The first performance of the 2020 Bar Harbor Music Festival, streamed on Facebook Live Sunday, featured pianist Cara Chowning from her home in Indiana, left, and soprano April Martin from her home in New York.

54th Bar Harbor Music Festival begins

BAR HARBOR — The three components of live music performance, Francis Fortier says, are the performer interpreting the composer’s instructions; the composer who has indicated the notes, rhythm and dynamics; and “that wonderful kinetic, emotional mystery called the listener — and their feelings and experiences sitting in the venue.” 

All three are present in this year’s online performances of the Bar Harbor Music Festival, which Fortier founded in 1966. But, because the concerts are streamed and the audience is watching and listening from a computer or other device, “the feelings and the response (on the part of) the music lovers is very private in their own home,” he said. 

Speaking from New York on Saturday, the day before the opening tea concert, Fortier said it feels very strange to still be there and not at the festival’s Bar Harbor office, this time of year. 

The festival’s leaders waited as long as they could to make a final call on canceling in-person performances, but it just wasn’t going to work with the 50-person limit on gatherings and the quarantine requirement for most out-of-state visitors. Most performers are housed pro bono in the homes of festival supporters; even if they could arrive two weeks early to quarantine, or get tested for the virus to avoid that, many hosts aren’t ready to let people into their homes. 

“It was like a bad chess game; we were trapped in a corner,” Fortier said. But “we were blessed with the presence of (Associate Festival Director) Allison Kiger, a devoted performer who has the technical ability” to spearhead the necessary steps to move the festival online. 

“I knew Allison was in the wings waiting if I made that call,” he said. 

In a reversal of normal roles, where Fortier as festival director is backstage encouraging the performers and calming their nerves, he said now it’s the performers assuring him that it’s all going to work. 

Performing online is definitely different than performing in person, Kiger said. “We’re grateful to the musicians; they’re learning new skills.” 

The season kicked off Sunday with a tea concert — traditionally held at La Rochelle on West Street — featuring pianist Cara Chowning from her home in Indiana, left, and soprano April Martin from her home in New York. The pair introduced the program, which had been recorded and combined into a video, including scenes from Mount Desert Island and Bar Harbor. 

The two rehearsed over Zoom, Martin explained in the introduction. With the time lag, they couldn’t actually be playing and singing at the same time. Instead, “we took turns singing and playing and talking about each phrase of the music,” she said. 

Then, for the final performance, Chowning recorded herself playing the pieces, Martin recorded an audio track singing them, and then also made a video of herself lip syncing to the combined tracks. Chowning’s husband Daniel put them all together. 

The streaming concerts are free, but the Facebook page includes a button for making a donation to support the festival. 

Up next is a piano recital with festival favorite Christopher Johnson Friday, July 3 at 8 p.m. The program will include Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op, 31, No. 3, in honor of the composer’s 250th birthday this year; Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever;” and a world premiere of “Split Rock Falls” by Deborah Fortier.

Composer and pianist Deborah Fortier will lead an online program for children (and all ages) July 20 and 22 called “Learning to Read Music Through Poetry.” Her piece, “Split Rock Falls,” will have its world premiere in the July 3 festival concert by Christopher Johnson. JESUP LIBRARY PHOTO

The piece is named for a place on the Bouquet River in the Adirondacks near Keene, N.Y., where the Fortier family has what Mainers would call a camp. 

At Split Rock Falls, Francis Fortier said, the water “plunges out of the side of the mountain.” 

Listeners will hear “the power of the water,” in the piece, he said. “Then as it comes down and settles in the pool, the tranquility of its resting place (a favorite fishing spot). The falls fall to peace. You feel the mystery, the power, the gift of nature.” 

On July 4, brass trio Brass Venture will share a program of patriotic favorites at 8 p.m. 

“A lot of people who haven’t felt it do not really comprehend the power of the love of music in sustaining life,” he said. That’s certainly “the reason I’m still standing” despite the stresses of a long career performing. 

Fortier was a student at Kneisel Hall in Blue Hill in the 60s when he first came to Bar Harbor. 

“I wonder if there’s any music in this town?” he remembers thinking. A “very proud lady” at what’s now the Bar Harbor Inn told him about the hotel’s Wurlitzer jukebox, but that wasn’t quite what he had in mind.

Many famous musicians spent time here during the cottage era before the fire of 1947, as guests at summer estates, but they weren’t expected to play. If they wanted to, their hosts and hostesses would arrange private concerts. 

A grand performing arts building was lost in the fire. On his first visits here, “a kid just out of Julliard,” Fortier visited the remains of the building, which are behind the fourth hole at Kebo Valley Golf Club. 

“I saw outlines of the pillars,” he said. “A legacy, a dynasty was crushed. I realized the power of the legacy, the power of the great artists then deceased.” 

He wanted to “bring the joy of music” to summer in Bar Harbor again, and the festival was born. 

“The mission of the festival is to provide cultural enrichment,” Kiger said. “We want to keep doing what we do.” 

Visit or Bar Harbor Music Festival on Facebook. 

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.