performers. What might have derailed an excellent performance was easily shrugged off, incorporated into the music and the evening as a whole.
The night continued with a lovely performance by the Majors ensemble in the Jade Parlor of Taylor Hall, and finally concluded with the Vassar College Choir, this time in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. While many choirs performed throughout the night, this performance was entirely different from ones earlier in the evening, as the changing of locations from the vaulted Chapel to the modern architecture of the Loeb allowed for a distinct listening experience. The placement of the ensemble at the alcove situated on the top steps of the gallery allowed the voices to effortlessly carry throughout the entire Art Center, and their performance of “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine” was the perfect conclusion to an extraordinary evening.
Member of the Vassar College Choir Steph Saint Germain ’18 shared how meaningful this event was to her as an artist. She said, “My favorite part of Thursday’s concert was definitely performing ‘Leonardo.’ It was a piece that we had prepared last year for our Cuba trip over spring break, and singing it again brought back some amazing memories from the trip.”
After Thursday’s concert, this year’s Modfest is shaping up to be yet another exciting, collaborative event. As Saint Germain explained, “What I love about Modfest is being able to witness several different disciplines come together to create an incredible collaboration that may otherwise not be possible.” The theme of “Raising Voices” is certainly more pertinent than ever, and the voices shared over the next week will allow us to think more deeply about the experiences of others and demonstrates how art can help find empathy and reach common ground. Pacio is hopeful that this element of Modfest will continue into the future: “We created a program that helped to give a voice to as many perspectives as possible. I hope that in the future, regardless of the theme, that this continues to be present in the festival.”