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The Debrecen Passion by Kati Agócs To Be Premiered by Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Lorelei Ensemble on Jan 24  

For rising composer Kati Agócs, this season brings a wide range of performances – from New York to Winnipeg and Vienna – including the world premiere of her new work The Debrecen Passion, performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose on January 24 at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in Boston at 8:00pm. This performance also features the vocal group Lorelei Ensemble, and is the culmination of a series of Agócs scores performed and recorded by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) since 2009. The Debrecen Passion – a 20-minute composition for women’s chorus and orchestra that interlaces both sacred and secular texts – will be included on the first album devoted to Agócs’s orchestral works. The recording is scheduled for release on CD and download by the BMOP/sound label in 2015, and features The Debrecen Passion alongside four other alluring pieces, each with mystical themes. Agócs, who has taught composition at the New England Conservatory for seven years, was born to Hungarian and American parents in Canada in 1975. She derived inspiration for The Debrecen Passion from her father’s native Hungary, a country whose culture has deep emotional resonance for her. BMOP will perform Agócs’s work together with pieces by Hungarian icons Bartók and Ligeti, as well as contemporary Hungarian Bálint Karosi.

Agócs received the prestigious Arts and Letters Award in Music earlier this year, as well as the Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2008. In its citation the Academy said: “The music of Kati Agócs reveals a wonderfully accessible lyricism that unfolds with both drama and complexity. … It has heart: it reaches the hearer through melody and clear design, with its soulful directness and its naturalness of dissonance.”

The Debrecen Passion affirms the deep impact of the time Agócs has spent in Hungary, especially during two separate yearlong periods – in 1988-89, just before the “system change” after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and again in 2005-2006 as a Fulbright Fellow. This polyphonic, polylingual work includes settings of three poems by Szilárd Borbély (1964-2014), one of the most important literary voices to emerge from Hungary in the complex post-1989 era. Debrecen, Hungary’s second-largest city, is where Borbély lived and taught. The poet’s work reflects the tensions of present-day Hungary, underscoring the profound political and social changes of the past ten years. To Agócs, his poetry has served as “both catalyst and conscience” in a society where cultural diversity and freedom of expression appear under threat. Earlier this year, with challenges mounting, Borbély took his own life. Agócs says: “I believe that he was unable to live in today’s Hungary and yet unable to bring himself to start over abroad. My piece can be heard as an elegy for the poet, and for his eloquence.”

The Debrecen Passion interweaves and, at times, juxtaposes Borbély’s modern poems with ancient religious texts in Hungarian, Latin, Hebrew and Georgian. The ancient texts comprise fragments from the oldest extant Hungarian poem, The Lamentations of Mary, set in modern Hungarian; fragments from the Stabat Mater Speciosa in Latin; the Ana B’choach, a Kabbalistic prayer in Hebrew; and the text from a medieval Georgian hymn, Thou Art a Vineyard. Although of Christian faith, Borbély drew from a rich vocabulary of themes and rituals from both Judaism and Christianity in his work.

In The Debrecen Passion, Agócs presents the traditional Christian Passion through the eyes of the mother, whose voice infuses the religious narrative with living emotions. In the central section of the piece, three simultaneous strands are layered in the solo voices: the mother’s archetypal lament in the ancient Hungarian fragments; a Borbély poem that expresses the inability to feel (or to know what one feels); and the Kabbalistic prayer, whose special combination of letters draws healing energy and protection from the spiritual to the physical realm, and which is later picked up and chanted by the entire chorus. The Debrecen Passion is not a Passion in the typical narrative sense, but offers a personal view of both secular and sacred meanings of “passion.”

The presentation of The Debrecen Passion follows the BMOP’s previous performances of Agócs’s Requiem Fragments, By the Streams of Babylon, Vessel and …like treasure hidden in a field – all pieces that were recorded and will be included on the orchestra’s all-Agócs album to be released next year. Working with BMOP over the past few years “has challenged and empowered me, helping me develop my orchestral palette and to imbue each piece with emotional clarity,” the composer says. “BMOP’s musicians play complex new orchestral scores as if they were chamber music, under their masterful leader Gil Rose, who also has a natural affinity for working with singers. They get under the skin of a score and bring it to life with great immediacy. The vital energy that they bring to their interpretations has inspired me to take more risks with each subsequent work.”

The vocal group Lorelei Ensemble specializes in both early music and contemporary works; the ensemble’s dozen women have “a special vocal sound with great purity of tone” Agócs explains. “The Debrecen Passion grows out of the sound world of Vessel, my macaronic motet for three female voices and seven players from 2011. It expands the number of voices to twelve, introducing microtonal inflections, and augments the timbral possibilities of the instrumental ensemble. The orchestra acts like a Greek chorus, reacting to and amplifying the emotions of the vocal ensemble.  The elegiac melody at the piece’s heart is finally passed from the chorus into the orchestra, which takes over to express what the words cannot.”

Premiere of The Debrecen Passion, January 24

“Magyar Madness”
Saturday, January 24, 2015, 8:00pm (pre-concert talk one hour prior to concert)
Boston, MA: Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory

Bálint Karosi: Existentia – In memory of Sándor Weöres*
György Ligeti: Violin Concerto (with Gabriela Diaz, violin)
Béla Bartók: Three Village Scenes
Kati Agócs: The Debrecen Passion* (with Lorelei Ensemble)
*world premiere

Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose, conductor

2014-15 performances of works by Kati Agócs

Oct 10
Northern Lights
Bridget Kibbey, harp
Santa Barbara, CA: Hahn Hall

Oct 12
Northern Lights
Bridget Kibbey, harp
Camerata Pacifica
Ventura, CA: Temple Beth Torah

Oct 24
Versprechen (Promise) – Solo Cello Version
Dinosaur Annex Ensemble
Somerville, MA: Davis Square Theater

Nov 8
Hymn for Saxophone Quartet
Musiqa series
Houston, TX: Market Square Park

Nov 9
Violoncello Duet
Cello Studio Recital
Boston, MA: Williams Hall, New England Conservatory

Nov 22
Windsor Symphony Orchestra; Robert Franz, conductor
Tepperman Masterworks Series
Windsor, Ontario, Canada: Capitol Theatre

Dec 5
As Biddeth Thy Tongue
Drew Whiting, solo alto saxophone
Oshkosh, WI: Oshkosh Music Hall, University of Wisconsin

Jan 16
Perpetual Summer (world premiere of revised version)
Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä, conductor
Minneapolis, MN: Orchestra Hall

Jan 24
The Debrecen Passion (world premiere, Jebediah Foundation Commission)
Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Lorelei Ensemble; Gil Rose, conductor
Boston, MA: Jordan Hall

Feb 3
Every Lover is a Warrior
Ellen Gibling, solo harp
Acadia New Music Festival
Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada: Anvil Lounge

Feb 3
Requiem Fragments
Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Mickelthwate, conductor
24th Annual New Music Festival
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Feb 7
Peterborough Symphony Orchestra; Michael Newnham, conductor
“Dark Passion” program
Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Showplace Performance Centre

Feb 22
Boston Young Composers Ensemble
Boston, MA: Brown Hall, New England Conservatory

April 12
Saint Elizabeth Bells
Supernatural Love
New York, NY: The American Academy of Arts and Letters

May 29
Immutable Dreams
Ensemble Reconsil Wien
Vienna, Austria: Joseph Haydn-Saal der Musikuniversität

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© 21C Media Group, December 2014

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