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At the conclusion of the current concert season, its 20th, the Triangle's early music a cappella vocal group Fortuna, directed by Patricia Petersen, will disband. The group traces its origins to a Durham front-porch conversation amongst a group of friends and graduate students, most but not all of them in musicology, including Petersen and Liann Curtis, Fortuna's co-founder, in the late summer or early fall of 1984. They wanted to explore and sing sacred music from the 15th and 16th centuries. They began about eight in number, grew to twelve, and each one took responsibility for preparing and conducting a work or two, taking turns with the baton, as it were, in the first concert presented in February of 1985.
After the first concerts, it became evident that to succeed and become a stable organization, the group would need a single leader; as Petersen said, directing by committee never works in the long term. That role fell naturally to Petersen because of her training (she holds a Master of Fine Arts in Early Music Performance from Sarah Lawrence College) and her experience as a recorder player and with the early music group Cappella Nova, directed by Richard Taruskin in New York City, and her interest and willingness to do the work.
Over the years, Fortuna's personnel remained amazingly stable. It has ranged from twelve to ten to sixteen to eighteen-twenty members as the years went by. Many of the graduate students involved in the initial conversation and concerts have, of course, moved on and away, but several of the recruits from the group's early years are still singing with it. These include Lisa Brown, Vivian Finkelstein, Kent Mullikan, and Sara Nelson. Virtually every aspect of Fortuna's life has involved volunteers. There has never been an admission charge to a concert. Petersen has never received a penny in pay. The singers have all rehearsed and performed for the sheer love of the music and the joy of presenting it to the public, which has always been enthusiastic. Petersen chose not to incorporate and seek funding through underwriting, grants, or charitable gifts because she did not wish to encumber the organization with financial worries and responsibilities that she felt would compromise the pleasure of working with the music. It is a tribute to her and to all the singers that Fortuna was able to survive under these conditions for two decades. Few groups manage this feat, and even fewer manage it with Fortuna's sustained level of quality.
Performance regularity was as stable as the personnel. In recent times, Fortuna gave two concerts each year, winter holiday and spring, following the pattern of presenting each in a sacred venue in each of the Triangle's three cities. In earlier years, the offerings did not necessarily follow quite such a regular pattern. Many were given in a single venue or in venues in only Durham and Chapel Hill, and one year (1985-86), only one performance was given, but never was a year totally skipped. In May 1985, its second concert, it joined with the UNC Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble in what was to be its sole performance where instruments were used. Twice, in 1996 and 1997, Fortuna performed for "Piccolo Spoleto" during Charleston, SC's summer "Festival of Two Worlds." The group made a professional CD recording on the Titanic label in 1999, " O Magnum Mysterium : Christmas Motets from Renaissance Europe," which is now completely sold out and out of print.
Once Petersen became the director, the programs became more focused, centered around a theme such as the Virgin Mary, composers such as William Byrd, Heinrich Isaac, or Clemens non Papa, a source manuscript such as the Medici Codex, a source text such as The Song of Songs , or places or countries, such as Venice, the Iberian peninsula, or the court of Maximilian I. Programs were always very carefully planned, frequently with inter-relationships among the chosen works: settings by different composers of the same text, or uses by different composers of the same plein chant melody, for example. To find the music, Petersen poured over books and manuscripts, looking at the complete works of individual composers, exploring titles that caught her eye as fitting into a potential themed offering, and selecting works for their melodic or rhythmic interest, originality, or uniqueness. She copied out some works and even transcribed a few, including a complete mass by Pierre de la Rue, to obtain performance scores. Petersen also did research to determine, learn, and teach to the singers historically and geographically authentic pronunciation for the Latin and occasional vernacular texts. Over the years, the printed programs became more extensive and more informative. Just as the music for the programs was always carefully chosen, so were the program notes always carefully researched and written, often by Petersen herself, but also with the help of or by other members of the group, especially by Lisa Brown in recent years. Likewise, in later years, printed programs always contained complete original language texts with side-by-side English translations. When good English translations were not available for the texts, other Fortuna members with appropriate expertise, such as Kent Mullikan and Jaap Folmer, wrote them.
In addition to her passion for singing (and playing on the recorder) early music, Petersen has a passion for deciphering old music manuscripts. Indeed, as well as teaching people to play the recorder, she also teaches people to read and decipher early musical notations. She is hoping to do more of this in the time freed up for her after the Fortuna commitment is gone. She'd also like to do some more singing, something she has had to give up to keep the group running and to direct her singers.
Petersen is openly and admittedly very proprietary concerning Fortuna, and deliberately did not seek someone to take it over and carry on, preferring to disband her group and clear the way for someone else to organize a successor organization on his or her own vision and terms. This music, as the original members knew when they were talking and began to organize twenty years ago, comprises a vast repertory that is largely unperformed today although much of it is lush and lovely in its melodies and harmonies. This writer hopes that the end of Fortuna will not be the end of early vocal music performances in the Triangle and that someone will take up the challenge and continue the presence so marvelously established by Petersen with Fortuna.
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Fortuna's press release notes:
"After 20 years of singing sacred Renaissance music, Fortuna will present its final series of Triangle-area concerts in May. Dedicated exclusively to presenting masses and sacred motets written during the 15th and 16th centuries, the a cappella ensemble has performed nearly 400 works by Renaissance composers both familiar and obscure. 'Our Farewell Concerts: A Renaissance Retrospective ' will feature some of the group's favorite motets from over the years by such composers as Dufay, Byrd, Isaac, Tallis and Lassus.
"The ensemble has attracted a growing audience and drawn critical acclaim since its founding in 1984. In 1994 The Independent recognized Fortuna with an Indy Arts Award, and the group was invited to perform at the 1997 and 1998 Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston. Fortuna's 1992 recording of Christmas motets, O magnum mysterium (Titanic label), went through several printings.
"Fortuna has been an all-volunteer endeavor since its inception. Director Patricia Petersen has given generously of her extensive expertise in early music toward the selection of the repertoire and production of these concerts. Many of the singers have been members of Fortuna for over twelve years, and some are founding members."
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Fortuna's last program, A Renaissance Retrospective , will be presented at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, 226 Hillsborough Street, Raleigh, on 5/4; at the Chapel of the Cross, 304 West Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, on 5/9; and at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, 810 West Chapel Hill Street, Durham, on 5/11. The free performances (donations are welcome) begin at 8:00 p.m. For more information, call 919/683-9672.