Classical Notes

Ludovico finds the right music to fit the weather

Ensemble digs into large work

Hans Abrahamsen named the chamber work “Schnee’’ for the German word for snow. Hans Abrahamsen named the chamber work “Schnee’’ for the German word for snow.
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / January 21, 2011

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Rarely does the performance of a new piece of music coincide so perfectly with its surroundings. With a foot or more of snow still on the ground from last week’s blizzard and more in the works, the moment seems perfect for a performance of “Schnee,’’ an hourlong chamber work by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen named for the German word for snow.

The piece is the sole work on Wednesday’s concert by the Ludovico Ensemble, a new-music group that’s currently in residence at Boston Conservatory. Its founder and director, Nicholas Tolle, said during a recent phone interview that he ran across a recording of “Schnee’’ last year in a local record store. — he knew the composer’s music but not the piece. He put the CD on and “after 10 seconds I knew we would be doing it very soon.’’

To understand why the piece seized his imagination so quickly, it helps to know a bit about its creator, Abrahamsen, whose music has a reasonably high profile in Europe, yet is almost unknown in America. Born in 1952, Abrahamsen, who studied with György Ligeti, among others, writes in a highly concentrated language that can generate long stretches of music from a small number of ideas. A high premium is set on transparency. He is often associated with a loose musical movement known as “new simplicity,’’ which grew up in the 1970s and ’80s as a reaction to that era’s avant-garde, embodied in works by Stockhausen, Boulez, and others.

Labels like these often obscure as much as they reveal, though. “It’s very plural,’’ Tolle said of Abrahamsen’s music. “He’s not afraid to employ any device he sees fit. I can’t imagine anyone who comes to the concert will come away thinking it’s simple, let alone the musicians playing it.’’

“Schnee,’’ which was written between 2006 and 2008, has two sources of inspiration — one visual, the other formal. The formal one is the canon, a musical form in which a melody is stated in one voice or instrument and then echoed or varied by others in the musical texture. Abrahamsen had written arrangements of some canons by Bach in the 1990s; so taken was he with them that he decided that the canon could be the grounding for a large-scale work of his own.

“Schnee’’ consists of 10 canons with three short intermezzi, for an ensemble of three strings, three winds, two pianos, and one percussionist, divided into two groups on stage. Yet a listener who comes to the piece expecting the easily audible counterpoint of Bach may well be shocked. Abrahamsen’s canons are elusive and mysterious, their themes often so distended that it becomes difficult to hear the counterpoint.

These inner workings underlie the poetic inspiration for the piece, which Abrahamsen, in an interview with a Polish music festival, called “all the sides of snow — the new-falling snow, or the snow that is lying on the surface, or a black snow landscape.’’ The music begins with a dialogue between violin and piano, high in the registers of each instrument. It’s a sound that immediately establishes the bleak whiteness of the winter scene. The character shifts wildly during the rest of the piece — crystalline stillness, pulsing offbeat rhythms, sliding microtones — but an icy sense of loneliness never leaves the music.

The performance — which Tolle called the largest project Ludovico Ensemble has yet undertaken — will for most serve as a welcome introduction to the sound of a composer who should be better known in this country.

In an odd coincidence, the New York-based group Talea Ensemble will give what it says is the US premiere of the piece tonight. The composer will be on hand to speak about the music at both performances. That should make Wednesday’s concert especially important — weather aside.

David Weininger can be reached at

LUDOVICO ENSEMBLE Nicholas Tolle, director

Performing Hans Abrahamsen’s “Schnee’’

At: Seully Hall, Boston Conservatory, Wednesday at 8 p.m.; Tickets: $15,