Patrons of the Round Top Music Festival will tell you that renowned concert pianist James Dick built a magnificent concert hall in Round Top, Texas. But James Dick (who will tell you to call him Jimmy) doesn’t demand top billing. Even though he is the founder and artistic director of the Festival Hill Institute it’s clear that this Texas musical mecca has taken on a life of its own.
Founded almost 50 years ago with the encouragement of the legendary Miss Ima Hogg, the first performances were held in rented space on the Round Top town square, and then outdoors on a transportable stage. In 1981, construction began on the grand concert hall where orchestral performances now take place. There is also an historic chapel where chamber music is performed during the festival. The chapel also serves as a wedding venue throughout the year.
In the tiny town of Round Top, which claims to be the smallest incorporated town in Texas, the concert hall seems to have been transported from another world in a bygone era. Set in the land of quaint “painted lady” churches, the concert hall’s old-world craftsmanship on a grand scale would dwarf every other structure for miles around—if it weren’t totally hidden from passersby on Highway 237 by a dense forest planted by the institute decades ago. Thousands pass by it twice each year to attend the Round Top and Warrenton antique shows, barely noticing the small Festival Hill sign at the corner of Jaster Road.
The ornate concert hall’s carved-wood interior (the work of local Czech artisans and wood carvers) is not just stunningly beautiful to look at, but also enhances the building’s acoustics. It is said that being inside the carved wooden interior is like being inside a large musical instrument. The Texas State Senate, in a 2017 commendation of Dick’s achievements, described Festival Hill as a “European-style campus which is a gem of the state’s thriving cultural arts community.”
Each year, top-tier students from universities and conservatories across the United States and around the world compete by blind audition for full scholarships to the Festival Hill Institute’s six-week program of master-level instruction and performances alongside the distinguished faculty. The “flag plaza,” located in the formal gardens, flies the flag of each country represented by that year’s students and faculty. For six weeks, the young artists and faculty live on campus, take meals together, and rehearse in the concert hall and the chapel (a circa 1883 Methodist church moved to Festival Hill from nearby LaGrange). Master classes and rehearsals during the week are open to the public, and tickets to the weekend symphony and chamber-music performances start at just $25 for adults.
The Festival Hill Institute students, whose average age is around 22, are referred to as young-adult artists. Total immersion in world-class instruction and an intense rehearsal schedule allow the students to achieve a level of professionalism beyond their years. New repertoire is learned and performed each week, sometimes with different conductors. Dick designed the program to prepare gifted musicians for the rigors of real-world performance careers. He explains, “That’s the kind of important professional work they’re getting here, which cannot, for so many reasons, be achieved at a conservatory or university. I’m proud of that.” This is attested to by the alumni (now numbering in the thousands) who have gone on to join prestigious orchestras throughout the country including the New York Philharmonic. Several have returned to Festival Hill over the years as faculty members.
It is a Round Top Music Festival tradition for founder James Dick to perform at the opening orchestral concert each year. He performs this year on Saturday, June 8, in a 3:30 pm chamber concert and a 7:30 pm orchestra concert.
Eight renowned conductors will work with the Texas Festival Orchestra during this summer’s program, presenting 30 concerts in just six weeks. For a full schedule, go to FestivalHill.org. Tickets are available online or by calling the office at 979-249-3129. Tickets may be purchased at the door, subject to availability.
For more about the Festival Hill Institute, its magical 200-acre campus full of antiquities and historic structures, and the people who have contributed to its formation for almost 50 years, see the July 2019 issue of OutSmart magazine.