Remembering the life of Dr. Jack Fortner

In Memoriam: Dr. Jack Fortner

Dr. Jack Fortner, music professor emeritus, composer, and founder of the Orpheus Chamber Music Ensemble, died from cancer on Thursday, June 25, in São Paulo, Brazil. He was 84 years old.

A memorial service has not been announced.

A prolific composer, teacher, and conductor, Fortner once said in an interview that he often saw music as shapes, and his composition process often started as sketches or “blueprints.” These musical pieces of art have been presented by orchestras around the world to which Fortner would often serve as a guest conductor. Fortner conducted orchestras and directed ensembles everywhere he lived throughout his career, including Michigan, California, and Brazil. Even after his teaching career, he continued to hold master classes throughout Latin America.

Fortner was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on July 2, 1935. In 1959, he graduated with a Bachelor of Music from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids. In 1960, he began his study of music composition in New York at the Julliard School of Music. He went on to the University of Michigan, where he received his master’s degree in music in 1965 and his Doctor of Musical Arts in 1968.

Jack Fortner and his saxophone.
Jack Fortner and his saxophone.

From 1966 to 1970, Fortner was a conductor and member of the composition faculty at the University of Michigan. He also served as the music director of the Sinfonia Chamber Orchestra in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from 1964 to 1967 and was the assistant conductor of the Grand Rapids Symphony from 1964 to 1965. From 1966 to 1970, he conducted the Contemporary Directions Ensemble at the University of Michigan.

In 1970, Fortner joined California State University, Fresno, where he taught composition and music theory in the Department of Music. During his time at Fresno State, he conducted the Symphony Orchestra and directed the Electronic Music Studio. He served as chair of the music department from 1990 until he retired from teaching in 2003. 


“Jack was an extremely important part of our musical history at Fresno State, where he taught composition and theory,” said Dr. Matthew Darling, chair of the Department of Music. “He founded and directed the Fresno based chamber group Orpheus for forty years, was a faculty member for over thirty years.”

Dr. Jack Fortner directs the UNICAMP Orchestra as they rehearse Beethoven’s Concerto nº3
Dr. Jack Fortner directs the UNICAMP Orchestra as they rehearse Beethoven’s Concerto nº3

“Dr. Fortner surely has inspired generations of Fresno State colleagues and students to reach new creative heights, leaving a lasting legacy that goes beyond his own impressive creative work,” said Dr. Honora Chapman, interim dean, College of Arts and Humanities. “Jack was also the intrepid person who befriended strangers and made everyone feel comfortable while engaged in fascinating conversation. He will, indeed, be sorely missed.”

Dr. Jack Fortner
Dr. Jack Fortner

Throughout his career, Fortner received numerous awards, and many of his works were internationally recognized, including “Trois Gymnopédies,” “Sonnets,” and “Für Eloisa.” He won the 1966 International Composition Prize from the Fondation Royaumont of France, followed by the 1967 Rome Prize Fellowship awarded by the American Academy in Rome. In 1978, he received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to compose the dance piece, “Found Objects.” Several of his compositions have been released commercially by New Ariel Recordings, Capstone Records, Vienna Modern Masters, Quindecim, and Stradivarius labels. He served as guest conductor for orchestras around the United States as well as Germany, Romania, and Slovakia. 

Dr. Jack Fortner directs the Camará Ensemble in Brazil.
Dr. Jack Fortner directs the Camará Ensemble in Brazil.

Following his retirement from Fresno State, Fortner continued composing new music and began guest conducting in Latin America including Mexico, Paraguay, Buenos Aires, and Brazil. In 2004, he was appointed conductor of Ensemble Música Nova in São Paulo, Brazil. Since then, he split his time between Orpheus in Fresno and Ensemble Música Nova in São Paulo.

Jack Fortner is survived by his wife Christina, daughter Lydia, and grandson Solon.

Posted by

The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

3 thoughts on “Remembering the life of Dr. Jack Fortner

  1. I am very sad about the departure of this friend.
    Great composer.
    I would just like to say that Jack’s photo with the caption “Dr. Jack Fortner directs the Orpheus Chamber Music Ensemble” is actually Jack with the UNICAMP Orchestra and me, at the piano (Karin Fernandes). I was the soloist for this concert, we did Beethoven’s Concerto nº3.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.