Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) is one of the most infamously experimental American composers of the 20th century - but he hasn't exactly been a magnet for posthumous idolization. So Network for New Music seemed admirably fearless with a Sunday concert titled "All the Things He Was," showing why some consider the Philadelphia-born composer deeply misunderstood.
With his thick black glasses and slightly smug smile, the über-modernist Babbitt seemed to treat music like mathematical rocket science. The results were so dense and cerebral performers and audiences were tested beyond their limits. The fact that Babbitt's prize pupil was Stephen Sondheim was considered a comic incongruity. But in a mere two hours, the Network's concert at the packed Settlement Music School, also featuring Babbitt students and descendants, dramatically changed his image.
Babbitt had many sides. "Penelope's Night Song" from his unproduced musical Fabulous Voyage was perfectly lovely and lyrical. But Broadway Babbitt was also a bit generic. You hear a more distinctive voice amid musical complexity, including his 1957 jazz-influenced All Set - a mass of sax-colored sound that's a Charles Ives-style stroll around midtown Manhattan when it was the jazz mecca of the world. One of the more comic moments came when the piece seemed to be coalescing into a decidedly classical fugue - except that none of the components fit and decided going their own ways was more interesting.
Later came a 2011 companion piece by Babbitt student Laura Karpman, titled Now All Set, written for similar instrumentation, though the Manhattan stroll was a bit slower, stopping longer at each club with Babbitt's prerecorded voice feeling like a guide. One witty transition had prerecorded Babbitt saying, "What?" followed by solos showing how much Network's crack ensemble can rock out.
Babbitt's 1964 Philomel, for prerecorded electronics and live voice, was sonically primitive but had piquant spatial effects as sounds bounced from four directions. Prerecorded vocal tracks by Bethany Beardslee arrived in overdubs of choral magnitude and wondrous electronic mutations. Yes, wondrous. John Hollander's myth-based text wasn't dramatized in any typically operatic fashion but was juxtaposed against the otherworldly sounds, resulting in all sorts of unexpected poetic refractions.
The performance's live singer, soprano Ah Young Hong, matched Beardslee well, in a remarkably assured performance that made her the concert's primary heroine. She also sang pop songs by Babbitt, Kern, and Sondheim with great expression and instinctive Broadway style.