jeremy summerly

William Byrd Festival review: small wonders

Opening concert confounds expectations with focus on English Renaissance composer’s small-scale, secular works

If you’ve attended William Byrd Festival concerts over the past 20 years, you might have certain expectations: sublime sacred choral music from English Renaissance, performed by one of the state’s finest large choirs, Cantores in Ecclesia, in a capacious church or cathedral, providing a spiritual balm that lifts you out of mundane present concerns like today’s discordant politics.

English conductor Jeremy Summerly (center) led a vocal ensemble at the 2017 William Byrd Festival.

None of that happened at the August 11 opening 20th anniversary festival concert. “Music’s Lore” featured its namesake composer’s secular, not sacred, songs and accordingly took place not in a sacred space but in The Old Church concert hall, which has been an un-holy performance space for decades. Both songs and concert (about an hour with no intermission) were short and sweet rather than extended or even epic like Byrd’s great Masses (performed later in the festival), and instead of the Cantores dozens, included only eight performers. And rather than transcending human concerns for more elevated spirituality, raw human emotions and divisive, even deadly politics were very much in the air.

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