News & Reviews


Israel in Egypt
By Derek Greten-Harrison
June 2011
Opera News

Handel’s Israel in Egypt shares several characteristics with his ubiquitous masterpiece Messiah: both works are Biblical oratorios in English, scored for chorus and soloists. However, while Messiah features numerous star solo turns that contrast sharply with the choral movements, Israel in Egypt finds the role of the soloists drastically reduced, with extended stretches of choral singing the norm. Handel compensated for this focal shift in the latter work by substantially varying the choral writing in both mood and texture; the choruses based on the Plagues of Egypt are particularly vivid in this regard, as they successfully strive to create distinct “pictures” of the plagues through purely musical means. Because of the substantial demands made of the choral forces, however, a performance of the work cannot be truly satisfying without a superb chorus to sing it.

Musica Sacra’s February 23 presentation of Israel in Egypt at Carnegie Hall was given in two parts (Handel’s original version consisted of three parts), preceded by the overture from Handel’s Solomon. The thirty-two-voice chorus produced a polished, even sound across its four/eight parts (many of the choruses are scored for double choir), with tight ensemble and crisp diction. Highlights included a deliciously playful realization of the plague of flies and lice; still, glassy vocalism depicting darkness covering the land; and the aurally convincing drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. The rapid-fire choral coloratura in the final movement was exemplary in its speed, accuracy and synchronicity. One downside throughout the performance, however, was the somewhat underpowered soprano section. Though ethereal in the often stratospherically high tessitura and beautifully blended as a group, these ten ladies were unable to produce an adequately powerful sound for the work’s climactic moments.

The evening’s six soloists were strong overall. Soprano Leslie Fagan sang effortlessly, with clear, shimmering tone, while chorus member Kathryn Lewek — filling in on short notice for ailing soprano Jamet Pittman — added her round, sensuous voice to Fagan’s in a gorgeous duet, the two voices blending together ideally in both color and artistry. Also first-rate in an extensive duet was bass Kevin Deas, who possesses a beautifully even and controlled voice of velvety richness. Partnering him was baritone Tyler Duncan, singing vigorously but perhaps a bit too much so…

Kent Tritle conducted energetically, with clear, often poetic gestures, but there were times when he seemed to be asking for more volume than the modest-sized chorus could provide. The orchestra’s spirited, fine-tuned playing was first-rate.

Musica Sacra Performs Handel’s ‘Israel in Egypt’
By Nemanja Rebic

March 1, 2011
The Epoch Times

NEW YORK—New Yorkers had the opportunity to enjoy a great musical feast, prepared by Musica Sacra in Carnegie Hall’s Isaac Stern auditorium on the Ronald O. Perelman stage this Feb. 23. They performed one of Handel’s greatest oratorios, one which might even be called a church anthem, his Israel in Egypt.

This two-part oratorio was brilliantly performed under the guidance of Musica Sacra’s musical director and conductor Kent Tritle. The marvelous precision of the orchestra matched the beautiful expression of the choir and six soloists: soprano Leslie Fagan, soprano Jamet Pittman [due to illness, soprano Kathryn Lewek replaced Ms. Pittman], mezzo-soprano Charlotte Daw Paulsen, tenor Oliver Mercer, baritone Tyler Duncan, and bass Kevin Deas.

The sound of the music was just mesmerizing owing first to the fine acoustics of Carnegie Hall and second to the delicacy with which Musica Sacra captured the dynamics and sonic quality of the Baroque form and style.

‘Israel in Egypt’

Best known for his Messiah and Water Music, George Frederic Handel was born in the German city of Halle in 1685, the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach.

Handel started writing Israel in Egypt in the fall of 1738 and it premiered in April 1739 at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket in London.

The theme of this oratorio comes from the Old Testament’s Book of Moses, which tells of the timeless conflict between righteousness and evil, between the persecuted and the persecutor, and of the steadfast faith in a higher power. In fact, Handel used many Bible passages for the vocal parts.

”It is Handel’s most choral of all oratorios, and as such, is a true feature of our professional chorus,” said Kent Tritle.

Given the recent changes in Egypt, the piece has a special resonance. ”I think this timing is extraordinary. The history of human rights in Egypt is tremendously interesting and Israel in Egypt connects today’s events with historical context,” he said.

Musica Sacra

Musica Sacra was founded by Richard Westenburg in 1964. “He had a great love for the sacred classical choral canon, which was underperformed in New York concert halls and also the city had room for a superior professional chorus to present this repertoire,” said Tritle.

Musica Sacra is dedicated to present the highest caliber performances of great choral masterworks and also educating the audiences about different eras and styles of classical music. It has a wide ranging repertoire—from the earliest of the Gregorian chants, the motets, cantatas, passions, and B Minor Mass of Bach, the masses of Mozart and Haydn, the Requiems of Mozart and Brahms, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms to commissioned works of modern composers such as Benjamin Britten, Dave Brubeck, Alessandro Cadario, David Diamond, Robert Convery, Aram Khatchaturian, and Ned Rorem.

Also, Musica Sacra has performed Handel’s Messiah annually since 1976. Most recently they performed it at Carnegie Hall this past December.

Their next and final concert of the 2010-2011 season will be performed on May 13 at Alice Tully Hall. It will be a program of works of living composers that they will record for commercial CD release this summer.

A Pharaonic Smackdown as Envisioned by Handel
By James Oestreich

February 25, 2011
The New York Times

Once again, an Egyptian oppressor has fallen on dark times. In Handel’s grand oratorio “Israel in Egypt,” it is the God of the Israelites who wreaks vengeance on the enslaving pharaoh, with no need of Facebook or Twitter. But recent events added a certain immediacy to Handel’s vivid recounting of the biblical plagues visited on Egypt, when the Musica Sacra Chorus and Orchestra, directed by Kent Tritle, performed the work at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday evening.

In that sense, this presentation had an advantage over the excellent performance of the oratorio by the Trinity Choir, conducted by Julian Wachner, only last October. It had another advantage over the Trinity outing, and almost any other church performance, in the transparency of Carnegie’s acoustics.

With 32 fine choristers and 26 orchestra players, the forces were just big enough to make a consistent impact in the large hall, if never an overwhelming one. And it was a particular pleasure to hear the interweaving lines and individual words in the choruses and double choruses play off one another with such clarity.

The chorus is all-important in this work, painting most of the pictures, exclaiming in repeated awe at God’s fearsome powers. Though the score calls for six soloists, few have much to do.

Two basses appear merely to sing a duet: a beauty to be sure, “The Lord is a man of war,” sung here with suitable, slightly untamed force by Tyler Duncan (actually a baritone) and Kevin Deas. The alto part is the most richly stocked, with two airs and a duet, and the mezzo-soprano Charlotte Daw Paulsen sang with her usual deep, dark-chocolate tone, perhaps more appropriate to “Thou shalt bring them in” than to that most lovable and unassuming of plagues, “Their land brought forth frogs.”

Professional groups like Musica Sacra often draw soloists from the chorus, as the Trinity Choir did to good effect. And in the end, Musica Sacra had to pull a soprano, Kathryn Lewek, from the chorus as a late replacement in a duet. The other soloists were Leslie Fagan, a soprano, and Oliver Mercer, a tenor.

“Israel in Egypt” has long been presented in a truncated two-part form, which — shorn of a first section, setting the scene of a happier time in Egypt under King Joseph — begins in midstream with the tenor recitative “Now there arose a new king over Egypt.” Some conductors, including Mr. Wachner, have restored that opening, only recently made widely available.

Mr. Tritle settled for a half-measure, opening with Handel’s “Solomon” Overture to evoke a peaceable kingdom more generically. Here’s one vote, now that we know the full version, to keep it.

andel’s Israel in Egypt listing from The New York Times:

“This exceptional choral group, known for “Messiah” performances that stand out among the December glut, brings its full-bodied sound and crisp, lively orchestra to another vividly colorful Handel oratorio, “Israel in Egypt,” under the vibrant direction of its music director, Kent Tritle.”

Tradition Made Nimble, Marked by Buoyant Pulse
By Vivien Schweitzer
December 23, 2010
The New York Times

“How do you like your ‘Messiah’?” should be the refrain of December, when Handel’s perennially popular work is served in interpretations catering to every taste, from rich and indulgent to lean and lithe.

Musica Sacra, said to be the longest continuously performing professional chorus in New York, adheres to the trim aesthetic and offers a lean but wholly satisfying rendition. Kent Tritle, its music director, led the group’s annual “Messiah” concert at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday evening, fresh from conducting the work on Monday at Carnegie with the Oratorio Society of New York (of which he is also music director).

Musica Sacra follows period practice traditions regarding tempos and ornamentation. The orchestra performed beautifully throughout the evening, with transparent textures, a buoyant pulse and expressive phrasing. Its spry and nuanced playing, both soft-spoken and dramatic in turns, was aptly matched by the fleet, cleanly enunciated and radiant singing of the chorus, which performed with immaculate flair in the runs in “For unto us a child is born” and elsewhere. The group’s dynamic shadings added to the effects throughout, as with vivid contrasts in “Glory to God” and gentle pianissimos in “Since by man came death.”

The soloists included the excellent soprano Jennifer Zetlan, who wielded her silvery voice to admirable effect. Her fluid ornamentation and shining top notes were particularly striking in sections like “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion.” The tenor Colin Balzer sang with warmth and conviction. The countertenor Ian Howell stood in for Matthew Shaw, who withdrew because of illness. Mr. Howell sang expressively and projected well in his upper register, although he sometimes sounded wan in his lower register. The baritone Tyler Duncan delivered the texts with a powerful voice and dramatic conviction, enunciating the words with appropriate bite. The energetic applause after “The trumpet shall sound” was merited by both Mr. Duncan’s passionate singing and the vibrant playing of the trumpeter Scott McIntosh.

It was presumably the oratorio’s length, not displeasure with the performance, that prompted a small exodus toward the exits during the “Hallelujah!” chorus. As is customary, most of the audience stood during that section. Those who remained awarded the musicians a hearty ovation after the conclusion.

“Messiah” at Carnegie Hall
By Howard Kissel
December 22, 2010
The Cultural Tourist (New York Daily News)

From the sublime way tenor Colin Balzer sustained the word “comfort” in the opening aria of Handel’s “Messiah,” performed by Musica Sacra Tuesday and again tonight at Carnegie Hall, I knew this was going to be a special performance, and it was.

This holiday season, perhaps because I have a new liver and a new life, I have fairly saturated myself with “Messiah,” starting with a performance of its most famous piece that has been making the rounds on YouTube. In it a group of choristers planted in a food court in some mall (I believe in Canada) sing the Hallelujah Chorus for surprised but delighted shoppers, some of whom join in. Something about hearing the noble music with the Arby’s logo in the background is kind of exciting.

As I do every Christmas I have been listening to numerous recordings: an especially vibrant recent one conducted by Rene Jacobs; my favorite, the Robert Shaw version of 40-odd years ago, and even the thoroughly souped-up Thomas Beecham version of 50-odd years ago.

One might think having heard the piece so often so recently would have made me immune to its charms, but the way Kent Tritle, Musica Sacra’s music director and conductor, presented it made it seem even more fresh and vital than ever.

Musica Sacra has a small chamber orchestra with great soloists and particularly brlliant strings. The lightness of the instrumentation gives the score a buoyancy, a bounciness a far cry from the solemnity with which it is often presented.

We do well to remember that when Handel began composing oratorios it was not because of a religious conversion. It had to do with the London box office. Londoners were tiring of his Italian operas, which, with their elaborate stage mechanisms and imported castrati, were expensive to produce and highly unprofitable, even with subsidies from the aristocrats whose pretentions they flattered.

Oratorios, with their religious overtones, appealed to a burgeoning middle-class audience. The overhead was minimal, since they required no scenery (and no highly paid stars.) Like many composers of the 18th century, Handel, though he had his noble patrons, was dependent on commercial success to maintain the high life he enjoyed. “Messiah” was first presented as a charity benefit in Dublin in 1742, but the subsequent performances in Londonfor the remaining 17 years of Handel’s life, were intended to put bread on the table. And they did!

This digression is a way of complimenting Tritle on the dramatic intensity of this “Messiah.” Yes, the music is lofty, but it also has an earthy power and appeal. One might say the chamber orchestra keeps its fighting weight low and intensely fit.

Another thing about oratorios is the weight placed on the chorus – which is as important if not moreso than the soloists. The Musica Sacra chorus is splendid. There is a particular joyousness, my companion Glenn Young and I agreed, in its sopranos. But the whole body is supremely disciplined and expert. They achieved an unearthly stillness in the lines, “Since by man came death” and an expected jubilation in the Hallelujah Chorus and the glorious final “Amen.” The lightness of thier “And we like sheep” almost made it seem like a nifty dance tune, which i think the composer would have been happy to hear.

Soprano Jennifer Zetlan has a voice of great purity. She sang with great eloquence. Countertenor Ian Howell, replacing an ill Matthew Shaw, has a rich voice, capable of great dramatic force. Baritone Tyler Duncan has a lighter voice than one often hears in these pieces, but it worked brilliantly in “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” with the spectacular trumpet playing by Scott McIntosh.

As I indicated earlier tenor Colin Balzer seems to have a special gift for this music — his singing brought forth all its spiritual depth.

“Messiah” is nearly 300 years old. Unlike many pieces of its time — Handel’s operas, for example — it has never been out of fashion. It is one of the few pieces of classical music known by a large part of the population that has no knowledge — or even interest — in classical music. The word divine, alas, has a camp quality that undermines its literal meaning. But if you want to understand what that literal meaning is, you have another chance at Carnegie Hall tonight.

Transcendental Etudes
By Harold Rolnick
July 19, 2010

(From a longer review of the July 19, 2010 Lincoln Center Festival program, Varèse: (R)evolution. Click here to read the review in its entirety.)

Analogous to this was the Etude pour Espace, never finished by Varèse, but here re-orchestrated with choir and soprano, by Chou Wen-chung, who was in the audience. 
This was the first time I had heard the music, and again I had to revel. Not so much in Varèse’s orchestration as the Musica Sacra choir. Whether he meant to or not, much of the vocal music reflected 14th Century Burgundian church music: the major-fifth harmonies, and the unison lines with trombones resonating like choirs in Notre-Dame or Chartres. I could not believe how Varèse (or Mr. Chou) could bring together the most advanced composer of the 20th Century seamlessly with that of the earliest Church music.

Reigning for Ever and Ever, Gloriously
By Anthony Tommasini
The New York Times
December 23, 2009

We are in the midst of the holiday season, which means ubiquitous performances of Handel’s “Messiah” in New York and beyond. Some pieces suffer the burden of their popularity badly. Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” tops my list of such works.

But Handel’s “Messiah” bears its overexposure amazingly well. Even in routine performances, the piece gives audiences pleasure. When presented with musical skill and stylistic insight, as it was on Monday night at Carnegie Hall by the Musica Sacra Chorus and Orchestra, the “Messiah,” for all its familiarity, emerges once again as a work of utter distinction.

The concert, the first of two on consecutive nights, was led by the eminent choral music conductor Kent Tritle, who became music director of Musica Sacra last year when its beloved founder, Richard Westenburg, died. Mr. Tritle has repeatedly demonstrated that there is no one way to perform the “Messiah.” As director of the Oratorio Society of New York, an ensemble of some 200 dedicated avocational singers, Mr. Tritle had conducted the “Messiah” at Carnegie Hall just a week earlier, the society’s 136th annual performance.

On Monday, with the select 32 members of the Musica Sacra chorus and a chamber orchestra of experienced players, Mr. Tritle conducted an impressively transparent and vibrant “Messiah.” He has worked extensively in the early-music movement. Yet there was no interpretive agenda evident here. The tempos tended to be fleet and the textures clear. But from the first phrases of the orchestral sinfonia that begins the piece, played with crisp but unexaggerated articulation of the dotted-note rhythms, the music-making was beguilingly natural.

The choristers sang with full-bodied and admirably unforced sound. The robust basses never bellowed. The radiant sopranos sang effortlessly when lines soared above the staff — for example, the joyous “And the glory of the Lord.” In the extended choruses when Handel conveys the drama of the narrative through complex contrapuntal writing, like the fraught “Let us break their bonds asunder,” the choristers deftly dispatched the intricate vocal lines, thick with 16th-note passagework and leaping intervals.

Mr. Tritle had four strong vocal soloists. Though the soprano Julianne Baird sometimes sounded tight in her upper register, she is an admired exponent of early music and sang with focused sound and grace. The lyric tenor William Ferguson combined tenderness and appealing impetuosity in his arias. During the exuberant “Trumpet shall sound,” the stentorian bass Kevin Deas sang the repeated “the dead shall be raised incorruptible” and “we shall be changed” with such prophetic vigor that the prospect seemed almost terrifying.

And Anthony Roth Costanzo, a young countertenor who sang the alto arias, had a great night and won a big ovation. His sweet voice carried well. He sang the words clearly and was unfazed by ornate passagework. He is an artist of promise.

Following tradition, almost everyone in the audience that packed the hall stood up during the “Hallelujah” chorus. It amused me that quite a few people who stood with such participatory zeal during this chorus, which ends Part 2, headed for the exits before Part 3. The “Messiah” is a long piece. But for most of the audience, including me, the time sped by during Musica Sacra’s exceptional performance.

A Decisive Bach Moment, Delivered With Drama
The New York Times
October 25, 2008

A crucial moment in Bach’s “St. John Passion,” toward the end of Part 1, has been made more vital in recent years by charges of anti-Semitism against John, if not Bach. Were the Jews to blame for the murder of Jesus, as some of John’s words seem to suggest?

“Who has struck you so, my Salvation, and beat you up so badly,” asks the first verse of a Lutheran chorale, in a translation by Michael Marissen, the author of the book “Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism and Bach’s ‘St. John Passion.’ ” The second answers, “I, I and my sins, which are as the grains of sand on the seashore.”

And the moment was stunning in Kent Tritle’s performance of the Passion with Musica Sacra at the Rose Theater on Wednesday evening. Mr. Tritle, who became music director of this venerable institution after the death of its founder, Richard Westenburg, in February, has carried on Mr. Westenburg’s recent practice of supplementing the 32-voice Musica Sacra Chorus in the chorales with a chorale choir, here 155 additional voices surrounding the stage in the first balcony and circling the auditorium in the second. The effect was to pull the audience into the performance, though still leaving it a step short of singing along, as a congregation would have in Bach’s time.

Mr. Tritle let the massed chorus sing out in the first verse but pulled it back sharply in the second, as if in sudden, dumbstruck recognition of the real source of the guilt: “I, I and my sins.” Here was eloquent support of Mr. Marissen’s arguments absolving Bach of those charges, if not, entirely, John.

But neither was John a patsy here. In fact, Rufus Müller, born in Kent, England, and described on his Web site,, as a British-German tenor, gave the strongest theatrical performance of a Bach Evangelist that I have encountered, and one of the most musical. That he sang the long, taxing and tortuous role without a score was itself remarkable, the more so since he undoubtedly has the Evangelist role of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” similar and yet subtly different, banging around in his head too.

A fleeting slip was a small price to pay for a feat of memory that gave Mr. Müller unusual freedom to engage the audience fully as well as the other characters onstage. He seemed almost as much in command of the proceedings as Mr. Tritle was, and their partnership was utterly compelling.

Among the other vocal soloists, the lower voices were the standouts. Matt Boehler’s performance as Jesus conveyed full measures of affronted innocence and wounded dignity, if not the ultimate in warmth. That was provided by Tyler Duncan in the bass Arioso, “Betrachte, meine Seel” (“Ponder, my soul”). He was also fine as Pilate and in the other bass numbers; he could not quite muster the depth and agility needed for the aria “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seele” (“Hurry, you besieged souls”), but then, few can.

Mr. Tritle gave the excellent Musica Sacra Chorus full and exciting scope, notwithstanding current arguments in favor of minimalist Bach choruses. The group has obviously landed in expert hands, and if Mr. Tritle can bring the Music Sacra Orchestra to a similar level, the organization will have a new lease on life.

Musica Sacra’s next performances, of Handel’s “Messiah,” are on Dec. 22 and 23 at Carnegie Hall; (212) 247-7800,

To read the original article at click here.

For a Beloved Conductor, Bach’s Monument of Music
By Anthony Tommasini
The New York Times
April 10, 2008

In the months before his death in February, at 75, the renowned choral conductor Richard Westenburg, who founded the estimable Musica Sacra Chorus and Orchestra in 1964, was still hoping to conduct the performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor that took place on Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall. Though grappling with colon cancer, Mr. Westenburg kept playing through the score from beginning to end in his mind, as Kent Tritle, Mr. Westenburg’s former student, close colleague and handpicked successor as music director of Musica Sacra, wrote in a program note.

It fell to Mr. Tritle to conduct the ensemble in Bach’s monumental Mass on Tuesday. The performance was dedicated to the memory of Mr. Westenburg. As an additional tribute, the insightful program notes that Mr. Westenburg wrote for his last performance of the Mass with Musica Sacra in 2001 were reprinted in the program booklet.

As Mr. Westenburg explains in the essay, during the last decade of his life Bach “brought together his only complete setting of the text of the Mass.” There is no evidence that the Mass was performed complete during Bach’s lifetime, he adds. But the insight most salient to the performance was Mr. Westenburg’s call for musicians today to find a balance of historical knowledge, intuition and practicality in presenting this astounding score. Like Mr. Westenburg, Mr. Tritle, best known as the director of music ministries at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue, balances informed knowledge of the history and performance practices of the Baroque era with savvy practicality.

With a roster of 41 choristers and 27 orchestra players, Mr. Tritle set the tone for this reverent, vibrantly realized performance of Bach’s daunting score in the first Kyrie chorus. Often conductors cannot resist milking the anguished opening chords for maximum impact. Here, true to the text (“Lord, have mercy upon us”), the music came across as a full-voiced, respectful and slightly hesitant plea. That attitude of poignant urgency was maintained as the complex movement continued. It was not from amassed volume, but through the steady pileup of contrapuntal voices in the climax of the Kyrie that the power of the prayerful music registered. Surely hearing the sheer multiplicity of voices, the good Lord would have to heed this soulful plea.

Throughout the performance here were excellent, well-rehearsed and self-effacing musicians presenting one of the monuments of music. Though the Gloria swept by in a joyous triple meter, the chorus and orchestra played with articulate clarity. During the animated “Cum Sancto Spiritu” chorus that concludes the Gloria, the spiraling lines of elaborate 16th-note passage work sounded like large swaths of shifting, pulsating, almost Impressionistic harmonies.

The vocal soloists did honorable work in the arias: the soprano Jamet Pittman, the countertenor Michael Chance, the tenor Jonathan Goodman and the bass Kevin Deas.

Mr. Westenburg would surely have been pleased.

Click here to read the original article at

With Vigor Once Again, Only a Little Bit Different
By Allan Kozinn
The New York Times
December 21, 2007

If you walked past Carnegie Hall early this week, you would have seen posters announcing performances of Handel’s “Messiah” on either side of the main entrance. One advertised the annual reading by the Oratorio Society of New York, on Tuesday evening. The other was for the version by the highly regarded Musica Sacra on Wednesday and Friday. Both listed the same conductor, Kent Tritle.

For the Oratorio Society, which Mr. Tritle has directed since 2006, that was always the plan. But Musica Sacra was to have been led by Richard Westenburg, who founded it nearly 40 years ago. When Mr. Westenburg withdrew because of illness, the group turned to Mr. Tritle, its associate conductor. (He also directs Sacred Music in a Sacred Space at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, where he led performances of “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” last weekend.)

It would be silly to suggest that Mr. Tritle’s stint as Mr. Westenburg’s deputy included conducting “Messiah” as Mr. Westenburg would have. Yet Mr. Westenburg’s influence was clear in Mr. Tritle’s preference for brisk but fluid tempos and transparent textures. The textures, in any case, are largely Mr. Westenburg’s creation. With a taste for the robust, grandly scaled “Messiah” performances of an earlier time, but also with an ear cocked in the direction of the early-music world and its discoveries, he made Musica Sacra a relatively compact group, with 34 singers and 27 instrumentalists.

The group can produce enormous power, but it did so sparingly on Wednesday: in the “Hallelujah” chorus, for example, and at the start of “Worthy Is the Lamb.” But its real drawing card is its focused, trim sound, which puts the choral texts consistently in high relief and keeps Handel’s vivid, painterly orchestration – the flames of the refiner’s fire, the raging of the nations – equally lithe.

Mr. Tritle’s most interesting interpretive touches included expanding the contrast between the ebullient first line of “Glory to God” and the calm rejoinder, “and peace on earth,” and having several of the choruses – “He Trusted in God” and “Lift Up Your Heads,” for example – rendered with crisp, almost clipped articulation.

The soloists provided a few surprises as well. In “Comfort Ye,” instead of filling in sustained notes with modest embellishments, as most tenors do, Rufus Müller simply varied the dynamics, first building to a fortissimo, then pulling back to almost a whisper. It was an unusual but striking approach. He used flexible dynamics elsewhere too, though not usually in place of ornamentation. He also brought an appealing, centered timbre to the tenor arias.

Leslie Fagan was more adventurous in her embellishments and took a few risks as well, soaring fleetingly into an upper range where she was slightly underpowered. Mostly, though, she gave “How Beautiful Are the Feet of Them” and “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” with the dignified grace they require.

Ian Howell, the countertenor (filling in for David Walker, who was ill), has a lovely sound that grew in strength and confidence through the evening. The bass-baritone, Benjamin Clements, has an attractively light timbre but an unfortunate tendency to swallow the text. And Dominic Derasse gave a zesty reading of the solo trumpet line in “The Trumpet Shall Sound.”

A ‘Messiah’ With Silvery Sopranos, Flowing Lines and No Bombast
The New York Times
December 23, 2006

You could say that the stylistic measureof Handel’s “Messiah” lies in one of its soloists: the contralto. Inthe early 20th century the part was the province of doughty dames like ClaraButtor Ernestine Schumann-Heink, well-upholstered figures with stentorianvoices. At Musica Sacra’s ‘Messiah’ on Wednesday at Carnegie Hall, it was taken by Ryland Angel, a countertenor with the voice of a grown British choirboy,light and sweet and angelically clarion, and ever so slightly mischievous.

This sound quality set the tone for aperformance that was as light and bright and dry as Champagne. Richard Westenburg, the group’s music director, brought a lithe reading characterizedby silvery sopranos, flowing lines and no bombast at all, even when timpani andtrumpets (fine work here by Raymond Mase) came into play. The booming bassphrase “And peace on earth” in the chorus “Glory to God”was simply melodic, not hammered.

The entrance of the soprano soloist,Judith Pannill, in “He shall feed his flock” was a smoothcontinuation of the countertenor’s line, rather than evoking, as it so oftendoes, a game of poker. (“I’ll see your line, and raise it.”) Even the”Hallelujah” chorus was springy and light, as Mr. Westenburg movedbouncily around the stage, wearing evening clothes, a red carnation and blacksneakers.

The chorus, 34 members strong, sang withcrisp nuance, and struck such a balance with the other singers that it seemedlike a fifth and strong soloist. Of the others, Ms. Pannill had a prettyribbon-candy voice, small and sweet and bright, that she couldn’t alwayssustain; the tenor, William Hite, used his light instrument wisely; and theydid not try to force their voices to be more than they were. Richard Zeller,the baritone, exuded a warm fog of sound. As for the contralto: I have always hada personal preference for using a woman for this part. But Mr. Angel showed that casting a countertenor can make sense.

Click here to read the original article at


“Musica Sacra…just this side of perfection” ~The New York Times

“This chorus is easily the best in this city if not in the country…” ~The New York Daily News

“The composer could not have asked for a more elegant performance.” ~The New York Post

“Musica Sacra’s last concert was all gold” ~The Village Voice

“… Mr. Westenburg clearly paid attention to the sense of the words: the ways, for example in which the incarnation and crucifixion are portrayed in sound. He also relished the contrasts provided by a full-scale chorus and the use of trumpets; there were times when there was an exuberant thrill to the sound… And by the end of the [B Minor] Mass there was no question that something was being said with conviction and faith. That can make a greater difference than almost any performance practice.” ~The New York Times

“Westenburg is one of the great choral conductors of our time. His Musica Sacra singers are outstanding, every word not only understood but crafted.” ~The Star-Ledger

“Conceivably [Bach’s St. Matthew Passion] has the most thrilling opera libretto ever written, and Westenburg’s forces performed with all the drama that could be wrung from it. The orchestra and the choral singing… were technically flawless, often incredibly wide-ranging in tone and almost demonically inspired.” ~The New York Daily News

“The Musica Sacra Chorus, twenty-four strong, met the challenge. It is an expert body. Its tuning was impeccable. The harmonies sounded without fuzz. Words were clear, rhythms precise.” ~The New Yorker

“Endearingly, Richard Westenburg’s annual presentation of Handel’s `Messiah’ with the Musica Sacra Chorus and Orchestra appears to resist the dead hand of routine….The interpretation seemed freshly imagined: lively, spontaneous and often unpredictable…” ~The New York Times

“It’s a joy to hear the Musica Sacra chorus…it’s a sound that could change one’s perception of choral singing forever.” ~The Record

“…It’s no secret now that every member of Musica Sacra, whether singer or instrumentalist, is a first-desk performer. The chorus is easily the best in this city if not in the country, while every member of the orchestra is a virtuoso player.” ~The New York Daily News

“There are period-instrument ensembles and choruses that favor fleet tempos, crisp rhythms and light textures; and modern-instrument ensembles that value full-bodied choral sound and richer orchestral textures. Richard Westenburg’s performance… combined the best aspects of both approaches. His work was informed by qualities that are prized in period-instrument groups. The orchestral playing was lithe, articulate and rhythmically incisive. The modest-sized chorus (35 singers) kept the contrapuntal textures clear; yet the choral sound was resonant and unforced… At the same time, in the manner of modern-instrument interpretations going back to Thomas Beecham, Mr. Westenburg conducted a spacious, richly textured performance.” ~The New York Times

“Mr. Westenburg’s highly professional ensemble performed the complex program with precision. [His] approach incorporated modern means in search of an older style. The famous [Christ lag in Todesbanden] elaborations were as beautiful as ever.” ~The New York Times

“Nothing was bland; the composers were Hildegard von Bingen, Meredith Monk, and Libby Larsen… I found it [Hildegard] chantingly beautiful, directly emotional in swift responses to text and shrewdly spaced for antiphonals. Six pieces demonstrated the superb tone, balance, and diction of Westenburg’s 16 choristers… Musica Sacra’s last concert, June 15, was all gold. Gregorio Allegri… was richly served with a dramatically performed Miserere… Magnificent performances of masterpieces by Monteverdi and Bach, including the latter’s Christ lag cantata, completed the concert.” ~The Village Voice