A moment of cleverness can lead to a lifetime of unhappiness. The editors at High Fidelity, not the author, composer Milton Babbitt, were responsible for the notorious headline “Who Cares if You Listen?” Few have ever read the article, while many know the headline, which remains a convenient excuse to ignore contemporary classical music, which is assumed to be both unpleasant and condescending.
Listening to Babbitt, however, reveals his feeling, wit, sociability, and how deeply his music belongs to the classical tradition and to 20th-century American culture.
Starting Friday the Juilliard School’s annual FOCUS! 2016 series is presenting many opportunities to listen to Babbitt, and the music of his contemporaries and students. Subtitled “Milton Babbitt’s World: A Centennial Celebration,” the series opens with a surprise: Joel Sachs and the New Juilliard Ensemble playing the world premiere of Babbitt’s Concerti for Violin, Orchestra, and Synthesized Sound, a piece written in the mid–1970s. Also on the opening concert are pieces from Babbitt’s peers Stefan Wolpe, and students Jonathan Dawe, Alexander Goehr, and Ursula Mamlok.
The series continues for a week, and the lineup is deep with the core of American modernist composers: Charles Wuorinen, Elliott Carter, Vincent Persichetti, Mario Davidovsky, and others, along with younger composers like Dawe and Kati Agocs. One will be able to hear Babbitt masterpieces like Philomel, None but the Lonely Flute, and String Quartet No. 2, and even some of his songs, in the company of Irving Berlin (where Babbitt came from), and Stephen Sondheim, one of the composer’s more notable students.
FOCUS! 2016 opens 7:30 p.m. Friday at Juilliard’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater, and continues through January 29. events.juilliard.edu.