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A stained glass window in the Notre Dame de la Paix (Our Lady of Peace) basilica in Yamoussourkro, Ivory Coast.
A stained glass window in the Notre Dame de la Paix (Our Lady of Peace) basilica in Yamoussourkro, Ivory Coast. Sia Kambou/Getty Images
One of the musical staples of every Christmas season is George Frederic Handel's Messiah. The 1742 oratorio is performed in churches and concert halls by amateurs and professionals, with big groups and chamber ensembles. There are even singalong performances.
One musician in New York is involved in three high-profile versions of Messiah every year: Kent Tritle.
Tritle, a conductor and organist, may just be one of the busiest musicians in the city.
"I'm the director of music at St. Ignatius Loyola. I'm the music director of the Oratorio Society of New York. I'm the director of choral activities at the Manhattan School of Music. I'm the music director for Musica Sacra. I'm on the faculty at Juilliard, where I teach a graduate elective," he says, "and I am also the organist of the Philharmonic and the organist of the American Symphony Orchestra."
Because of all his positions, for the last several years, Tritle has found himself at the center of three of the most prestigious annual performances of Messiah in town.
"The first Messiahs that I’m involved in this year are with the New York Philharmonic. Every year a different conductor comes into the Philharmonic. In this role, I'm very much a supporting artist. I'm at the organ continuo," he says. "It's a joyous thing for me, because I get to see somebody else's interpretation and see how all of the performers, whom I respect so much, react to that interpretation."
Even while Tritle rehearses and plays with the Philharmonic, he's preparing for two of his own interpretations of Messiah, which are presented back-to-back at Carnegie Hall. The first is with the Oratorio Society of New York, a 200-voice amateur choir with a very long history.
"Oratorio Society has been performing Messiah in New York every Christmastime since 1874. They were the first, of course, then to do it at Carnegie Hall and have been at Carnegie Hall since it opened in 1891," Tritle says.
In fact, Andrew Carnegie built his famous concert hall so his wife, who sang with the Oratorio Society, would have a place to perform.
On a chilly mid-November evening, the singers have gathered in a church hall for weekly choir practice. Tritle has them work on the text and rhythms, without the notes, and only when he's satisfied with the diction, do they start to sing.
Simon Dratfield, a marketing analyst who's been a member of the Oratorio Society for eight years, says Tritle is one of the best musicians he's ever sung for.
"He constantly finds new things in the music," says Dratfield. "You know, a piece that we've done so many times, we see fresh things in. He's just amazing.”
A few weeks later, Dratfield and the Oratorio Society rehearse with a professional orchestra.
Tritle uses members of the same orchestra for his performances with Musica Sacra, a 32-voice professional choir that sings on the Carnegie Hall stage, the two nights immediately after the Oratorio Society. He has only four rehearsals to get the group ready for its chamber interpretation of Messiah.
"Musica Sacra, as a chorus, is a very kind of elite group," he says. "Conducting the chorus is like driving a Bentley or a Rolls Royce. It's just very smooth. And everything that you do or you ask for is reflected almost immediately."
Margery Daley, who sings soprano in Musica Sacra, says, "I've done the piece, you know, a hundred times, probably, but each conductor brings something to it and has their own ideas. And I love his ideas and I love his energy, when he does it. It's light, but full, at the same time."
As music director of both choruses, conducting Messiah is part of the job for Tritle — and one he relishes.
"We do Messiah because we think it's a fantastic piece, we do it because of tradition," he says. "Traditionally it has also been very financially important for us to do Messiah. People are in the mood. Christmas in New York means Handel Messiah and the tree at Rockefeller Center, so people come to Messiah."
Outside the stage door at Carnegie Hall, after having conducted both the Oratorio Society and Musica Sacra, AND played five performances with the Philharmonic, Tritle still shows a kind of inexhaustible energy.
"Seventh Messiah within eight days! That’s right. It's kinda growing on me. I think I’m starting to learn the piece now, maybe," he laughs. "If I’m lucky, I’ll really get it right tomorrow night!"
But for Tritle, even when he's finished with The Messiah, he's got Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Sunday services to rehearse and perform at St. Ignatius Loyola. And what are his plans for Monday, Dec. 27?
"It'll be a real snooze day. I'm gonna put my feet up and take it easy."