Modfest builds on historical foundations

Above, Vassar Choral Ensemble performs as part of the 18th iteration of Modfest, a celebration of contemporary arts. Courtesy of Diana Liu.

Back in 2003, Adene “Dee” Wilson ’69 and her husband Professor of Music Richard Wilson co-founded a small celebration of 20th-century music. Over the years, this small music festival evolved into a quintessential highlight of Vassar’s art scene: Modfest.

Modfest is Vassar’s annual exploration of the arts of the 20th and 21st centuries. This year, the beloved tradition celebrates its 18th season with a wide variety of artistic activities— live musical and dance performances, film screenings and guest lectures among them. They are all free of charge and open to the public unless otherwise noted.

The festival kicked off on Jan. 31 with a euphonious showcase of Vassar’s choral groups and will conclude on Feb. 9 with a performance from the acclaimed Hudson Valley Philharmonic. This year’s theme is “reflect to project,” defined as the need to look backward in order to move forward. According to Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator and Modfest co-director Tom Pacio, “reflect to project” was inspired by the temporal themes and ideas expressed by the current visual art exhibitions on campus, such as the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center’s “Louise Bourgeois: Ode to Forgetting” and the Palmer Gallery’s “Self-taught and Outsider Art from a Private ‘Teaching Collection.’”

Pacio stated, “There was all this reflection happening [with the exhibits], but it still kind of feels like the future.” Which, to him, begs the question, “Why do we look back? And if it’s not to look forward, then…I don’t know.”

Pacio and Associate Professor of Music Howlett assumed the role of Modfest co-directors four years ago, after Dee and Richard Wilson retired. Since then, Pacio and Howlett have brought the festival into the future by building upon its co-founders’ foundations.

At its core, Modfest is interdisciplinary, a crossover between the music, arts and humanities departments at Vassar. Their collaboration keeps the program vibrant in execution and diverse in content every year.

As Pacio explained, “The inventory of our distinct [interdisciplinary] relationships has really helped identify opportunities that, I think, might not have otherwise been identified.” For instance, the lecture titled “Reflect: An Artist’s Life, Onstage and Off,” which was held on Saturday, Feb. 1, would not have been possible without the initiative of the Drama Department. Had the department not coordinated with Howlett and Pacio, Tony Award-winner Celia Keenan-Bolger’s lecture would not have existed as a part of Modfest.

Pacio and Howlett continue to push boundaries. This year, for the first time, Modfest is collaborating with the Cognitive Science Department. There will be an open rehearsal, lecture and performance from Jeff Snyder, the founder and lead designer of Snyderphonics, a company that designs and builds unusual electronic musical instruments.

Though innovation continues, reflecting on the past helps Pacio and Howlett determine what Modfest traditions should remain in place. As Pacio puts it, “With any tradition, knowing what walls shouldn’t be moved and then knowing…where you can renovate, I think, is important in pushing those boundaries.”

No matter how it evolves, maintaining the essence of Modfest is what brings people back every year. Avid Modfest attendee and Adjunct Artist in Music Jeannie Chenette reflected on why she returns to perform and attends the festival every year.

“What brings me back is the vitality of the festival, and the breadth and the integrity of all the concerts.”

She continued, “There are some pieces that are played a lot, what we call standard repertoire, and then there are other things you hear less usually…and in Modfest we tend to hear quite a number of things that we just don’t get to hear very often in our lifetime.”

Modfest continues to captivate audiences by connecting artistic innovation and tradition, ultimately extending beyond Vassar’s campus to bring art to both students and community members alike.

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