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Pierre Boulez is just the man to lead this Chicago Chamber Musicians concert, billed as a farewell to the 20th century. In the twilight of his career, the French composer has emerged as an avatar of new music, admired both for his own slim oeuvre and for the clarity and elegance of his interpretations. He helped enshrine atonality–formalized by Schoenberg just after the turn of the last century–as an academic orthodoxy, and now that he’s mellowed from an angry Young Turk into an avuncular sage, he’s won acceptance as a conductor with major orchestras. Yet despite his unflagging allegiance, serialism seems to have exhausted its possibilities without developing much popular appeal: the program he’s picked for this retrospective represents some of the best work of the old guard in contemporary music, and it’s Eurocentric, resolutely abstract, and almost entirely emotionally distant. Boulez, however, can be counted on to argue a rigorous case: he’s such a skillful and charismatic conductor that he can persuade an audience to overlook a piece’s inaccessibility, helping them understand instead why it has to be that way. Here he’ll direct Schoenberg’s song cycle Pierrot Lunaire (1912), as well as several rarely performed works: Stravinsky’s Three Japanese Lyrics (1912-13) and Two Balmont Poems (scored for chamber orchestra in 1954), Varese’s Octandre (1923), Elliott Carter’s Brass Quintet (1974), and his own Derive (1984) and Dérive II (1988). The melodramatic and startlingly unconventional Pierrot, the evening’s finale, is one of the century’s chamber-music milestones, with half-sung, half-spoken vocal parts and inventive groupings of instruments. Each of the other pieces is idiosyncratic in its own way: the Varese, for instance, uses conventional winds such as clarinet and trombone but sounds a lot like an el train making a hard turn. Most of the members of the Chicago Chamber Musicians also play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but despite their great technical finesse they don’t always share Boulez’s keen sensibility for this music. German soprano and Boulez protege Christine Schäfer, on the other hand, who’s the soloist in the Schoenberg and both Stravinskys, has a pure, flexible voice that can meet the demands of 20th-century works, which often require a singer to distort “natural” vocal contours. This concert is part of the CCM’s ongoing “Music at the Millennium” series. Sunday, 7:30 PM, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University, 1977 South Campus Dr., Evanston; 312-225-5226. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joe Zolkowski.