At Christmas 1982, twentysomething Hamilton raised musician Sarah Bisley took a train from Budapest, Hungary into a different world. She travelled to neighbouring Transylvania in Romania to visit the family of a friend, the now acclaimed cellist Peter Szabo, whom she met at the Weimar School of Music in East Germany.

Back then, Hungary was regarded as having one of the highest standards of living in Central and Eastern Europe while Romania had one of the worst. Bisley recalls Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania as a desperately poor but beautiful country.

"The secret police were everywhere; you never knew who was watching you. That person over there [she points to a fellow patron in the Café where we meet] could have been a member of the secret police."

But between 1982 and Easter, 1984, she made the return trip six times smuggling food and essentials from Hungary to her friends in Romania. On one of those visits, she was asked by Peter's father, Csaba Szabo, an ethnic Hungarian composer, to take back samples of his compositions for a former colleague, Professor Erzsebet Szonyi.

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Some 35 years after she smuggled out those compositions, members of the Szabo family watched Bisley receive a rare distinction from the Hungarian government. Now the musical and artistic director of Auckland-based Aorangi Symphony Orchestra and Aorangi Singers, Bisley is the first person in the Southern Hemisphere, and only the third maestro, to receive the Pro Cultura Hungarica.

Presented annually since 1985, the prize recognises foreign nationals who promote Hungarian culture and enrich cultural relations between Hungary and other countries. Past recipients have included translators, architects, art historians and sculptors.

Bisley received the award for her production of the choral work Psalmus Hungaricus composed by Zoltan Kodaly. He wrote it in 1923 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the unification of Buda and Pest, on either side of the Danube River, to form modern Budapest.

It was a rare performance of the music in New Zealand and the first time it had been sung here in Hungarian. She also arranged for Szonyi to perform at the 2015 concert at Q Theatre.

"Naturally, I was thrilled to receive the award but not only can I be proud; all of those who took part in the performance, including the children, can be, too. What we were able to achieve was magnificent; it's an acknowledgement of what's possible for New Zealanders to do."

Performers included the Aorangi Singers and the Junior Choristers of Holy Trinity, who mastered Hungarian, and the accompanying Ensemble Polymnia [now known as the Aorangi Symphony Orchestra]. The production also featured tenor David Hamilton, organist Myles Hartley and narrator Raymond Hawthorne.

While Bisley has lived in Austria, where her two sons were born, France and, since 2008, back in New Zealand, she has returned to Hungary many times since the mid-1980s and it holds a special place in her heart.

She arrived in Budapest in 1982, after persuading Professor Laszlo Mezo to give her a place to study cello at the Ferenc Liszt Academy. Knowing Mezo was going to be in Melbourne, where she was studying at the time, Bisley wrote to him and asked him for an audition: "You know, it's the sort of thing we do as New Zealanders - just ask."

She says Budapest is now a beautiful city but, back then, it was "a bit dirty, rather noisy, rather polluted and rather bewildering." But she learned Hungarian, saying if you're going to live in a place for any length of time you should learn the language, and began to organise "house gatherings" where musicians would get together to play for their friends.

"I thought that was a very European thing to do, but they were puzzled as to why I would organise small concerts in my flat," says Bisley, whose family in Hamilton were all music and often organised similar gatherings at home.

The Aorangi Singers and Aorangi Symphony Orchestra perform Fauré Requiem: Remembering Passchendaele 1917 later this year at St Matthew-in-the-City.