A day and a night in Vivier’s Paris (in just 13 minutes)

Nézet-Séguin conducts the Orchestra (3rd review)

4 minute read
Vivier: Unfinished business.
Vivier: Unfinished business.
Some pre-concert grumbling about why the obscure Orion was included on the Orchestra program for this past weekend, under Yannick Nézet-Séguin's busy baton, left me unprepared for the fun of listening to it.

Not only was this little 1979 piece an exciting, engaging 13 minutes or so, but its shimmering afterglow lingered much longer— long enough to overshadow much of the august Brahms First Piano Concerto that followed it. Orion was quick, vivid, lively, challenging"“ qualities that unfortunately brought out the presence of their opposites in the Brahms: melodrama, heavy-handedness, an overall tediousness.

Not that the Brahms lacked sublime moments. But credit where due: It takes awfully good music to make Brahms sound so dated. For me, it took the entire first movement of the Brahms as well as part of the adagio to finally erase from my ringing ears the starburst pleasures of the Claude Vivier composition.

A brief, unhappy life

Vivier's brief and unusually unhappy life was cut off from human society at both ends. He came into the world as a foundling in Montreal in 1948; he was raised in a Catholic orphanage until his adoption at age three. He is said to have lived on the edge much of the time, and, in 1983, at age 34, he was found in his Paris apartment, stabbed to death, apparently by a male prostitute.

"We do not know the exact time or circumstances of his birth and we do not know the exact time or circumstances of his death," notes British critic Bob Gilmore. The potential for myth-making continues because, as every sketch of Vivier's life must mention, on his Paris desk lay the unfinished score of his final composition: Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul?

Vivier did once say he loved the freedom of not knowing his birth parents. He said many things; he seems to have been a true child of the '60s and '70s, but also playful and happy. His early compositions include titles such as O! Kosmos (1973) and Siddhartha (1976). He won Canada's Composer of the Year award in 1981.

Parisian traffic jam

Orion is related musically to Vivier's opera, Kopernikus, also from 1979. But standing by itself, as we heard it last weekend, it sounded to me like a day and a night in Paris. We start out in a Parisian traffic jam; cars are motionless but honking, trying to break through; sun glints brilliantly off their chrome. Sometimes the traffic surges; then it halts again. We hear it in a march of piccolos, flutes and squeaky violins.

A little further on, we seem to be high up in a hotel room; gradually we notice the honking of the horns as a distant cacophony wafting up to us. It must be late afternoon; soon, it is evening and the sounds are changing. We hear the trumpets, using their mutes to sound exactly like Eric Clapton's wah-wah pedal. What are they announcing so raunchily?

The frenzy and frustrations of the day have given way to a beautiful night. We see the stars wheeling by in a passage of slow, sweet grandeur reminiscent of Vaughan Williams. We're seeing Orion, the beautiful Hunter, dominating the sky with his brightness and his timelessness.

Did these ears of mine follow the specific route that Vivier intended? Likely not! But the trip was a fine one.

Decline of "'new music'

Would I have liked more Vivier on the program? I'm not sure. Orion's brevity helped. The "spectral" compositional elements and the Asian influences (plenty of melodic percussion instruments, like gamelan) combined into strikingly original sounds, but it is challenging. Still, Vivier's longer compositions have their fans, including the singer Dawn Upshaw.

Both in its brilliance and its ambitions, Orion definitely offered me more than I usually find in much currently popular new music. It reminded me how exciting "new" music was in the 1970s, when you could still hear Philip Glass performing in a SoHo loft and recognize a whole new future opening up.

I don't seek out new music very often any more. After John Adams and Jennifer Higdon, in fact, I'm almost stumped for composers. OK, Crumb. But what gets onto major orchestra programs is rarely as exciting and interesting as Orion. The new-music scene seems to have lost a lot of steam.

Nézet-Séguin has said Orion was included at the suggestion of the Orchestra's interim chief conductor, Charles Dutoit. Dutoit gave Orion its premiere in 1980 and performed it again as recently as last summer in Britain. So three Montrealers combined to give us a tasty little musical appetizer for what may show up as a full-course dinner offering at some future date.♦

To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.

What, When, Where

Philadelphia Orchestra: Vivier, Orion; Brahms First Piano Concerto; Franck, Symphony in D minor. December 3-5, 2009 at Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Sts. (215) 893-1999 or

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