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Fortuna, an a cappella choir of seven women singers and seven men, gave the first performance of its annual fall recital for an audience of approximately 75 people on December 4 in Raleigh's Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, which Director Patricia Petersen revealed at the end of the program is the group's favorite place to sing. The program will be repeated in Durham at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church on December 9 at 4 p.m. and in Chapel Hill at the Chapel of the Cross on December 11 at 8 p.m. If you missed the Raleigh performance, do take in one of the remaining two and give yourself an auditory treat to kick off the holiday season.
This year's offering featured music by the 15th-century Flemish composer Jacob Obrecht, centered around the Missa "Salve diva parens" ("Hail, Divine Mother") with appropriate seasonal and Marian antiphons, hymns, and motets interspersed between the parts of the mass.
The "Omnis spiritus," a set of prayers intended for use at the end of portions of the Office or for semi-liturgical purposes, seemed particularly appropriate as an opener for the evening. It had an interesting structure, the first two and last two verses being set for the female voices with the male voices entering only on the concluding lines almost like exclamation points for emphasis, with all voices used only in the central verse.
The "Kyrie" and the "Gloria" of the Mass proper followed, succeeded in turn by the antiphon "Ave maris stella" ("Hail star of the sea"), which used the soprano and alto voices in the lead with the basses, just a fifth below, entering later and carrying the plainchant; this likewise produced a very interesting and pleasing effect. There followed a hymn, "Cuius sacrata viscera" ("Whose sacred womb"), a setting of the second verse of a lengthier hymn for the Feast of the Visitation, that used all the voices. The "Credo" of the Mass followed. In this movement, the men had a prominent solo section towards the end, surrounded by the tutti portions. Next came the "Hec Deum celi" ("[She] bore the God of heaven"), also the second verse of a hymn for the Purification but in a five-part setting with a free-composed Discantus, giving us a piece with yet another, different texture.
After an intermission, undoubtedly necessary for the singers to take a break and a sip of water, but which this listener regretted for its breaking of the spell created to that point, the "Beata es Maria" ("Blessed are you, Mary") opened the second portion. This work incorporates the "Ave Maria" ("Hail Mary") as well, providing some overlappings and interpolations of texts and creating yet another different and interesting texture. The "Sanctus/Benedictus," longer and more drawn-out than in many masses, and the "Agnus Dei" portions of the Mass followed, and the antiphon "Salve Regina" ("Hail, Holy Queen") concluded the evening's service. This last work gave what was perhaps the widest variety in number of voices and textures of all the works and was thus a fitting climax.
As an encore, the singers repeated the "Dona nobis pacem" ("Give us peace") portion of the "Agnus Dei" of the Mass, a particularly appropriate selection at this juncture, both for its text and its beauty. A note of levity was inadvertently entered into the proceedings at this point by the whistle of the Carolinian (or the Piedmont?) arriving at the station just after Petersen gave the pitch on her recorder; the whistle, alas, was not tuned to the same pitch!
Fortuna, now in its eighteenth season, has never charged admission to its concerts; the singers practice and perform out of the love of the music. They always succeed in conveying this love to the audience, and the performances are always rewarding, not to say thrilling. The acoustics in the Cathedral are truly ideal for this music. The listener feels enveloped or bathed in glorious sound but the individual words are readily distinguished--a tribute to the excellent diction Petersen demands of her singers. There was precious little to fault in the performance: an occasional hesitant or tentative entrance or one where the singers were not perfectly together were the only weak spots detected, and none were in any way compromising of the beauty of the whole. Dynamics were well controlled and varied throughout. To the inexperienced or uninitiated, music of this period can tend to sound all-alike, bringing the threat of monotony. Petersen invariably plans programs that encompass variety and contrast, and the singers invariably execute them to near perfection. The program notes by Lisa Brown, one of the singers, are also always exemplary, prepared with the same skill and devotion as the programs themselves and the singing. They contain both extensive biographical information about the composer and notes on the individual works, and always include full texts and translations. We are extremely fortunate to have a group of this caliber and devotion in the area. Support Fortuna with your attendance and donations!