When Francis J. Fortier III ’59 goes for a walk in his Upper West Side neighborhood, he says, the streets are alive with the sound of music: “I walk down West End Avenue and hear all the concertos coming out of the windows. You are fully aware a good 60 percent of the world’s musicians live on the West Side between Lincoln Center and 125th Street. This is where it happens.”
Fortier’s ears are well tuned, as a violinist, conductor, and the founder and chair of the nationally known Bar Harbor Music Festival, now in its 53rd season under his direction. Since 1967, some 2,200 aspiring and accomplished musicians and composers have been part of the monthlong festival in the town on Mount Desert Island, Maine.
Serious musicians had previously performed there, until a 1947 fire destroyed their theater. Some 15 years later, Fortier, then in his early 20s and spending summers studying music at a private school in Blue Hill, Maine, found his way to the town. “We went to Bar Harbor to have beer and find good-looking young women. I said, ‘Any musicians?’ They said yes, there’s a great jukebox in the hotel. I decided we could bring … back [musical performances] because we had this legacy in Bar Harbor.”
Fortier’s big break had come early, when he apprenticed in Britain with the great Yehudi Menuhin, a conductor and the violin soloist of the Bath Festival Orchestra. Inspired, Fortier not only founded the Bar Harbor festival, but also became artist-in-residence at more than 2,000 high schools, community colleges and arts councils throughout the United States, using music to inspire young people to turn away from drugs.
Music is in Fortier’s DNA. His father, Frank J. Fortier Jr., a commercial artist and corporate headhunter, had earlier been in vaudeville, as a backup banjo player for Al Jolson. His mother and siblings all played instruments, and, when he was a child, his father happily drove him from their Scarsdale, N.Y., home to violin lessons at 72nd and Broadway.
At Columbia, Fortier majored in music and minored in history, and studied with such luminaries as James P. Shenton ’49, GSAS’54; Moses Hadas; and Lionel Trilling CC 1925, GSAS’38. Then came graduate studies — a year at Yale and four more at The Juilliard School, where, he recalled, “The jury exams were excruciating. Sixteen members of the string faculty elaborate on your weaknesses as you play. You learn to deal with that kind of pressure. It gives you muscle.” But, he said, “I was very glad to get out of Juilliard because I could love music again.”
Now 81, Fortier fills his off-season months with rehearsing, and fundraising for and promoting the festival, which attracts tens of thousands who come to hear eclectic concerts ranging from Mozart to Ellington and top performers like pianist Murray Perahia and mezzo-soprano Fenlon Lamb. “I’ve been given the gift of energy, the gift of vision, and I have some strong people with me,” he says. Notably, that group includes his wife, festival associate director and secretary Deborah S. Fortier, herself an accomplished pianist, composer and teacher.
Fortier has two other passions: baseball — he’s an avid Yankees fan and played first base in his younger days — and fly fishing, which he enjoys during his own brief off-season at Brookside, his Adirondack Mountain retreat. “I have good hands,” he says. And, quoting Oscar Wilde, he adds: “I adore simple pleasures. They are the last refuge of the complex.”
Eugene L. Meyer ’64, a former longtime Washington Post reporter and editor, is the author, most recently, of Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army, winner of the 2019 award for Outstanding Biography/History book from the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
Published quarterly by the Columbia College Office of Alumni Affairs and Development for alumni, students, faculty, parents and friends of Columbia College.