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Choral conductor Kent Tritle takes us into his classical career


  • Photo: Brian Hatton

  • Photo: Jennifer Taylor

Kent Tritle’s resume reads like a greatest hits list of the musical havens that fill Manhattan: He is the director of music at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, director of choral activities at the Manhattan School of Music, an organist at the New York Philharmonic, a faculty member at Juilliard and the music director of professional chorus Musica Sacra.

Growing up on a farm in northwest Iowa, he was raised in a musical family that sang together around the piano and at church, experiences that would ultimately shape his career as one of the nation’s leading choral conductors. In 1982, he came to New York to attend Juilliard and vividly remembers seeing the fountain at Lincoln Center for the first time. “I thought, oh man, that’s my campus, and it’s been my campus ever since,” he said.

On October 22, Tritle will play the organ at Sacred Music in a Sacred Space, a concert series he started while he was choral director at Saint Ignatius Loyola. The organ holds a special place in his heart as he was an integral part of getting it built. The largest tracker-action pipe organ in the New York metropolitan area, it weighs 30 tons and stands at 45 feet high, with 55,000 parts.

What was your experience like at Juilliard? What do you teach there now?

Juilliard was a very different school than it is now. Today, it has tremendous financial assistance for its students, particularly the student life functions are completely different. In those days, there was no housing. My feeling about it was it was like a very high-class trade school. It didn’t really matter how you made your money or how you got along. You had to walk in those doors, perform at a very high level, and then go fend for yourself. I am very delighted to watch Juilliard become something quite different now. And I am on the faculty and very proud of what has happened there. I teach a graduate elective in the vocal arts department. It’s what we call a “oratorio practicum.” Oratorio is that genre of classical music which is Mozart’s “Requiem,” Handel’s “Messiah,” Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.” That’s something I ended up specializing in. I fell headlong into this classical music world, never knowing that this is what would happen and this is where I’d be spending my life.

What did your job entail at Saint Ignatius Loyola?

I started there in 1989 and it was a one-horse show. We built the program from scratch. I added an assistant and built a professional choir, a children’s chorus and volunteer choir. And then the concert series and then we put in the organ in 1993, which is just amazing.

You were instrumental in getting that organ into the church. Why were you so passionate about it?

The place was completely sleepy, in my experience, so we started these concerts. When I walked in, we had an electronic organ on its last legs. So as we were building a program and there was enthusiasm coming around, with the help of the pastor then, we envisioned what actually could happen there. And then one day, we had an amazing donor inquire about what we could do about the organ, so I presented this idea. And we were able to make this thing happen. It was groundbreaking and had everything to do with the fact that the room’s acoustic was so fantastic that if we put in a fantastic organ, it would create a really unique situation for the tri-state area. I mean, the organ is renowned around the worl ... it’s a mechanical action instrument. So it’s built in the way organs were built up until the turn of the last century, before they started going crazy with electronics and placing different parts of the organ in different parts of the room. In that regard, it’s a highly desired instrument and has a really unique place. I was able to go through the process to determine the organ builder and the scope of the instrument, and then work with the organ builder on the design and installation. And then see it happen and continue to live with it for almost 20 years, before I left and went to Saint John the Divine.

Describe your role at Saint John the Divine and what the cathedral is like.

It’s an amazing place. When I was back at Juilliard, I would go up to Saint John the Divine for my Sunday evening escape. You can go to a service there, now it’s at 4 o’clock on Sunday evenings, and sit in the choir stalls and imagine that you’re in Europe because you’re in this Gothic and Romanesque space. It looms very large in imagination of New Yorkers and is many things to many different people. And working there, as a part of that fabric, is a real trip and incredible experience. On October 1st, we’ll have our feast of Saint Francis where we’ll have 2,000 people in there for this service. It has Paul Winter, a famous soprano saxophone jazz artist, with a choir of 220 and a modern dance ensemble and a West African dance ensemble. And at the end, a procession of animals. We’ve been able to build up the music program to a level of excellence that I think it hadn’t had in decades and we’re very proud to be a part of what it is. It was chartered as a house of prayer for all people and so while it’s an Episcopal cathedral, it’s very broad in its embrace.

What’s a memorable moment that stands out from your career?

There are so many memorable things, but the first thing that jumps to mind was the funeral of Jackie Onassis. We did it at Saint Ignatius. I conducted the whole thing and at the last minute, we learned that it was being broadcast around the world. We built the program and it was operating at a very high level and you felt like everything we had done up to that moment was to prepare us for that. And it really taught me an awful lot about why we do what we do. It was a tremendous honor to be able to work with the family and be a part of that moment.

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