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American Voices

Spiritual music: Composer transforms her 30-year quest into a special Houston premiere

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Houston Cecilia Chamber Choir
The Houston Cecilia Chamber Choir will perform Ann K. Gebuhr's Triptych as part of a concert titled "American Voices." Photo by Erika Gutierrez.
Houston Cecilia Chamber Choir Ann Gebuhr
Ann K. Gebuhr first penned Triptych for high voice and piano 30 years ago. Courtesy photo
Kevin Klotz Houston Cecilia Chamber Choir
Houston Cecilia Chamber Choir artistic director Kevin Klotz. Courtesy photo
Houston Cecilia Chamber Choir
Houston Cecilia Chamber Choir Ann Gebuhr
Kevin Klotz Houston Cecilia Chamber Choir

While some art is created with the intention of sharing it with the world, some is so reflective that it's reserved for individual contemplation.

It was during a time of personal growth when composer Ann K. Gebuhr first penned Triptych for high voice and piano 30 years ago. As she began to explore different types of meditative practice, her aesthetic followed suit. The 9-minute work, written for beloved Rice University voice faculty member Jeanette Lombard and dedicated to Rochelle Manske, is sketched as a through-composed, three-part invocation with an Offertory, Meditation and Alleluia.

Recently rearranged for four-part chorus, the new version of Tripych, in a way, signals Gebuhr's revelation of a pivotal spiritual journey that shaped her life. The Houston premiere of this setting has been entrusted to the singers of the Houston Cecilia Chamber Choir and artistic director Kevin Klotz as part of a concert titled "American Voices," slated for 7:30 p.m. Friday at Grace Presbyterian Church.

"Many choral directors and colleagues, including Jeanette Lombard, had encouraged me to recompose the work," Gebuhr tells CultureMap. "It was time."

 Gebuhr describes Tripych as a representation of the meditative experience, of thoughts and feelings about thankfulness, of internal joy and inner peace.

Divinely Inspired

The tenor of Triptych is aligned with Gebuhr's interests as a music theorist and author. In 2012, she published Hildegard!, a book that delves into the remarkable life of 12th century visionary abbess-cum-composer Hildegard von Bingen. Gebuhr's Eight Contemplations On Texts By Hildegard, a collection of short solo flute pieces, responds to the nun's texts (listen to a clip here). Gebuhr's opera Bonhoeffer, premiered by the Houston Baptist University Opera in 2000, is based on the life of Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pacifist who assisted in a failed conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.

Gebuhr describes Tripych as a representation of the meditative experience, of thoughts and feelings about thankfulness, of internal joy and inner peace. In sharing the work with larger musical forces, it's her wish that more listeners savor the uplifting release and enlightened consciousness that she associates with meditation, just as it's expressed in the opening plea, "O Lord, Take and receive my liberty."

"The piece mirrors the values imparted in me while growing up in a Lutheran household," she adds. "My family had a very strong commitment to help others, to do unto others what you would have them do to you. It's a prayer that encourages people to find their inner truth, their place in life."

In addition to the prominent religious connotations — such as allusions to the Holy Trinity, modal musical language and sparse plainsong textures that she marks as "freely" and "non-metric"  — a recurring six-note upward piano flourish that opens the work offers a curious allegory. Although this leitmotif is configured of mainly open intervals, which are typically found in monophonic sacred songs, the inclusion of one dissonant note is intriguing.

 "Our goal is to give a heartfelt performance that communicates the composer's voice."

Such a note forges a tritone, the most unstable of intervals within the Western tonal system. Nicknamed diabolus in musica (the devil in music) since the 18th century, the sound, which today has lost some of its dramatic thrust, can be interpreted as the idea that personal growth never ends.

"The music is very unique in that it blends old elements with new elements," Klotz explains. "It juxtaposes different extremes of composition — 20th century harmony and irregular meters with a chant-like quality to the melodic curve."

Music From The Heart

"American Voices" closes the Houston Cecilia Chamber Choir's 2013-14 season. Think of the program as a sampler of notable American choral music. Beginning with William Billings, considered by academics to be the first American choral composer, the playbill includes oeuvres by Randall Thompson, Moren Lauridsen, Eric Whitacre, Moses Hogan and Aaron Copland.

When Klotz coaches the choir to perform works by deceased composers such as Bach and Mozart, his interpretation is informed by historical context. Where was Bach when he wrote this? What was going on in Mozart's life when he finished that? What renders the world premiere performance of Triptych unique, he says, is that he's able to dialogue with the creator about the essence of the composition.

"It makes the concert that much more special," he explains. "It's a responsibility that we take with care. Our goal is to give a heartfelt performance that communicates the composer's voice."

Sounds like the pressure is on.

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