Kent Tritle was born and raised in Spirit Lake, Iowa, a town of 4,000, and attended the Universities of South Dakota and Iowa as well as Stephens College before arriving at Juilliard, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in organ and a master’s in organ and choral conducting. He’s been on the Juilliard faculty since 1996 and is also the organist of the New York Philharmonic, the director of choral activities at the Manhattan School of Music, the music director for the Oratorio Society of New York and Musica Sacra, and the director of Music at St Ignatius Loyola Church on Park Avenue. His new radio show, The Choral Mix With Kent Tritle, debuted in December on WQXR 105.9 FM.
When did you first know you wanted to be a musician and how did you come to know it?
I grew up in a musical family. Mom played the piano, Dad sang and played the trumpet and some piano, and we grew up singing together and making music around the piano. I started to play by ear at about 4 years old. Mom tried to give me piano lessons, but I hated the little black dots, which to me were the most unmusical symbols! I later learned to read, but Mom taught me surreptitiously during that time.
Who was the teacher or mentor who most inspired you when you were growing up and what did you learn from that person?
First, my mother. Then a whole bunch of people; my high school Spanish teacher taught me about leadership, as did my father. I had an amazing choral teacher in high school who turned me on to choral music and its potential. I had a great band director. And Sharon Parriott was my organ teacher. She took me all over Iowa to workshops, clinics, and camps to encourage my study of classical pipe organ.
What was the first recording that you remember hearing or buying?
The musical-theater recordings of Oklahoma and Mary Poppins. My brother and I used to dance and sing to those recordings in our living room. We also had the Reader’s Digest recording of Great Marches & Waltzes—those were some of my first introductions to classical music. Later I would hear my first E. Power Biggs recording of the great organs of Europe, along with a Walter Carlos recording, Switched-on-Bach, and I was smitten. Bach organ music was my love!
What’s the most embarrassing moment you’ve had as a performer?
There have been many! But one particularly interesting moment was with the New York Philharmonic in 1987. I was playing for the Brooklyn Boys Chorus in Britten’s War Requiem, which sang from the third tier of Avery Fisher Hall. (I ended up conducting as well as accompanying them while Mstislav Rostropovich conducted the orchestra—and the overall performance). On the second night, Maestro R. turned from the stage across the vast space to direct our entrance, down my hand went to the organ—and absolutely no sound came out! A quick check of the stops showed they were on, and then I realized that one of the boys had kicked the plug out of the wall. This in front of 2,700 people! So I slammed the plug into the wall, while all the while Maestro R.’s face reflected the horror of having no sound at his downbeat. The audience heard a slow swoop as the bellows engaged, from the lowest note up to the high C of the boys’ entrance. I brought in the boys, having saved the day, and Maestro R. turned back to the orchestra in disgust. But I will never forget the compassion of the Avery Fisher Hall stagehands!
What would people be surprised to know about you?
A lot of what I know about working with people I learned from raising and training horses! I also played 10 years of summer stock and played in a rock band; a highlight of that experience was playing for a high school prom, during which our flame tube malfunctioned. It was double loaded, and when it finally burst, during “Stairway to Heaven,” flames went up to the ceiling and across the top of the gymnasium. Too much gunpowder.
If your students could only remember one thing from your teaching, what would you want it to be?
That music is a means of communication and finding what it is that we have to offer the world that is different from everyone else. Tina Turner and Cher are great because they are incomparably unique. I owe that lesson, by the way, to my mentor Albert Fuller, longtime faculty member at Juilliard.
What book are you reading right now?
I’ve enjoyed getting into Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers—it is a brilliant tome about why some people make it out of the box. I highly recommend it!
You have a new radio show—what’s it like working in a new medium?
Learning how my voice and intellect translate into a communicative medium has been really exciting. I also believe that this presents a unique and important opportunity to tell the world about our extraordinary choral activity in New York City. Believe it or not, most of the world does not appreciate the level of choral artistry that exists here. I hope to help correct that. I am so very proud of my colleagues here, and expect to champion their tireless commitment to choral music.
If you weren’t in the career you are in, what would you be?