Boston Classical Review
David Wright
January 25, 2015

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project, having promised a night of “Magyar Madness” Saturday at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, delivered world premieres of two outstanding, if well-behaved, works by Boston-based composers of Hungarian birth or ancestry and of Generation X vintage. The madness was supplied by the old-timers, Béla Bartók and Gyorgy Ligeti.

Crazy or sane, violent or poetic, all the music in Saturday’s concert touched on Hungary’s distinctive culture as a place apart, isolated by geography and language, yet also bubbling with a mix of European and Asiatic influences.

The program proved richly rewarding from end to end. Artistic director and conductor Gil Rose and his adept players showed that the old masters remain ever fresh, and today’s composers haven’t lost the knack of colorful, convincing music for orchestra.

In fact, some of the latter aren’t shy about revisiting older orchestral styles when the mood strikes them. On Saturday, the first movement of Bálint Karosi’s Existencia—in memory of Sándor Weöres began and ended in a distinctive shimmer of high percussion and violin tremolos, but in the middle the wide-striding violin theme grew big and fervent à la Roy Harris, and some of the brass surges and cymbal sizzles were just this side of Hollywood.

One supposes even Steve Reich qualifies as an old master these days, and the propulsive patterns of this work’s second movement, based on the poet Weöres’s image of a person in the midst of life, had a Reichian feel. Composer Karosi, a prominent organist on the Boston scene, deftly added “registration” in a long, Bolero-style crescendo to a climax, after which the persistent rhythm finally wound down, and the poet’s “existence” graphically (with tolling chimes, no less) gave way to what came after: a high shimmer like the first movement, a remembered folksong, a meditation for solo violin.

Although the three poems by Weöres that inspired the work were printed in the program, only the last was sung, and that briefly. As the work wound to a close, soprano Sonja Tengblad rose from a seat in the orchestra to sing affectingly of an existence just past and one’s place in the eternal fabric of love.

Effective writing for women’s voices–solo, and in trios and choruses—also characterized the evening’s other premiere, The Debrecen Passion by the Hungarian-American-Canadian composer Kati Agócs. Commissioned by the Jebediah Foundation for BMOP and the Lorelei Ensemble (a Boston-based group of nine female singers, increased to twelve for this performance), this ambitious, wide-ranging piece bore the date 2015 in the program, making it the newest of new music, maybe even a wet-pixel premiere.

The word “passion” in the title might lead one to expect a retelling of Christ’s Crucifixion. While not attempting that, the new work did aim for emotional and spiritual ties to the great choral works of that name by Schütz, Handel, Bach, and many others, as it set poems on love and lamentation from ancient sources and by the poet Sándor Borbély, who lived in Debrecen, Hungary’s second largest city, until his death last year.

Besides Borbély’s Hungarian, the chorus sang in Latin, Hebrew, and Georgian—and a modern translation of the oldest known poem in the Hungarian language—as composer Agócs ranged wide in time and geography in search of texts to meditate on, setting them without movement breaks in a continuous performance lasting a little over 20 minutes.

The vocal performances were consistently clear and expressive, with soprano Tengblad the standout, tenderly introducing the work with Borbély’s “If I could…” and soaring over her trio-mates in the section “I can’t…”

Who can resist the sound of women’s voices climbing high in close harmony? Agócs certainly couldn’t, as time after time she twisted rising vocal lines into radiant cluster chords, a sound capable of expressing either intense lament or exultation.

Just in one section, the setting of a medieval parody on the hymn Stabat Mater, her wide orchestral vocabulary took the music from chant-like vocal lines, delicately accompanied by high percussion and pizzicato double basses, to a fast, three-to-a-bar dance with big-band thunder.

As the program notes by Robert Kirzinger acknowledged, the other, more everyday meaning of “passion” was well represented in this work, and by the closing pages on the Georgian hymn “Thou Art a Vineyard” the music was animated by a kind of Song-of-Solomon like merging of spiritual and earthly ecstasy. The clouds of complex 21st-century harmony even parted here and there for moments of movie-score lushness.

But Agócs’s score remained unpredictable to the end, swinging between thoughtful violin solos to broad statements for the full orchestra to unison chants in the chorus. The composer seemed to pick up her texts and look at them from all angles, before closing the piece (and Saturday’s concert) resolutely on a crescendo chord for chorus and orchestra.

Between the two premieres, Rose placed two strong Hungarian reference points, Ligeti’s late Violin Concerto of 1992 and Bartók’s folksong-based 1926 work for female chorus and orchestra, Falun (Three Village Scenes).

Composing in 1990 and expanding the piece to five movements two years later, Ligeti seemed to fill his Violin Concerto with ideas from the many stages of his protean composing career: the folk influences that came through Bartók, the complex space-odyssey orchestral and choral textures of the 1960s, and the pattern music á la Reich that developed into the rhythmic polyphony of his Piano Etudes.

As the concerto opened with the soloist’s rapid, soft crossing of open strings punctuated by marked notes seemingly picked out of the air, one felt the presence of a veteran composer supremely confident of his effects and always ready to surprise.

The volatile first movement put soloist Gabriela Diaz through her paces with syncopated perpetual motion passages and others in light, fast staccato. She led the way in the second movement with a long, unaccompanied modal melody, which eventually wandered into a surreal orchestral landscape populated by ocarinas, clay flutes tuned to notes unknown in Western scales. An eventful middle section included robust double-stops and strummed chords for the soloist.

The brief third movement began with the soloist playing another rambling melody high on the instrument’s A string, but closed in a noisy pile-up of sharply plunging figures in the winds. The madness continued in the fourth movement, with its uncanny high shimmer at the start, followed by ear-splitting loud high chords, another invasion of the ocarina UFOs, and a sudden loud ending.

It was a relief to hear the soloist kick off the finale with some hot double-stopping and snatches of folk dance tunes. Throughout the movement, allusions to the more familiar Magyar madness of Liszt and Bartók alternated with sudden, shrill orchestral exclamations and blasts of brass.

Violinist Diaz was front and center for most of it, executing her part’s extreme demands with technical assurance and panache. To top it off, she performed a brilliant and imaginative cadenza composed by herself, which managed to sound perfectly idiomatic on the violin while reflecting back on some of the score’s wackier moments. A few thumps in the orchestra, Ligeti’s amusing take on the traditional concerto tutti ending, closed the work.

After the intermission, an eight-voice version of the Lorelei Ensemble shone in Bartók’s wonderfully exuberant and dissonant setting of three Slovak folk songs. Excitement and knowing irony mingled in their crisp, animated delivery of “Wedding,” sadness tinged the tender solos and haunting modal harmonies of “Lullaby,” and “Lad’s Dance” swung madly with brassy syncopations, then got into that Hungarian slow-fast thing, and generally turned impudence into an art form.

Composers Karosi and Agócs were on hand to celebrate their premieres and take bows. Lorelei Ensemble founder and artistic director Beth Willer was called to the stage twice to acknowledge her having brought the chorus to such a high level for this performance.

Conductor Rose, as is his wont, gave a modest nod or two to the audience. If you would hear his monument, listen around you.