Repertoire Search

Kaija Saariaho

Publisher: Chester Music

Orion (2002)
commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra
Work Notes
dedicated to Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra
Chester Music Ltd
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
22 Minutes
Buy this work
Worldwide Sales   North American Sales

Programme Note
Kaija Saariaho Orion (2002)
Images of the Night, dreams, myths, and distant mysteries have always loomed large in Kaija Saariaho’s work. The Finnish composer’s extensive catalogue contains evocative titles like From the Grammar of Dreams, Wing of the Dream, Caliban’s Dream, For the Moon, Graal Theatre, The Castle of the Soul, and, most recently, her opera performed with resounding success at Santa Fe this past summer, L’Amour de Loin (‘Love from Afar’). Orion, the mysterious and adventurous hunter of Greek mythology, was the mortal son of Neptune (Poseidon), the god of seas. After his death, Orion was placed by Zeus in the sky as a radiant constellation. He is, thus, at once an active (even hyper-active) human being and an immobile heavenly object, and Saariaho has fully exploited that contrast in the present work in three movements - her largest purely symphonic composition to date.

Orion begins its musical journey in a kind of amorphous ‘interstellar space’. The first movement, titled ‘Memento mori’ (‘Remember that you must die’), evolves from a mysterious introduction towards a powerful orchestral outburst marked by the entrance of the organ. This moment also brings an expansive string melody and an insistent - one would like to say inexorable - rhythmic idea in equal eighth-notes, played fortissimo by the woodwinds. The music then becomes more animated, with a new, exited figure all in rapid sixteenth-notes gradually taking hold of almost the entire orchestra, repeated furioso and con violenza until it is abruptly cut off.

The second movement, ‘Winter Sky’, opens with a haunting piccolo solo, continued by solo violin, clarinet, oboe, and muted trumpet. As the orchestral soloists pass the melody around, the other instruments provide a colourful and atmospheric accompaniment. The orchestral texture later fills out with multi-layered polyphony, yet the movement remains calm and contemplative. For the ending, the already slow tempo becomes even slower as the piano emerges from the background with a ‘sky-high’ melody repeating a few notes in changing permutations, over expressive string glissandos and the sound of chimes, bowed vibraphone, and crotales.

We come back to earth with the energetic final movement, titled ‘Hunter’. It is a study in perpetual motion - or almost, since the fast motion is repeatedly interrupted by short mysterious episodes in a slow tempo. The third such interruption, more extended than the first two, momentarily recalls the second movement, before the music returns to its former dynamic and joyful self. The excitement grew grows apace, but as the tempo increases, the volume decreases. More and more instruments drop out, and by the end, Orion has once again assumed his position on the night firmament.

Peter Laki on behalf of the Cleveland Orchestra 2002

Preview the score

  • Ensemble
    BBC Symphony Orchestra
    Jukka-Pekka Saraste
    Warner Classics:
  • Ensemble
    Orchestre de Paris
    Karita Mattila; Anssi Karttunen
    Christoph Eschenbach
  • Ensemble
    Los Angeles Philharmonic
    Anu Komsi (soprano), Riikka Rantanen (contralto), Petri Alanko (alto flute), Anssi Karttunen (cello), Petteri Salomaa (baritone), John Storgards (violin), Pia Freund (soprano), Gabriel Suovanen (baritone), Karita Mattila (soprano)
    Esa-Pekka Salonen
  • 20 MAR 2020
    Konserthuset Stockholm, Sweden
    Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
    Klaus Mäkelä, conductor

    Other Dates:
    21 March - Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, Sweden

The vast infinity of space was stunningly evoked by Kaija Saariaho in Orion, a three movement work edged with eerie electronic-sounding effects produced by the orchestral instruments themselves. Her busy and noisy universe was underpinned by low pulsADVERTISEMENTating organ chords danced on by an array of metallic percussion, decaying string sounds and spangly brass and woodwind – an unsettling but fascinating spacescape bleached of all colour. The music only became more grounded in the finale, Hunter, with a fast and furious chase between the frenzied strings and strident brass ending with an ingenious "ting" of the triangle.
Susan Nickalls, The Scotsman,09/11/2010
Kaija Saariaho’s Orion presented this Finnish composer’s familiar assembly of massed, frosted-glass sonorities – immaculately wrought, and sympathetically written for orchestra and audience alike.
Malcolm Hayes, The Independent,12/09/2006
Not only is this her longest purely orchestral piece at 25 minutes, but the three descriptively-titled movements show Saariaho, avowedly a non-programmatic composer, come rather closer to the actions of human beings, albeit mythical ones, than previously. Orion is the name both of a constellation and of the murdered son of Neptune, and to this duality Saariaho has added the life/death dichotomy of the first movement 'Memento mori'. The movement is particularly successful as Saariaho is more seductive and less gritty in her sound-world than we are used to. A subtle lament of anguish using glissando flutes during the funeral procession-like section with its primitive descending figures manages to be formally distant and energetic yet at the same time personal and lamenting. Better than - in territory they both inhabit - Birtwistle. The second movement, 'Winter sky', is more static and impersonal and shows Saariaho's mastery of highly-coloured 'spectralist' orchestral writing, but the movement manages to be more interestingly melodic than usual for this school, even with its typically glacial atmosphere. A sky full of winds and birds as well as glistening stars. If compositions like Orion are the result of a new approach her name, without too much effort, will continue to rise higher in the musical firmament.
Robert Stein, Tempo,01/01/2005
Orion illuminates a night sky of wide horizons. Saariaho has chosen to exploit the contrast between Orion as hyperactive hunter and as fixed heavenly body; and this dichtomy has led her into a sort of cosmic minimalism, distinctively her own. Memento mori [the first movement] reminds us that we must die by creating a pulsing, mesmeric stratosphere of sound which, in its apparent yet deceptive constancy, seems to exist outside time altogether. Twinkling pitched percussion, hushed woodwind and long bows playing short intervals almost imperceptibly shift to ever shorter note values until the entire orchestra, plus organ, take over. The second movement, Winter Sky, is another contemplative Saariaho soundscape: double-basses supporting icy harp and piccolo figures in an evocation of frosty static which reminded me of the sensation of sound within the aurora borealis, as electromagnetic soundwaves are turned into acoustic ones. Clarinet, oboe and muted trumpet add their own exquisite frequencies; bowed vibraphone and shivering crotales spangle the multilayered orchestral polyphony. And finally, the scherzo of the Hunter himself. Saariaho's last movement springs into rapidly ascending and descending chromatic scales, and cosmic hunting horns whoop and tally-ho after three haunting slow episodes seem to recall the spectres of earthly chase. This stellar triptych has all the marks of Saariaho's minutely-heard, meticulously imagined aural-visual synthesis, now writ confidently large on a formidable orchestral canvas.
Hilary Finch, The Times,09/09/2004
Its popularity is understandable, for the orchestral effects are intriguing, its musical shapes bold and uncomplicated. The first movement ends with a peroration like the coronation scene from Boris Godunov filtered through post-serialism. The second movement is woven together from delicate wind solos, while the last is basically a moto perpetuo that generates texture out of activity, though still clouded by sudden harmonic twists.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,09/09/2004
Welser-Most put his best foot forward with a splendid new work by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, ''Orion.'' This is a three-movement piece about the constellation and the myth behind it. The music is assimilative rather than original; Saariaho knows how to conceal the mechanisms of composition through evocative precision of scoring. Sibelius looms over Finnish composers today the way Beethoven loomed over his successors in Vienna; Saariaho creates a different sound world but the emotional landscapes are similar: the bardic storytelling in an atmosphere of northernness, cold, isolation, and distance. The second movement, ''Winter Sky,'' is full of eerie, icy sounds. The third puts Orion into the sky by an ingenious but effective means - the music speeds up while simultaneously growing softer and more distant as groups of instruments drop out until there is only a chiming silence.
Richard Dyer, Boston Globe,10/02/2003
Thursday night’s Cleveland Orchestra program opened with the New York premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Orion. Scored for large orchestra (augmented by 2 harps, piano and organ) Orion describes in music the mythical adventurer’s journey across the heavens. For this purpose Saariaho has concocted some stunningly original instrumental combinations, resulting in timbres that often sounded otherworldly, in keeping with the subject matter. The first movement, "Memento mori," opened in a static atmosphere that sounded like a cross between Part II of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Alien. "Winter Sky," which followed without a pause, continued in this glacially slow vein, but added a faintly human element, as traces of melody appeared wraithlike throughout the movement. A burst of kinetic energy launched the finale, "Hunter," which, after brief reflection on the serene mystery of the preceding movement, moved along at an ever-increasing tempo even as the orchestra gradually trailed off, leaving Orion in his original resting place among the stars. Franz Welser-Möst certainly had full possession of this work, and led the Cleveland Orchestra in a brilliantly played performance.
Classics Today,08/02/2003
Close X

Newsletter Signup

Enter your email address to keep up to date with the latest news and special offers from Music Sales Classical.
Your data is secure and you can unsubscribe at any time. Read our Privacy Policy

Click here to receive regular news
© Copyright 2020 Music Sales Classical. Part of the Music Sales Group.