Now in its 13th year, Modfest is Vassar College’s annual winter series of free programs and performances celebrating 20th– and 21st-century arts, typically featuring the work of many Vassar faculty members, alumnae and current students. But this year’s unifying thematic element goes back to the 19th century: the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a/k/a Lewis Carroll. The English mathematician/fantasist never attended Vassar, of course; nor did the biggest-name star booked to perform at Modfest 2015: Ysaye Maria Barnwell.
A tiny, rotund woman with a queenly bearing and a PhD in Craniofacial Studies from the University of Pittsburgh, Barnwell is better-known for her resonant bass voice, which anchored the a cappella harmonies of Sweet Honey in the Rock for 34 years. These days Dr. Barnwell specializes in conducting vocal workshops, and from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 28 in the Villard Room on the second floor of Vassar’s Main Building, she’ll be leading a Community Sing. You don’t need to know how to read music to learn how to sing in four-part harmony under Barnwell’s direction; but it would doubtless be a very good idea to arrive early if you want to participate in this kickoff event for Modfest 2015 without having to park at the far end of campus.
This year’s festival, which runs through February 14, is organized thematically around “The Age of Alice: Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Nonsense in Victorian England,” an exhibition at the campus’ Thompson Memorial Library of works dating from 1837 to 1901 from the college’s Special Collections that relate to Carroll’s kid-lit classics. Other authors represented include Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, John Ruskin, Edward Lear, George MacDonald, Christina Rossetti, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling and Edith Nesbit. A series of Alice-related events will lead up to the exhibition’s official opening on February 12.
At 8 p.m. on Saturday, January 31 in the Skinner Hall of Music, Modfest will present a concert titled “Alice in Our Times: Fantasy, Surrealism and Nonsense,” featuring music composed by Vassar professors Susan Botti, Jonathan Chenette and Richard Wilson on texts by Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, James Norman Hall, Joe Orton and Edward Hirsch. At 8 p.m. on Monday, February 2, assistant professor of Music Justin Patch will give a talk, also at Skinner Hall, titled “Hearing Wonderland: The Strange Sounds of Alice’s Adventures,” which will examine the sound worlds created by Carroll and the various ways in which filmmakers have sought to present the tale through film score and sound design. At 7 p.m. on Thursday, February 5 in the same building, in this year’s ChoralFest, the voices of the Cappella Festiva Treble Choir will celebrate Alice’s 150th anniversary performances of “Beautiful Soup” by Tom Benjamin, “Will You Walk a Little Faster?” by John Carter and “Jabberwocky” by David Brunner. The Vassar College Choir and Women’s Chorus will also perform.
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center will open its new exhibition of large-scale paintings from its permanent collection, “XL,” with a lecture by decorative artist Joyce Kozloff at 5:30 p.m. on January 30. The show will run through March 29. And “Teen Visions,” the exhibition of photography, paintings, drawings and mixed-media works created by young students from the Art Institute at Poughkeepsie’s Mill Street Loft that is an annual feature of Modfest, will have its opening reception at 4:30 p.m. in the Main Building’s James W. Palmer III Gallery and run through February 14.
The busy Modfest calendar includes far too many other concerts, plays, improv, cabaret and dance performances, readings, lectures, gallery talks, screenings and workshops to list here in their entirety. To see the full schedule and snow dates, or for information about performers and presenters, handicapped access, directions and a campus map, visit www.vassar.edu. All Modfest events are free and open to the public, with seating on a first-come, first-served basis.
Modfest, January 28-February 14, free, Vassar College, 124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie; (845) 437-5370, www.vassar.edu.