Hungarian music, Liszt once wrote, "is divided naturally into melody destined for song or melody for the dance." Saturday's ambitious "Magyar Madness" program, presented by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, had representatives of both. It also had two alluring world premieres.
The first was by Bálint Karosi, an accomplished Hungarian-born organist who performs at First Lutheran Church in Boston while also currently honing his craft as a composer through doctoral studies at Yale. That he already possesses an ear for silvery orchestral sonorities was evident from his appealing work "Existentia," which opened Saturday's program. It was written in 2014 as a tribute to the revered Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres, its title borrowed from a Weöres poem to which the music responds wordlessly in its first two movements ("Prae-Existentia" and "Existentia"), and then in the final movement, titled "Post-Existentia," a soprano rises from within the orchestra and sings Karosi's setting of Weöres's text.
That text itself is aphoristic and suggestive rather than discursive, and Karosi's music itself, despite its lofty title, is neither bloated nor ponderous. The opening of the first movement features high-pitched, slowly drawn textures that take shape around an almost respiratory musical flow, haloed with an ear-catching shimmer conferred by a blend of cimbalom, vibraphone, harp, and celesta. The middle movement keeps strings busy with an almost post-minimalist perkiness over which winds and brasses interject. When Karosi's sensitive vocal setting arrives near the end, the effect is a kind of embedded radiance, a solo voice glowing outward from deep within the ensemble.
On the far end of the program came the evening's second premiere: "The Debrecen Passion" an ambitious new score by the Boston-based composer Kati Agócs, written for BMOP and the singers of the versatile Lorelei Ensemble. Debrecen was the home city of the gifted writer Szilárd Borbély, who committed suicide last year and whose poems form the spine of Agocs's "Passion," surrounded by other texts, of medieval Latin, Hungarian, and Georgian origin, as well as a mystical Hebrew prayer.
It is a striking work that places a complex sonic palette at the service of a visceral intensity of expression, one that can be glimpsed from the descriptive markings in the score, where Agócs writes at different points: "In large waves," "Sheets of sound," and "Arriving – Radiant." Her billowing vocal writing is likewise highly expressive in an instrumental sense yet also subtle; at one point the chorus divides to sing three different texts simultaneously. As a result of this broader approach, at Saturday's initial hearing, the precise meanings of the chosen texts felt less clearly distilled, and in some ways less important to Agócs, than the heterodox richness of the sound world she has fashioned for them. Under Rose's direction, the excellent Lorelei singers and the unflappable BMOP players gave this work a dazzling first performance.
Sandwiched between the two premieres were works by two iconic Hungarian composers: Béla Bartók's enthrallingly colorful "Three Village Scenes," and György Ligeti's mesmerizing and otherworldly Violin Concerto, surely among the most stunning late-20th-century exemplars of the genre. In the Ligeti, sophisticated experimental tunings in the orchestra charge the aural backdrop with a disorienting beauty, while choruses of primitive instruments such as ocarinas slice through the orchestra, calling out like sirens from the depths. On top of it all, the solo violin part features both a whirl of fiercely imagined avant-garde textures as well as, in the second-movement, an old-fashioned melody of touching directness.
BMOP might have imported an out-of-town soloist for this occasion, but instead meaningfully gave the honor to violinist Gabriela Diaz, a stalwart of the city's new music scene, who delivered a brave, virtuosic, and entirely persuasive performance that included a skillfully assembled cadenza of her own creation. It was a night that showed BMOP's importance not only in presenting new work but also in advocating for contemporary classics like this one, which deserves to be heard much more widely.