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Composed: 1979
Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, percussion (tubular bells, vibraphone, marimba, crotales, bass drum, nipple gongs, tam-tams, Chinese gong, 2 metal plates, woodblock, temple bells), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

In 1976 Vivier spent most of the fall on an extended tour of Asia, travelling from Japan through Bali to Iran. This trip proved very fruitful in terms of artistic inspiration, confirming his penchant for ritual and color and giving him fresh inspiration for split melodic elaborations as a type of complementary and concurrent development. From then to the end of his sadly truncated life he composed prolifically (he was working on an opera about the death of Tchaikovsky when he was murdered), giving many of his works titles drawn from that formative journey: the ballet Nanti malam, the piano piece Shiraz, Bouchara and Prologue pour un Marco Polo for singers and large ensembles, and Zipangu for amplified string orchestra.

Although not on his itinerary, Orion is very much a part of the musical world of those pieces. “Orion is the name of a constellation,” Vivier wrote in a stream-of-consciousness program note. “I have always turned it upside down – have always looked toward the east – stop! Too personal. I was just about to speak of my mother.”

Vivier’s ideas about complementary melodies – techniques derived from Stockhausen and given urgent life in Bali – lend themselves to canonic layers and organically evolving structures. On his third try at definition in his program note, Vivier gets helpfully direct: “Orion consists of six sections: statement of the melody, first development of the melody unraveling on itself, second development of the melody unraveling on itself, meditation on the melody, remembrance of the melody, and finally the melody in two parts.”

That melody is first heard most prominently from the trumpet, which Vivier identifies as the “instrument of death in the Middle Ages,” with references to Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal and the Roman Catholic Requiem liturgy. This melody, he says, “is cast upon itself without being able (wanting) to smash the wall of solitude.” This is clearly a journey in music, with sonic stops that suggest Vivier’s experiences, but ultimately the travel is personal rather than geographic or cultural. Vivier ends his short program note with the exhortation, “Go and find out for yourself!”

Charles Dutoit led the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of Orion in 1980, and returned to the increasingly popular work at a BBC Proms concert in 2009. In his review for The Times, Geoff Brown said that Vivier “wrote music that’s still winning friends with its colorful, complex textures and abundant melodic life… [Orion is] an impressive score of interruptions and luminous twinklings.”

— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.