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For twenty years, Fortuna has occupied a special niche in the cultural fabric of the Triangle. The small a cappella vocal group that Patricia Peterson has shepherded for lo! these many years drew singers whose passion, like the director's, took them back in time to music rarely heard outside academic institutions' various collegia musica. That this music was done by mature artists was often a plus, and that Fortuna's personnel changed only glacially was an even bigger plus. That Fortuna is now giving its farewell concerts is a big negative. But like some other groups that have intended to go out of business, Fortuna's "last" programs - at Chapel Hill's Chapel of the Cross, on May 9, and at the Durham's Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, on May 11 - may not constitute the final farewell, after all, since an announcement of yet one more appearance - next April, at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church - was made during the concert under discussion, heard on May 4 at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, in Raleigh.
The program, sung by a 17-voice chorus that included three founding members - Lisa Brown, Vivian Finkelstein, and Kent Mullikin - and directed, of course, by a founding member, too, was a retrospective of what, in a different context, might be called Fortuna's Greatest Hits. This is in a sense nonsense, because the pieces given are in fact some of the greatest hits of the 15th and 16th centuries - although they probably didn't exactly hit the hit parade back then, either.... Anyway, audiences who have attended prior Fortuna concerts surely heard works they'd heard before, and from that standpoint, the occasion was a tremendous success. If our readers will excuse a personal note, I have had the pleasure of experiencing Petersen's varied arts since 1983, when she was in residence at NCSU, and I and my colleagues at Spectator and then at CVNC have reviewed numerous Fortuna concerts, starting in the spring of 1986. That means we, collectively, are not true "plank holders," but we consider ourselves part of the "Class of 1986," whose (singing) members include two more Fortuna vets - Phillip Hopkins and Charlotte Runde. These folks and others whose service encompasses dates from 1988 to 2004 include many outstanding singers whose performances have been heard in other settings, too. That Fortuna survived so long and remained so true to its core mission is remarkable, by any standard. That the programs the group gave, almost always in the three principal cities of the Triangle, were so consistently wonderful seems, in retrospect, like icing on the cake.
Enough said. On May 4, before a large and attentive crowd, Fortuna revisited music that was composed across nearly 200 years, ranging from an antiphon pieced together from two anonymous sources to works by Tallis and Byrd, whose names will surely be know to our readers. As it happens, many of the other composers' names will be familiar, too - thanks in large measure to Fortuna, which has devoted entire concerts to some of them. In the order of performance, they included Dunstaple, Dufay, Ockeghem, Obrecht, Antoine Brumel, Loyset Compère, Isaac, Lassus, Jean de la Fage, Andreas de Silva, Cipriano de Rore, Francisco de Santiago, Tallis, and Byrd, with an anonymous Polish piece from the first half of the 17th century tossed in before the last two (in part because it fit there, stylistically). The fare was mostly but not exclusively sacred, and some of it was liturgical. The exceptions tended to brighten the proceedings for those who read along in the outstanding program booklet, which was graced with side-by-side texts and translations and bolstered with just enough background information. The program was a class act, as Fortuna's programs have always been. It's one of many things we will miss. And the performances? Well, Fortuna overcame most of the emotion of the occasion to deliver memorable readings of some great literature, memorably. The singing bore the expected hallmarks and more: outstanding balance, noteworthy blend, exemplary diction, and some high levels of energy. It will sustain us for a little while - till next April, maybe. And the ensemble did manage to go out on a series of high notes, in a manner of speaking, with a program that wound upward, in terms of increasing complexity, sampling pieces from all over what we now call the European Union. It was quite a ride, and the public would not let the artists go, so for an encore Petersen led her group in what she called its theme-song - and perhaps it was the theme-song of the moment - "Fortuna desperata," by Busnois. People who are desperate for more of Fortuna need to beat feet to Chapel Hill or Durham.