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What a pleasure it was to see and hear Fortuna again in their "Reunion" Concert at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Durham on Sunday afternoon, April 24! Appearing as part of the Concerts at St. Stephen's series, the ensemble was at full force with nineteen voices, only a couple of them not recognized from previous programs. Director Patricia Petersen said future concerts are uncertain but hinted at the possibility of periodic appearances.
These dedicated, musically astute singers, with their studied vibrato-free renaissance-style voices, blend in sounds sweet and nurturing. Among the greatest satisfactions in listening to renaissance music is standing back and allowing the tapestry, the blend, the weaving of the various parts to cover you as a whole, to wrap you up in its richness and warm consonance. From time to time one can then peer even closer into the fabric and trace a thread from singer to singer, follow a long melisma as it weaves above or in the midst of the other voices, or experience the text-painting skills of the great composers. Renaissance music is the home and incubator of all Western music, and in a lot of ways hearing it feels like going home and getting back in touch with your roots.
The program was entitled "The Voice of the Turtledove – Motets from The Song of Songs." This book of the Old Testament, usually attributed to Solomon but more likely from a much later period, uses lengthy soliloquies, elaborate metaphors, nature images, and sensual yearnings to extol the physical attraction of men and women. Through the ages, the poetic texts have attracted composers who added to the mystique of the writings. The first selection, "Ecce dilectus meus," by Heinrich Isaac, one of the great composers of the High Renaissance, is a good example of what is described above. It opens with plainchant in the upper two voices and then moves to the lower two, with the other parts weaving around them. The piece closes on the text "Show me your face, let your voice sound in my ears, for your voice is sweet and your face is beautiful," given in an almost homophonic style. (The English translation of the text is by George Mason.)
Three settings of the same text – "Anima Mea liquefacta est" ("My soul melted when my beloved spoke") – provided a mini-overview of the scope of musical development through the period. The music of Guillaume Dufay (c.1400-74) is rather cool, sparse, and a bit primitive to our ears, which is to be expected. He was greatly significant in the development of musical style as the Medieval period moved into the Renaissance. Jean Ghiselin (c.1455-c.1511) is known more for abstract ideas than emotional appeal. His music involves highly detailed melodic lines and wide ranges. A five-part setting by the extremely prolific Orlandus Lassus (1532-94) (also known as Orlando di Lasso or Roland de Lassus, depending on which European country you are in) is free of chant. Through skillful use of imitative phrases he builds an almost polychoral-sounding motet, infused with subtle and effective word-painting.
Another text heard in two settings, later in the program, was "Nigra sum, sed formosa" ("I am black, but fair"). The two composers were the well-known Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1526-94) and the lesser-known Jean du Conseil (1498- or 1501-34). Palestrina's setting focuses more on the rougher aspects of the text, with rhythmic emphasis and harmonic shifts. In contrast, Conseil's treatment is in a lower tessitura and brings out the words' darker and more plaintive aspects. Possibly because of the fallible structure of my hearing apparatus and preference for the darker tones, I much preferred the latter.
We also heard music by Andreas da Silva, Constanzo Festa, Johannes de Pinarol, Gaspar van Weerbeke, the great Tomas Luis de Victoria, and a couple of anonymous composers. A short setting of a brief text ("Sicut lilium") by Antoine Brumel left me sighing at its gem-like beauty.
For an encore, Fortuna shifted us across the Atlantic and a century or so forward to the music of colonial composer William Billings, but the spirit was the same in the ensemble's singing of the delicious "I am the Rose of Sharon."
Not many may remember that Petersen, back in the 1980s, did a short stint as an announcer at WCPE. Her program, on Sunday mornings (the time I now inhabit) was called "The Renaissance Hour," if I recall accurately. Already an aficionado of Renaissance music, I quickly became a fan, listened every Sunday, and taped many of the programs. Her broad knowledge of Renaissance repertoire, her continuing research, and her grasp of Renaissance performance practice has only grown more impressive since then. So, too, has her skill as a conductor. She and the group of professional-quality singers that together shaped themselves into Fortuna have earned the highest regard of those who love and receive great pleasure from this high art. It is devoutly to be hoped that we have not yet heard the last Fortuna concert!