The world-renowned Round Top Festival Institute exists because concert pianist James “Jimmy” Dick believes in the power of inspiration.
“As humans, we all need inspiration,” Dick said. “Nature and music are great inspirers.”
In 2020, the international center for performance and learning, will celebrate its 50th anniversary with its Golden Jubilee of Music Gala on April 18. The gala, chaired by Lisa Mayer and Lilla Blackburn Sivek, will feature a look back at the Institute’s successes.
The Road to Round Top
Upon graduation from the University of Texas, Dick, not only earned two Fulbright scholarships allowing him to study in Europe, but was a top winner in the Tchaikovsky, Busoni and Leventritt international competitions.
Although his concert schedule kept him busy for nine months out of the year, Dick wanted to teach in the summers and decided to find a location for an institute. He considered Lindsborg, Kan., Austin and the Texas Hill Country.
Then, Dick was introduced to legendary Houston philanthropist Ima Hogg, who spearheaded preservation efforts in Round Top.
“She asked me if I had heard of Round Top,” Dick recalled. “I hadn’t, so she introduced it to me.”
Its central location between Austin and Houston, combined with its rural character, spoke to Dick. In his studies, he had seen the land’s influence on many great composers.
“There is a great continuum of life tied to the land,” said Dick, who spent his early childhood on a farm. “Round Top feels like home.”
In 1971, he staked his claim and founded the Round Top Festival Institute.
Over the ensuing years, Dick and local craftsman Larry Birkelbach, along with Lamar Lentz, Alain Declert, the late Richard Royall, and Birkelbach’s talented craftsmen, translated ideas gathered from around the world into stunning reality.
Beginning with six acres and one 19th century school house purchased at a foreclosure sale, Festival Institute now encompasses 210 acres and 18 buildings including the 1,000-seat Festival Concert Hall, which is not only one of the nation’s most acoustically perfect performance venues but also with its rich Gothic-inspired woodwork arguably one of the most beautiful.
Throughout the year, the institute hosts forums on topics ranging from poetry and theater to herbs as well as performances including dance, puppetry and, of course, music.
Each summer about 100 of the world’s most promising music students, chosen by blind auditions, gather for six weeks of intensive, advanced study with some of the world’s most gifted teachers and conductors. Each student receives a full scholarship. The students maintain a rigorous schedule of rehearsals and weekly performances that mimics the demands of a major symphony orchestra thus preparing them for the world beyond formal education.
“I’m a concert pianist. That’s my life—and I’ve been so very fortunate,” said Dick. “Talent is fulfilled by studying, performing and giving your talent away by sharing what you’ve learned with others. The creation of this place is my way of giving back by serving the needs of prospective great musicians so they can carry on the tradition of excellence.”
While each component of Festival Hill’s campus is a work of art, the concert hall is arguably the team’s masterpiece.
From the beginning, sound was the primary consideration.
“I was just a naïve musician,” Dick said. “We didn’t use an acoustical engineer. Instead, I just moved around the space and listened as the building progressed through different phases of construction. Real wood is the genesis of this place and the sound.”
The metal frame is clad in pine, a soft wood, with the exception of the dividers, which are poplar, a hard wood. The elaborate woodwork, such as the compass stars and the Gothic-inspired balcony fronts, adds more than visual appeal.
“Because of the multi-layered surfaces, the sound continues to move through the room,” Birkelbach said. “That’s why there’s not a bad seat in the house.”
The concert hall’s ceiling is suspended by 600 steel rods. An attic rises for 20 feet above it creating the experience of sitting inside an instrument. The back wall and ceiling of the stage is pitched so the tiniest sound rolls off and over the audience. The design was modified when it was discovered that the stage’s original design negatively affected the key of C.
“Sometimes I look around and am amazed at what this place has become,” Dick said. “It seems surreal until I remind myself that we envisioned every detail. We wanted people to be intrigued by what they see and hear.”
When I stop to think about it, Festival Institute—and its magic—is actually the result of a long series of inspired moments.”
by Lorie A. Woodward
photos by Anna Spencer Morse