Pierre Boulez claims that in postwar Paris, works by the Second Viennese School–music that had been branded decadent by the Nazis–likewise ran afoul of French nationalism and were rarely performed. Unhappy with this cultural conservatism, he took it upon himself to learn the 12-tone technique pioneered by Schoenberg, which had been the hallmark of the school and one of the greatest artistic achievements of the early 20th century. In fact, since the 50s Boulez has tirelessly studied and championed Schoenberg’s oeuvre, and he’s made something of a specialty out of the monumental opera Moses and Aron: only two decades after its posthumous premiere in 1957, he made a revelatory recording of the piece with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and his recent CD with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is even more intense. Schoenberg worked on Moses and Aron from 1930 to ’32, finishing two of its three acts and drafting the third, and in 1951 revisited the piece just before his death. (He’d superstitiously excised an “a” from “Aaron” to avoid a 13-letter title, but the number caught up with him in the end: he died on a Friday the 13th, 13 minutes before midnight.) The unfinished opera is paradoxically complete, both questioning and reaffirming faith, and respectfully abstains from attempting to express the essence of God. Schoenberg’s Moses is no animated Prince of Egypt, of course, but rather a tongue-tied prophet with Aron as his eloquent flack. The ingenious score rests on a single 12-tone row and a variety of inversions and transpositions; the speeches and melodies recall Schoenberg’s exhausting, expressive monodrama Erwartung. In lesser hands Moses and Aron might sound as turgid as a bad oratorio, but Boulez knows how to accommodate Schoenberg’s sense of theater. Plus he’s got a top-drawer supporting cast, abetted by the Chicago Symphony Chorus, and his leads–David Pittman-Jennings as Moses and Chris Merritt as Aron–are brilliant singers conversant with modernist idioms. Friday, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Pierre Boulez uncredited photo.