dean applegate

William Byrd Festival preview: auspicious anniversary

As the summer Renaissance music festival celebrates its 20th edition, it continues to expand its scope and audience

Most people know the greatest writer of England’s Renaissance — Shakespeare, of course — but far fewer can name the greatest composer of that time and place. One Portlander who knows all about William Byrd and reveres his music’s artistry and spirituality is Dean Applegate, founder of Portland choir Cantores in Ecclesia. “It’s very spiritually powerful music because of Byrd’s ability to perfectly set the sacred text — word painting,” he says. Considered among the finest of all Renaissance sacred music, it also fit Cantores’ voices perfectly.

Byrd Festival founders Dean Applegate and the late Richard Marlow, at an early planning session.

So in 1998, Applegate decided to put on a couple of concerts featuring Byrd’s “calm, deliberate, gorgeously dense” (in the words of former Oregonian classical music writer David Stabler) music. Consulting pre-eminent Byrd scholar Philip Brett for advice, he enlisted as conductor Richard Marlow, a famous choral conductor from England’s Trinity College, who’d earlier guest-directed Cantores in Ecclesia. Over two days, Cantores and Renaissance music fans imbibed all three of Byrd’s magnificent masses and other sacred music, a guest lecture by Byrd expert and Stanford professor William Mahrt, and the wine at the post-concert reception. They enjoyed it so much that Applegate and Marlow decided to do it again the following summer.

“I was just drawn to Byrd’s music, and because there’s so much of it, it just made sense to do a festival,” in which they could eventually sing all of it, Applegate says. They’ve repeated and expanded the William Byrd Festival each summer since. “I can’t imagine August without the Byrd Festival,” says Portland singer and Byrd scholar Kerry McCarthy, who joined Cantores while a student at Reed College and wrote the first concert’s program notes.

Mark Williams directs Cantores in Ecclesia at the William Byrd Festival.

On Friday, the twentieth edition of the festival opens with a concert of Byrd’s secular music, the first of a dozen events culminating in Cantores’s big closing choral concert August 27.

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