Classical gas part II: the International Festival-Institute at Round Top's summer series
"Festival Hill is difficult to describe," explains UT professor of percussion Thomas Burritt. "It's as unusual a place as anyone will find. Unusual, in this instance, is a good thing. Festival Hill represents the value of the arts. It's a place where the artistic personality can feel revitalized. I think artists feel alive there because the scenery, the architecture, and, most importantly, the people show an undying love for the arts. If you're a musician, you'd want all of society to mirror these attributes."
Against all odds, this classical music haven is deep in the heart of Texas. A landmark on 200 acres of hilly, tree-covered countryside in the picture-perfect town of Round Top, population 77, this refuge is officially known as the International-Festival Institute at Round Top. Festival Hill for short, this place is the vision of former concert pianist James Dick, who, with his dedicated team, built, planted, and developed the school, venue, and grounds piece by piece starting in 1971. To see a concert at Festival Hill is to become a classical music fan.
An hour and a half east of Austin, this place is Austin's as much as anyone's. Not to own, but to support, visit, and appreciate. Austin is the closest big city, home to several of the Institute's musician faculty, many of its students, and some of the nonprofit organization's biggest donors.
This summer, as with every summer for the past 34 years, Festival Hill presents its summer concert series. The programs range across the centuries, from classical standards to seminal avant-garde compositions. With prices ranging from free to $25, the concerts are a perfect getaway to and immersion in a world that feels impossibly far away but simultaneously immediate and inspiring. In peaceful isolation from the traffic snarls of city life, Festival Hill also demonstrates the vistas of classical music.
Building a music venue is a delicate undertaking. In a concert, the bottom line is the music, but surrounding, supporting, and somewhat defining that music is the venue. A venue makes all the difference. When Johnny Cash played Austin's punk rock landmark Emo's, it was a big deal. This was the launch of his comeback, and the simple resetting of venue changed everything. Not only did it change the audience and market, it changed the way the music was received and heard as well as the way it was judged.
This is the kind of impact Festival Hill has, enveloping the listener in a world of its own, stressing less of the sometimes stiff formality of typical classical music experiences and instead emphasizing respect, passion, and caring. Rather than worrying about impressing, Festival Hill strives to be inviting.
"We've planted 19,000 trees in the past 15 years." After introductions, this is one of the first things out of Festival Hill founder James Dick's mouth. It can be said with certainty that Festival Hill is the only classical music venue in the world to have planted 19,000 trees. It can also be said with certainty that this place is at once all about music and all about much more. You can come just for a show, but the visit is much more rewarding with a little time invested for exploration of the grounds.
The entrance is a quiet one, no huge sign or imposing gate, just something to point you in the right direction. Trees, gardens, and historical buildings run past you to the dirt parking lot. When the institute was founded, this was all pasture, with a few ancient oaks the only trees standing, and an old one-story schoolhouse the only building. The transformation is nothing if not dramatic.
The passion for music that springs from every inch of soil on Festival Hill is complemented by the gardens. Herb, flower, and vegetable gardens, plus sweeping groves of trees, cover the grounds. There are more than 50 kinds of rosemary, native and non-native flowers of seemingly endless variety, and even a pharmaceutical garden with medicinal herbs.
As an alternative or addition to the concerts, there are herb and garden special events and tours led by volunteers. Visitors need only call ahead to make sure someone will be there to act as guide. Failing this, an independent walk is filled with its own rewards.
The roots of Festival Hill are as a school and its many functions. That's still the bottom line. Starting humbly in 1972, James Dick had 10 piano students for just a few weeks, and the course work culminated in a single concert on the Round Top town square.
Three decades later, everything has grown exponentially. More or less. Every summer, between 85 and 100 students are taught by a faculty numbering somewhere between 40 and 50. Do the math: That comes out to two students per teacher. Better still, all the students are on scholarship full scholarship. This means all invitations are based solely on musical ability.
The result is a highly personalized, highly focused educational experience between exceptional students and equally exceptional teachers, not to mention a close personal bonding between the two. Austin's favorite classical pianist, Michelle Schumann, loved her educational experiences at Festival Hill so much that she had her wedding there.
After the intensity of its summer program, Festival Hill continues on through the rest of the seasons but in a much more subdued way. The students and faculty go home, while a dedicated staff of a dozen stays on year round. Visiting artists and orchestras are hosted, presenting a whole other array of concerts.
The UT Orchestra will be hosted for a concert this fall, and the Institute presents its first annual classical guitar series in February. With many rooms left open, the public is invited for overnight stays and to partake in the cuisine, making a concert experience that much more rewarding. For a full calendar see www.festivalhill.org.
The Dreamer James Dick is a man who pays attention to detail. He is, to say the least, a micromanager and multitasker, and he handles it all with grace, energy, and thoroughness. Incredible as it may seem, Dick assures us that running a school and a concert venue, overseeing ongoing construction projects, leading a nonprofit organization, and maintaining his skills as a virtuoso concert pianist is still relaxed compared to his former life as a touring professional.
Born in 1940 in Hutchinson, Kan., Dick rose from poverty to international stardom. He was a featured soloist with orchestras from New York to Tokyo and from Cleveland to Paris, and played in all the famous rooms, from Carnegie Hall to London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. Despite these successes, he looked for a greater purpose than his own virtuosity.
"Then Round Top found me," he smiles.
On a tour of the grounds led by Dick and managing director Richard Royall, the intensity of their passion for the music of Round Top is matched only by the time and energy that obviously went into the campus looking the way it does. It's with relish that one is shown the replica of a Roman bridge complete with waterfall, followed closely by an English bridge.
Inside are the antiques, like a civil war sword from the community of Round Top, the only Texas town to stay loyal to the Union. Also on display is a souvenir cup from Czar Nicolas' coronation, one of many given to the celebrating peasants for their libations. The collection is enormous, and rest assured that each plant, picture, and decoration has some sort of story it behind it.
Both Dick and Royall have personal connections to seemingly every piece of Festival Hill. This intense personalization is what makes the place so vibrant and inspiring. Virtuosity is empty without passion, and in the same way that he fills his music, James Dick has filled this place with himself.
After a tour of the grounds, a visitor arrives at the ultimate destination: the concert hall. The 1,100-seat hall at Festival Hill is not finished, but it's still almost certainly one of the greatest rooms in which to hear classical music in the country. Construction on the hall began 22 years ago. If all goes as planned, the finishing touches will be completed two years from now.
The reason for this decades-in-the-making fabrication is Dick's insistence on a strict pay-as-you-go policy, meaning that nothing is built until the money has been raised to pay for it outright. One perhaps unintentional benefit has been the ability to test the room as it comes together. Careful listening, careful planning, and careful construction have paid off, and the results are immediately obvious to the listener.
After playing many of the great concert halls the world over, James Dick came to one firm conclusion about acoustics: "I love wood." Out of this ardor springs an indoor forest: the floor, walls, ceiling, and decorations are all made of wood. Even the long-promised, as-soon-as-they-raise-the-money chairs are almost entirely wood. Rather than the standard cloth cover, the chairs only have padding where it's needed: on the seats and backs.
Acoustically, the hall possesses a warm reverberation that makes the instruments sound full and rich. Under the floor near the wall is an empty space about a foot deep, left to create a bass chamber. It brings out a low end that's lost in most halls. The depth of sound that classical instruments can produce is something that cannot be reproduced in amplification and recording. A hall like Festival Hill's brings these sounds to the forefront and creates a listening experience that is far too rare.
On the front porch of one of Festival Hill's historic buildings, Yo-Yo Ma made his Texas premiere. This is the kind of quality the Institute fosters. And this wasn't just a one-time, high-dollar validity gig; Ma was part of the summer faculty at Round Top for four years.
The Music & Musicians
The summer concerts are performed by a combination of faculty and students, though this hardly makes them amateur events. The students are first-class, culled from live auditions at 17 locations scattered across the country and from mailed-in applications from students the world over. The faculty is made up of superior, superb players that bring their passion for classical music to both students and audiences alike.
The programming for the festival is, like everything at Festival Hill, unique. Classical music institutions often find themselves in a difficult position when it comes to choosing the music they perform. On the one hand, much of the music composed today and in the last century is both relatively inaccessible and has little name recognition, making it hard to program. On the other hand, the traditional repertoire is just that, traditional, leaving little room for growth and making excitement difficult to generate.
At the Round Top, the program choices are not market-driven, and the freedom to choose diverse programs that find a balance between these two sides is much greater. For the programmers, the first thought is not the audience or their own personal tastes. It is, in fact, the students that participate in the concerts alongside the faculty. The objective is to give the students as much experience as possible playing the broadest possible scope of crucial works. The result is programming as diverse as the simple parameter that classical music allows, from early baroque works and the drama of the romantics to the challenging and complex world of the 20th-century avant-garde.
Where else could you find a top-class classical music venue with influential and published herbalists on its staff? Where else could you experience music of the centuries in a palatial concert hall with plastic lawn chairs as temporary seats? Or students and teachers performing together professionally as equals?
Where else can you see such high quality concerts for such reasonable prices? Or take a nature walk, tour a quirky and somewhat random antique collection, picnic under ancient live oaks, and see one of these concerts in the same day? At first, the question was how did this happen in Texas? But in the end, obviously, this could only happen in Texas.