Once upon a time in the 1970s, James Dick, a world-class pianist, asked, “Why dream the ordinary?” He envisioned an international center for music and learning nestled in the hills outside the tiny Texas town of Round Top. His path intersected with local teenager Larry Birkelbach, a young man who wasn’t yet a master carpenter but who already believed, “The impossible just takes longer.”
Two men. Four hands. One goal: to build Round Top Festival Institute, an international center for music and learning.
Born on a farm on the vast plains near Hutchinson, Kansas, one of James Dick’s earliest memories is pulling a turnip from his family’s garden, brushing the dirt off and eating it. His first job was selling the root vegetables his family raised. Radishes were two bunches for 15 cents.
“I drove a John Deere tractor before I played the piano,” Dick said.
Although his family moved to town the year he started kindergarten, Dick remained rooted in the land.
“As I grew up, the soil, earth, nature and the simplicity of life dictated by seasons became part of who I am,” he said. “If you remember how you were reared and keep in mind the values you were taught, these will not only direct you but inspire your life and your art.”
Dick’s first musical inspiration was his kindergarten teacher, Nadine Peterson. She not only introduced him to the public school’s rhythm instruments but noticed his affinity for them and brought this to his parents’ attention at the school year’s end.
“My birthday is June 5,” Dick said. “My parents bought me an upright piano one month before my sixth birthday.”
The piano’s purchase, and subsequent lessons, were a luxury for the working-class family. Dick’s father, George, was an auto mechanic specializing in Chryslers, and his mother, Dorothy, was a stenographer. George, who had grown up on an isolated farm, could barely read and write his name. Dorothy’s mother died when she was an infant; the youngster was reared by a stern grandmother who valued farm work over school work, especially for girls, and limited Dorothy’s education.
“My parents didn’t enjoy the benefits of a formal education, but they had a supreme native intelligence and a lot of curiosity about the world,” Dick said.
George sang, and Dorothy played the piano. The elder Dicks were committed to giving young Jimmy the advantages they never had.
“Both of my parents were painfully shy as children,” Dick said. “Because they didn’t want me to be shy, they enrolled me in expression lessons even before they enrolled me in piano lessons.”
During the expression lessons, the instructor would read stories to four-year-old Jimmy who was tasked with retelling them complete with inflection.
“I began to hear the rise and fall of language, which later would serve as the foundation for musical phrasing,” Dick said. “My parents instinctively nurtured my talent by supporting me.”
After a long day at the garage, Dick’s father would come home and lie down on the couch to scan the newspaper headlines and listen to Dick practice.
“No matter how tired he was, Daddy never objected to me practicing,” Dick said. “It told me that the most important people in my life appreciated what I was doing and thought it was worthwhile.”
According to Dick, the first audience to recognize his musical talent was the neighborhood kids who lived up and down West 12th Street in Hutchison.
“My mom was afraid they’d interrupt my practice, but they just stood on the front porch and listened,” Dick said.
When practice was over, Dick was quick to join his friends to play outside. According to Dick, kickball wasn’t his strong suit because “my shoes kept slipping, and the ball would go about three inches.” He became the neighborhood scorekeeper and resident “architect.”
“I loved to make cities in the dirt,” he said. “I had this wonderful stick that was about eight inches long that we’d use to make roads and carve out buildings. When we were done, we’d turn on the water and flood it because nothing was better than a mudslide—and getting to start over another day.”
As his musical ability advanced, he began to enter contests. First he earned recognition locally and then at the state level. His music teacher, Leota Anderson, also had ties to Bethany College’s renowned music program in Lindsborg, Kansas, an arts enclave heavily influenced by the Swedish culture of its founders. He took master classes to further improve his skills.
Despite the progress of his musical education, his parents thought Dick might pursue a career as a diplomat. During high school, Dick showed a knack for politics. As a senior, he ran for student body president selecting a “buxom girl as a running mate to garner the votes of the football team.”
“The strategy worked—and I got very interested in politics for a while,” Dick said. “Eventually, though, I turned my full attention to music.”
Round Top Festival Institute, an international center for performance and learning, ensures that the hills of Fayette County are alive with the sound of music and conversations about art and ideas.
Beginning with six acres and one 19th century school house purchased at a foreclosure sale in 1971, 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 with its rich Gothic-inspired woodwork arguably one of the most beautiful. The institute’s other historic public facilities are picture-perfect studies in restoration and preservation.
Throughout the year, the institute hosts forums on topics ranging from poetry and theater to herbs as well as a variety of performances including dance, puppetry and, of course, music.
Each summer about 100 of the world’s most promising music students, chosen by blind auditions of more than 700 applicants, gather for six weeks of intensive, advanced study with some of the world’s most gifted teachers and conductors.
“Talent is fulfilled by studying, performing and giving your talent away by sharing what you’ve learned with others,” Dick said. “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.”
In 1958, he enrolled at the University of Texas to study piano with Dalies Franz. In Austin he developed a love of Mexican food, increased his skills, which earned him two Fulbright Fellowships to study at the Royal Academy in London and privately with Sir Clifford Curzon. This propelled him to the world stage. Dick was a top winner in the Tchaikovsky, Busoni and Leventritt international competitions all within a period of eight months earning him acclaim and opportunities to perform for luminaries such as President and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson, Prince Charles, Nelson Rockefeller and Walter Cronkite.
Concert pianists generally tour nine months out of the year leaving summer for other pursuits. Dick, who had recently signed as a touring artist with Sol Hurok in New York, wanted to teach in the summers and set about finding a location for an institute. He considered Lindsborg, Austin and the “other” 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. For instance, Beethoven drew inspiration from walking in the hills surrounding Vienna, and Bartok collected folk music in the mountains of Hungary and Romania.
“There is a great continuum of life tied to the land,” Dick said. “Round Top feels like home.”
In 1971, he staked his claim and founded Festival Institute.
“In the beginning, the summer institute was limited to piano students—and we had to borrow pianos for them to play,” he said.
For more about Round Top Festival Institute read No Ordinary Dream.
by Lorie Woodward Cantu
photos by Anna Spencer Morse