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.
The magnificence of Festival Concert Hall (and the entire Round Top Festival Institute) can be traced to Birkelbach’s hands, Dick’s ears and the team’s willingness to work in the moment.
“There were no plans for the interior of the concert hall, neither for the finish or the acoustics,” Birkelbach said. “It was a fluid process of transforming visions into physical realities.”
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 framework is clad all 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.”
During early concerts, Dick would move around listening to the performance noting where the sounds were too flat or too strong. Then Birkelbach and his crew would modify the woodwork in that particular section of the hall accordingly.
“I don’t claim much knowledge, but I do know how to improvise,” Birkelbach said. This entire project has been improvisation on a grand scale. It’s probably a good thing that I’m a hard-headed German who refuses to quit.”
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.”
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.
“No one will ever know just how much time we spent considering the details,” Birkelbach said.
The painstaking attention to details created a space that inspires all who enter it. Dick and Birkelbach take pleasure in quietly watching first-time visitors absorb the concert hall’s magnificence.
“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.”
He continued, “Festival Hill has so many layers because people have so many layers. If you don’t have layers, then you’re not living right.”
For more about Round Top Festival Institute, read No Ordinary Dream.
by Lorie Woodward Cantu
photos by Anna Spencer Morse