Composer Kati Agócs was born in 1975 in Windsor, Ontario, to a Hungarian father and American mother. Her music — spacious and elegant, even in its knottier episodes — reflects and refracts this polyglot background. But there is a special quality that her Eastern European background lends to her music.
“I’ve always been grateful to have this Hungarian aspect to my being,” said Agócs, who’s on the New England Conservatory faculty, during a recent phone conversation. “It’s a thing that I don’t think about, and it just sort of comes out. When I first started writing, there’s a certain dissonance, a contrapuntal quality that would come out, and I didn’t really know where it came from. It was strong, and it led me forward.”
That legacy, an inheritance both chosen and instinctive, is front and center in Agócs’s new work, “The Debrecen Passion,” which will receive its first performance on Saturday. Written on a commission for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which has played several of her works, the piece will be on an all-Hungarian program that includes works by Bartok, Ligeti, and Bálint Karosi, a young Budapest-born composer.
The “Debrecen Passion” came about from a near-ideal set of circumstances. The commission, from the Jebediah Foundation, was for a new piece for BMOP which, Agócs said, had to honor the instrumentation she chose. That’s a rarity in a world where a composition’s length and forces are often determined before the writing begins.
“As a composer,” she said, “there are certain situations that you dream about, and one of them is to have the opportunity just to follow your vision for a piece like this.”
The Passion is named for Debrecen, Hungary’s second largest city, located in the eastern part of the country, more rural and less industrial than the area surrounding Budapest. The city was where Szilárd Borbély, one of the most important literary voices of post-communist Hungary, lived. The discovery of Borbély’s writing, which is largely untranslated and hence unknown outside his homeland, was a major catalyst for Agócs, “because it’s so shocking and hypnotic and elusive, and I just sort of became hypnotized by it for months.”
The poems that Agócs set are mostly fragile, enigmatic meditations on love and solitude, and yet they have a resonance for the composer that goes beyond their private mold. Especially after Borbély’s suicide last year, just as Agócs began work on the piece, she came to regard him as something like the conscience of a country that in recent years, according to many observers, has become increasingly hostile to those it regards as outsiders, be they Jews, gypsies, or immigrants.
As with a polytextual motet from the late Middle Ages or Renaissance, Agócs surrounds Borbély’s poetry with spiritual texts from different traditions and in different languages: a variation of the familiar “Stabat Mater,” a medieval Hungarian version of Mary’s lament for Jesus, a Kabalistic prayer. The diverse strands unite in a kind of collective lament for a country Agócs regards as her own, with Borbely’s death at its spiritual center.
“Ultimately, it becomes a passion for the poet,” she explained. “It laments his loss as a direct result of the fracturing of modern Hungary. In all its turmoil and abundance, Hungary is still a wellspring of inspiration and identity for me, and this has turned out to be an incredibly emotional piece.”
Musically, the new piece built on two other works that BMOP has performed: “By the Streams of Babylon” and “Vessel,” both of which combined solo soprano voices with an ensemble. (Those, along with “The Debrecen Passion” and others, will be on a BMOP/sound CD of Agócs’ music, to be released later this year.) The purity of the voices and their interplay with the instruments still had hold of her imagination.
“So when I was trying to find my ideal project, I thought, what if I have even more?” she said. Then she discovered Lorelei Ensemble, the adventurous ensemble of women’s voices formed in 2007. The score of “The Debrecen Passion” expands the vocal palette to include lines for 12 female voices, weaving through the orchestral texture. Writing for that many voices in a condensed vocal register was a challenge, though one lessened by what Agócs described as the “great timbral variety” of Lorelei’s singing.
“So the poetry suggested this really special sound world, which is very pure. There’s also a lot of richness because it gets to be quite complex polyphonically. It’s really important for music to breathe, so I was trying to have the denser areas be mitigated by these extremely open areas, where things just open up and it’s luminous.”
“Kati’s music has changed a lot,” said Gil Rose, BMOP’s artistic director, describing the evolution of her music as moving toward greater transparency, “but, at the same time, it’s not becoming less complex. Every piece seems to get stronger in its sense of itself.
“She’s got a lot of chutzpah,” he went on. “I give her a lot of credit. She doesn’t bend to the easy way out, ever.”
Asked how it felt to share a Hungarian program with Bartok and Ligeti, perhaps the two greatest composers the country has yet produced, Agócs said that as grateful as she is to be part of the tradition, “I also acknowledge that I’m more of a polyglot than those two guys. I’ve submersed myself in the music and the life of that region as much as I’ve been able. But I don’t claim to represent what composers are doing there; I’m just trying to give my own statement of how deeply this poetry has affected me and what the country means to me.”