Aorangi Symphony Orchestra


Top European musical award for New Zealand Conductor


Sarah Bisley, the Musical and Artistic Director of the Aorangi Symphony Orchestra and Aorangi Singers, has received the very prestigious Pro Cultura Hungarica prize from the government of Hungary at a ceremony in Budapest.

A rare distinction, this prize honours artists for excellence in their promotion of Hungarian culture. According to Hungarian sources, the Award has been granted for the first time ever in the Southern Hemisphere – and is only the third occasion where a Maestro outside of Hungary has been honoured since its inauguration in 1985.

The home of Ferenc Liszt, Franz Lehár, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, Hungary has an enormous musical tradition, and one which has influenced many other famous composers from central Europe. This award is broadly comparable to a top New Zealand cricketer, rugby player or sailor being appointed as a coach in England, France or North America.

In Sarah Bisley’s case, the prize has been awarded for her production of Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus. This was one of very few performances of the work in New Zealand and the first to be actually sung in Hungarian. Kodály originally wrote the work in 1923, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the unification of Buda and Pest, on either side of the Danube River, to form the modern Budapest.

Outside Hungary, Kodály is probably best known as the creator of the ‘Kodály Method’, a system of music education based on singing the songs of one’s native country.  As an early part of his work, Kodály travelled around Hungary recording dozens of folk songs on a phonograph.

One of Kodály’s pupils, and later colleagues, was Erzsébet Szőnyi. The Pro Cultura Hungarica prize awarded to Sarah Bisley also recognises the premiere performance in this country, of Professor Szőnyi’s Concerto per Organo e Orchestra. Along with Psalmus Hungaricus, this work was performed in a concert at the Q Theatre in Auckland on 7 June 2015.

Says Sarah Bisley: ‘The news that I had been awarded this prestigious prize came completely out of the blue in late February this year. Of course, notable mention should be made of the Aorangi Singers and the Junior Choristers of Holy Trinity, who mastered the Hungarian language, and of the accompanying Ensemble Polymnia (which is now known as the Aorangi Symphony Orchestra). The production also benefited from excellent performances by tenor David Hamilton, organist Myles Hartley and narrator Raymond Hawthorne’.


Sarah Bisley’s links with Hungary began in 1982, when she was invited to study the ‘cello under Professor László Mező at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music. At that time, she learned to speak Hungarian fluently, and also travelled extensively in Transylvania, the predominantly Hungarian-speaking region of Romania. 

In the 1980s, Hungary was generally regarded as having one of the highest standards of living in Central and Eastern Europe, while Romania had one of the worst. Sarah Bisley would take food and essentials from Hungary to her friends in Romania. On an early visit to Romania, she was asked by an ethic Hungarian composer to smuggle a copy of his music back to Professor Szőnyi in Budapest - which is how she met Kodály’s former colleague.

Sarah Bisley has returned to Hungary many times since the mid-1980s, during which time the Iron Curtain has fallen and the country has changed enormously.  She has also lived in Austria, where her two sons were born, and France. Originally from Hamilton, she has lived in Auckland since early 2008. 

Adds Sarah Bisley: ‘It was an enormous honour that the laudation at the ceremony where I received the Pro Cultura Hungarica prize was delivered by Professor Erzsébet Szőnyi herself. She is an exceptional human being, and one who has been a teacher and mentor to many musicians, including me. She also provides a direct and real link to the great Zoltán Kodály.'

For further information, please contact:

Andrew Hutchings 

+64 (0) 2 041 472 695

[email protected]

Notes to Editors:

Pro Cultura Hungarica award ceremony

Maestra Bisley received the Pro Cultura Hungarica prize at the Kodály Museum in Budapest on 26 May 2017. The prize was presented by Professor Mihály Ittzés, the President of the Hungarian Kodály Society, and Mrs Anikó Krucsainé Herter, Deputy State Secretary in the Ministry of Human Capacities, on behalf of Minister Zoltán Balog. The laudation speech was delivered by Professor Erzsébet Szőnyi, the famous composer and teacher who was a colleague of Zoltán Kodály.

Hungary’s Ministry of Human Capacities covered the award ceremony on 27 May 2017 in its online publication kultura.huThe article may be found ahttp://www.kultura.hu/hid-epult-uj-zeland

Videos of the award ceremony can be found on Youtube at https://youtu.be/szE0BqbrDTI

Ensemble Polymnia

Sarah Bisley founded Ensemble Polymnia in Austria in 1994. She then worked tirelessly to bring live performances to stage in Paris and the Versailles region, and latterly in New Zealand.

In concert, she has also conducted the Savaria Symphony Orchestra of Szombathely, Hungary, Mariahilfer Oper in Vienna, the orchestra of L’Opéra de Massy in Paris and the State Hermitage Orchestra of St. Petersburg.

Ensemble Polymnia Trust was founded in August 2014 and now carries the trading name of the

Aorangi Symphony Orchestra.