If there's a choral mafia in Portland, then Dean Applegate is our Tony Soprano.
Not that Applegate is ordering hits on competing conductors—those things just don't happen in the sacred choral music community—but he does head up Cantores in Ecclesia, one of the region's best chamber choirs, and more to the point, he presides as choral boss of the Applegate family.
Who are the Applegates? As music directors, singers and conveners of Northwest musicians, they're one of the most musically powerful families in Portland. They're also among the most colorful: One colleague, off the record, referred to them as "that kooky Applegate clan."
It was 1983 that Dean Applegate, now 61 years old, founded his choir to perform choice Catholic choral music from earlier eras. From the start, the music of maverick 17th-century English composer William Byrd was a staple for the group. "We have always had a special fascination for Byrd's music," Applegate says. "And, over the years, I began to realize how prolific he was." And so the William Byrd Festival—two weeks of chamber concerts, lectures and the requisite high pontifical masses by the master—was born in 1997; the fest celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend.
The festival has been an Applegate family affair from the start, and again, like Tony Soprano, the elder Applegate can boast of two prodigiously talented children: son Blake, 36, a singer of some renown on the Portland-Seattle axis and assistant conductor of Cantores; and daughter Jane Applegate, 34, a lit whiz and the ensemble's website designer and administrator. Both have sung with their dad from the choir's earliest days; both still sing with him now. Add to that Blake's wife, the up-and-coming conductor Anna Song (also a sometime singer with Cantores), and you've got a Portland institution in the making.
"Cantores has always been kind of like a family business," Jane says. "You'd think my brother Blake and I would have some rancor, but we don't." She pauses: "Maybe it's because we sing in different sections?" Although friendly spats have been known to flare up in rehearsal, tempers generally run low for the Applegates. When asked about his familial music-making, Dean does not wax sentimental. In a typically dry understatement, he says only, "It's been extremely productive."
For Jane and Blake, and for audiences across the Northwest who flock to this Byrd Fest, it's been much more. In her 20s, Jane flew her Portland coop for several years of adventure in New York City but just as quickly moved back home to the Rose City, for two reasons: "I missed my family," she says, "and I really missed the choir." .