By Mike Greenberg
ROUND TOP, Tex. — If you’re trying to find the village of Round Top on a map, it doesn’t help much to be told that it’s in the gently rolling Central Texas pasturelands midway between San Antonio and Houston. It may be more useful to know that 22 miles thisaway is Brenham, home of Blue Bell ice cream; and 16 miles thataway is La Grange, whose most renowned institution in days of yore was memorialized by the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. (The weight of the neighborhood’s guilt for propagating the sins of gluttony and lust may be gauged by the presence just outside Round Top of a roadside structure, about the size of a double-wide outhouse, purporting to be the world’s smallest Roman Catholic church.)
This stretch of arcadia may seem an improbable backdrop for an adventurously programmed and splendidly executed festival of classical music, but almost everything about the Round Top Festival Institute, the 45-year-old and ever-young creation of pianist James Dick, is improbable.
Concerts in recent weeks have included — to choose almost at random from many delights — an elegant account of Paul Taffanel’s Wind Quintet in G minor, a full-of-moxie performance of Alfred Schnittke’s wild and wooly Serenade, and confident, meticulous readings of Paul Dukas’ La Peri and Debussy’s La mer, played by an orchestra of college-age music students conducted with infectious panache by Perry So.
In broad strokes, the Round Top Festival Institute is a smaller-scale version of the Aspen Music Festival: Chosen by audition, students from around the world come to this campus for six weeks in the summer to study and perform under the tutelage of veteran professionals. Ticketed concerts are offered on Saturdays — two afternoon chamber music concerts with ensembles comprising faculty, Young Artists (as the students are called here), or both; and evening orchestral concerts under a different visiting conductor each week. The Young Artists also give free chamber concerts on weekdays.
But much about this festival is sui generis. There’s the campus itself, 210 acres of thick woods and manicured lawns, hayfields and neatly tended gardens, dotted with historic structures hauled in from nearby towns and renovated. New buildings include a 1,000-seat concert hall, which is generally filled when Dick is a concerto soloist. The distinctive design vocabulary seen throughout the campus includes Gothic-style interior carpentry and stoneworks that look like slightly daft Roman ruins. Concert programming ranges widely but has a French tilt from program director Alain Declert, a former Houston oil-industry executive who, after a commercially unsuccessful concert-promotion venture, landed at Round Top — originally as the festival’s excellent year-round chef.
Above all, there’s a pervasive tone of precise, soft-spoken civility that reflects the personality of Dick, who remains artistic director and, in his mid-70s, shows no signs of fading away.
Asked to relate some of the festival’s early history, Dick takes me to a quiet second-floor room in the concert hall. An alcove is crammed with Hollywood memorabilia relating to Dalies Frantz, a concert pianist, actor, and heartthrob who appeared in three films for MGM before joining the music faculty at the University of Texas-Austin, where Dick was one of his students. (Dick later studied with Clifford Curzon in London.)
Dick first attained wide notice when he reached the finals of the Busoni, Tchaikovsky, and Levintritt competitions in the span of less than a year (1965-66). A few years later, he wanted to establish a summer program for young pianists. But where? Dalies Frantz’s friend Ima Hogg, a major-league arts patron and daughter of a former Texas governor, suggested Round Top. (She had renovated a historic pioneer settlement in nearby Winedale, given it to the University of Texas, and suggested it stage a Shakespeare festival there. Shakespeare at Winedale is still going strong.) The agrarian setting was comfortable for Dick — he’d grown up on a farm near Hutchinson, Kan. Round Top was classically rural, but not so remote that it could not draw an audience from Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. (The large market area was confirmed by the bang-up success of Miss Edna’s Chicken Ranch in La Grange, then still in operation with the sheriff’s blessing.)
In 1971 Dick launched his institute, with ten young pianists. They practiced on rented uprights set up in area homes, and performances were presented in Round Top’s town hall.
“That was the genesis. It was very simple,” Dick said. “I had no inkling of something so remarkable, with an orchestra and chamber music.”
After two years, the vision expanded. Dick established a foundation to raise money and acquire property. The campus began with a few acres and a surplus elementary school. Dick hocked a car and a piano to acquire the “world’s largest transportable stage” — a one-off contraption made by Wenger, the concert shell company. Early orchestral concerts were held outdoors on that stage, set up near the neighboring dairy farmer’s fence; sometimes cows would mosey up to the fence and join their voices to the music. Chamber concerts — the Tokyo and Yale string quartets were early members of the strings faculty — were presented on the porch of a relocated house that served as Dick’s full-time residence.
More land was acquired, bit by bit. The campus crossed two roads and took in the neighboring farm, banishing the singing cows. In the mid-1980s, construction began on the concert hall. Dick’s aversion to borrowing money for buildings stretched the construction process out to two decades. For the first decade, as the concert hall slowly took shape, its stage was the old transportable, finally retired to a barn when the permanent stage was completed. Even then, audience seating evolved slowly from park benches to plastic garden chairs to the finished product, red-and-gold brocade upholstered seating.
An intimate, acoustically ideal venue for chamber music arrived in the early 2000s, when a historic Methodist church in La Grange was moved to the campus and renovated as the Edythe Bates Old Chapel. (It occupies a sloping site, and the apse is perched — improbably, of course — above a sort of Roman catacomb,which serves as backdrop to an outdoor dining area.) Only one item remains on the growth program: Dick envisions adding a wing for chamber music facilities to the concert hall.
The crops of Young Artists have steadily improved, and they are now entrusted with substantial portions of the ticketed chamber-music concerts, formerly the purview mainly of faculty, in addition to constituting the Texas Festival Orchestra. On a June 25 concert, Young Artists on their own did crisp and spirited work in the faster movements of André Lafosse’s Suite Impromptu (1996) for brass quintet (the slow movement wanted a clearer line) and Jean Cartan’s Introduction and Allegro (1926) for piano and wind quintet. (Cartan, who died of tuberculosis at the age 26, showed great promise in a style somewhat like Poulenc’s.) The excellent Brazilian violinist Christiano Rodrigues, himself a three-year alumnus of the Festival Institute, was the sole faculty musician in a fully agreeable performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat for strings. A Young Artist violist held his own nicely in the distinguished company of Ransom Wilson (flute) and Emilio Colón (cello) in Albert Roussel’s Trio, Op. 40 (1929). Pianists continue to be part of the Young Artist mix. This year there are four, one of whom made a strong impression paired with the splendid oboist Nicholas Stovall in Carl Nielsen’s Fantasy Pieces, Op. 2 (1889).
On July 2, Young Artists maintained clean ensemble without a conductor in Charles Gounod’s Petite Symphonie for wind nonet and supplied the polished string orchestra for Frank Martin’s prickly-erotic Three Dances for oboe (Stovall), harp (Paula Page), and strings. For the finale of that concert, Dick joined faculty violinists Regis Pasquier and Rodrigues, violist Susan Dubois, and cellist Stephen Balderston in César Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor. Its overwhelming intensity and brooding obsessiveness, like picking at a sore, are testaments to the aging composer’s infatuation with a young composition student. The strings gave full vent to these dark emotions, while Dick’s unflagging intelligence and penchant for understatement brought loftier feelings into view.
The only musical disappointment was American composer Amanda Harberg’s Viola Concerto (2011-12), centerpiece of the June 18 orchestral concert conducted by Linus Lerner. It was composed for Brett Deubner, the able soloist here. Alas, the solo part is largely make-work virtuosity in the outer allegros, and the ardent solo line in the central slow movement is undercut by a treacly orchestral backdrop. The piece opens arrestingly with shimmering orchestral colors — tuned percussion and brass — but the tonal, neo-romantic idiom too often devolves into blandness.
Such misfires are rare at the Round Top Festival Institute. It has been an astonishing story to observe over the decades — I began covering it in the early 1980s— as it has steadily matured while remaining fresh. Happily, the organization’s distinctive culture is deeply entrenched. Dick is far from ready to appoint a successor — he grows slightly testy when it is pointed out that he is not immortal — but a plan is in place to continue his vision when the time comes.
The festival continues through July 16. The July 9 orchestral concert offers Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat (Raymond Riccomini) and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and tenor William Burden; the conductor is Vladimir Kulenovic. The July 16 orchestral concert pairs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (James Dick) with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10; the conductor is Carl St. Clair.
Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.