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When: Thu., Jan. 7, 8 p.m., Fri., Jan. 8, 1:30 p.m., Sat., Jan. 9, 8 p.m. and Tue., Jan. 12, 7:30 p.m. 2010

Tonight the Chicago Symphony Orchestra begins its monthlong celebration of Pierre Boulez's 85th birthday, which arrives on March 26. Since 2006 the CSO's conductor emeritus, after a tenure as principal guest conductor that began in 1995, Boulez is one of the few renowned composers who's also a top-tier conductor; the last was probably Gustav Mahler. He burst onto the scene as a rebellious youth in Paris with remarkable pieces like his first two piano sonatas, written in the late 40s, and he's still a significant influence on new music today, in part because IRCAM—the institute for the exploration of electroacoustic and contemporary classical music that he founded in the early 70s—continues to attract composers and performers from around the world. Boulez led his first CSO concert in 1969, presenting Debussy, Bartok, Webern, and Messiaen—a composer under whom he'd studied. For this series of four concerts he'll begin with Ravel's lovely Le Tombeau de Couperin, an homage to the Baroque French suite, performed here in the four-movement orchestral version from 1919. The program closes with a concert version of Bartok's only opera, the dark one-act Bluebeard's Castle, sung by mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and bass-baritone Falk Struckmann. Sandwiched between these works from the early 20th century is the CSO premiere of a piece from 2006: the Flute Concerto of Boulez protege Marc-Andre Dalbavie, performed by principal flutist Mathieu Dufour. Roughly 17 minutes long, it's a thrilling whirlwind of coloristic effects, scored for a chamber-size ensemble that allows both soloist and orchestra to come through clearly, without the usual competition for sonic space. This may be one of the last chances Chicagoans get to see Dufour for a long time, since in September he was announced as principal flutist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; strictly speaking he's on a leave of absence from the CSO, and he's likely to decide by this spring whether he'll carry on with the new job or keep his post in Chicago. (Update: Dufour has decided to remain in Chicago with the CSO, though a scheduled shoulder surgery in February may keep him off the stage until late May or June, when he is expected to return for Bernard Haitink's residency and Beethoven festival.) The same program will be reprised Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday. —Barbara Yaross

Price: $18-$199

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