Modfest concert marries art music, current and canonical

Modfest, Vassar’s annual celebration of the arts of the 20th and 21st centuries, continued on Sunday, Feb. 2 with an eclectic concert that included electric guitars, Renaissance polyphony and the world’s tiniest violin. The Honorary Adene and Richard Wilson Concert honors Vassar emeritus and composer Richard Wilson and his wife Adene, the founders of the festival. The first half of the concert featured members of Vassar’s music faculty, while guest vocal chamber ensemble New York Polyphony performed in the second half.

Composer Brad Balliett introduced his piece, “Sonatas and Disasters,” which he performed with Adjunct Artist in Music, Anna Elashvili. He explained that the piece, a duet for bassoon and violin, consisted of four sonatas followed by “10 minutes of disaster.” The former had several quirks of their own: in the first sonata, the violin sustained a low-pitched drone while the bassoon played a melody in its high register, reversing the instruments’ traditional roles. In another, the violin captured the sound of a fluttering bird while employing a string technique that distorted the notes. But the 10 minutes of disaster was another animal entirely. After a section of banjo-like playing, Elashvili seemed to run out of room on the fingerboard and tossed her instrument aside. She then ran over to an open suitcase and proceeded to pull out baby clothes, considering each article before retrieving a much smaller violin which she immediately began to play. Later, she repeated this whole sequence and pulled out an even tinier violin, while Balliett did away with his own instrument, placing numerous reeds in his mouth. These theatrics were entertaining and effective, further engaging the audience with Balliett’s idiosyncratic music.

The next piece on the program, “Music for Solo Viola,” was written by Wilson himself and performed by Adjunct Artist in Music and violist Danielle Farina. The piece’s five movements—March, Beguilement, Jittering, Lament and Recovery— seemed to trace a dynamic journey. Despite being a solo piece, several sections created the illusion of multiple voices, sometimes imitating one another in near-fugue, and at other times see-sawing back and forth, engaging in a call-and-response exercise. Beguilement’s wandering tonal center evoked dizziness and confusion, while Jittering’s quickly-paced pizzicatos similarly captured its name. The final movement, Recovery, was not quite optimistic, but carried a sense of strength and determination through increasing movement and rhythm.

The final piece of the first half, Steve Reich’s “2×5,” transported the audience to an entirely different realm. Guitarist and Vassar Adjunct Artist Trevor Babb explained that the ensemble would be playing against a pre-recorded track of themselves; once they began playing, the recording was indistinguishable from the live performance, creating an immersive wash of sound that seemed to fill the space entirely. Reich’s distinctive minimalism was instantly recognizable, but the instrumentation—two electric guitars, one electric bass, a piano (Adjunct Artist in Music Marija Ilic) and percussion (Adjunct Artist in Music Frank Cassara)—suggested something far more rock-oriented. Taken out of context, the performance could have been mistaken for an extended, improvised jam session. A sonically maximalist take on minimalism, the piece was grounded in repetitive rhythms that hypnotized the listener, and perhaps the performers as well. Reich’s music has long influenced rock musicians; here, Reich, who does not usually write for rock instruments, seemed to be paying an homage of his own to genre.

The great variety of 20th- and 21st-century music showcased in the program’s first half was complemented by the program’s second half, in which the all-male vocal quartet New York Polyphony took the audience back a few centuries.

After opening with Anton Bruckner’s “Inveni David,” the singers presented a program featuring 16th-century Spanish and Portuguese composers who are often overlooked in concert programming, including Francisco de Peñalosa, Pedro de Escobar, Francisco Guerrero and Juan Gutierrez de Padilla. Despite the ensemble’s small size, their acapella vocals filled the hall. The group’s expertise in Renaissance polyphony was more than apparent as they dazzled the audience with shimmering chords. They closed their set with contemporary composer Ivan Moody’s “Canticum Canticorum,” a stunning work that blended Renaissance sensibilities with more modern explorations. An encore immediately followed, in which the group was joined by the Vassar choirs for a performance of Johann Michael Bach’s “Halt, was du hast.”

Modfest is known as an exploration of the arts of the 20th and 21st century, but the festival’s 2020 theme adds another angle: “reflect to project.” The concert’s program executed this concept beautifully, exposing audiences to modern art music in conjunction with much older sonic movements. The finale, Moody’s “Canticum Canticorum,” reminded listeners of the symbiosis of old and new sounds.

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