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.

Sacred Sounds

Applegate, a devout Catholic dedicated to preserving and promoting sacred songs within the church’s Latin liturgy, was drawn to the artistry and spirituality of Byrd’s music. Composer and director aligned philosophically, too. Byrd’s courageous insistence on writing traditional Catholic church music under a Protestant monarch during England’s bloody Protestant-Catholic religious upheaval could have gotten a recusant Catholic thrown in the Tower of London, or worse. Applegate’s devotion to singing traditional Latin church music eventually led him to take Cantores from its original home at Northwest Portland’s St. Patrick’s Catholic Church when that church decided to follow Vatican reforms and use vernacular texts. Even after he turned over direction of Cantores to his son, Blake, in 2010, Dean Applegate continued to organize the Byrd Festival.

William Byrd (1543-1643)

He’s had plenty of help, from both outside musicians, scholars and conductors like Marlow, Mahrt, and the late David Trendell to the Cantores “family” and beyond. McCarthy maintained her involvement through graduate study and teaching at Stanford and Duke Universities, publishing an acclaimed biography of Byrd before returning to Portland.

“Those early years were a wonderful process of exploration,” McCarthy recalls. “There was a bit of culture shock at first – we didn’t quite follow the same set of unwritten rules as a bunch of Cambridge undergraduates, but we all loved it. I was lucky because the first years of the festival were the exact time I started to get seriously interested in doing research on Renaissance music. The more of it we sang, the more I wanted to talk about it and write about it. I’m fairly sure I never would have ended up writing a book about Byrd if it hadn’t been for the festival.”

Portland singer and scholar Kerry McCarthy has been a mainstay of the festival from the outset.

As the festival evolved, it also embraced more than Byrd’s foundational sacred choral works. “When we realized this is something that’s going to work long term, all of a sudden this whole world opened up to us,” remembers McCarthy, now a leading academic expert in Byrd and English Renaissance music. “There’s all this instrumental music, so we brought in string players, keyboard players,” even Byrd’s abundant non-church music. “As we started diversifying and doing these chamber concerts, we started getting broader audiences.” The festival added more public concerts, liturgical performances, recitals, lectures, and different performance venues (Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Holy Rosary Church, St. Stephen’s Catholic Church).

“At this point we’ve performed almost all the 500 surviving works by Byrd, McCarthy says. “We’ve also started singing stuff by a number of other English Renaissance composers. The more experience we get with this music, the more we realize how varied and beautiful it really is.”

Mark Williams performs Byrd’s keyboard music at several Byrd Festival events.

The festival’s reputation has also grown outside Portland. It’s drawn highly respected guest musicians and lecturers from England and major American early music centers. “The Byrd Festival is now recognized internationally as a highly significant and important celebration of early music,” says longtime participant Mark Williams, a brilliant British organist and Marlow student who also became a renowned choral conductor and Oxford professor. “The presence of some of the world’s leading scholars, including Portland’s own brilliant Kerry McCarthy, has lent the Festival considerable prestige, but the sheer achievement of having performed all of Byrd’s sacred music is a towering one regarded with admiration and some envy in the UK and further afield.”

Anniversary Celebrations

This year, Williams, who took over direction of the festival after Marlow’s death in 2013, is bringing back his Oxford colleague Jeremy Summerly, another well-known choral director, to lead Cantores in performances and church services featuring Byrd’s music. Blake Applegate, will conduct other Cantores performances. The festival includes two concerts, an organ recital, six liturgical services, and three public lectures.

The festival is branching out to two new venues for its two public concerts. Downtown Portland’s non-religious Old Church Concert Hall hosts an intimate opening concert featuring small groups of vocal and instrumental soloists performing Byrd’s seldom-heard secular music (love songs, elegies etc.), while Cantores’s big closing choral concert, featuring Byrd works not performed here for a decade or more, happens at southeast Portland’s St. Philip Neri Church.

Cantores in Ecclesia, here conducted by Williams, will sing Byrd’s sacred music at the closing anniversary concert August 27.

Singers and audience members may find these interpretations a little different from their initial Byrd sightings. “As we have now performed all the sacred choral works of Byrd, and have come to repeat pieces, that thrilling sense of discovery has been replaced by an immense affection and admiration for Byrd, as we’ve become increasingly familiar with his music,” Williams says. “To return to these pieces without the pressure of learning them afresh has afforded us the opportunity to acquaint ourselves with his craftsmanship at a deeper level, and that has been immensely rewarding.”

The festival also features abundant free events, including lectures and church service performances. McCarthy recommends the August 15 evening Mass, in which small groups of hidden singers perform music that Byrd wrote for clandestine church services at a time when the ruling Protestants were persecuting recusant Catholics, though Byrd’s notoriety spared him.

Byrd’s sacred music will always remain the festival’s core repertoire, but Williams and McCarthy say that having now completed its survey of its namesake’s music, it will also expand its ambit to include the music of Byrd’s influences, those he influenced, other European Renaissance composers, and more. Who knows, maybe someday, the festival will make its namesake as familiar — at least in Portland — as his playwriting contemporary.

“I don’t think we imagined that it would last for 20 years and grow into an annual event that’s more than two weeks long,” says McCarthy. “It’s taken on a life of its own in the best possible way.”

The 20th William Byrd Festival runs Friday, August 11-Saturday, August 27. Tickets for this Friday’s opening concert at Portland’s The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Avenue, Portland are available at the door, by phone 1.800.838.3006, or www.brownpapertickets.com. Other events take place at  Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, 147 NW 19th Avenue, and Holy Rosary Church, 37 NE Clackamas St., Portland. The twentieth anniversary concert is at 4:00 pm August 27 at St. Philip Neri Church. A shorter version of this story appeared in The Oregonian/Oregon Live.

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