Big music near a tiney Texas town

Its curious that a little Texas town of 94 can be known to countless musicians. Simply mention Round Top and they say "Oh, yes, James Dick's music festival."

But that hardly tells the whole round Top story.

Festival Hill is where Mr. Dick actually lives and where his festival occurs every summer. What started out as a series of piano seminars a decade ago has grown into something more ambitious, more idealistic. For now there are pianists, string players, and enough other instrumentalists to form an entire orchestra. They are all students who gather to be taught by Mr. Dick, by his faculty of visiting artists, and by Leon Fleisher, who trains and conducts the orchestra.

I was invited down to give a seminar, and had no idea what to expect. I was not prepared for the almost Shangri-La aspect of the locale and of the festival itself. The landscape is not the flat, arid Hollywood-inspired expectation, but rather a gently rolling, quite green countryside that suggests more the eastern Long Island, New York, of 15 years ago.

On the Festival Hill property are several buildings -- the William Lockhart Clayton House, where the staff lives and works; an old schoolhouse, used for the cafeteria as well as the seminar room (which also includes dorm rooms); and other buildings that serve as practice rooms and living quarters for the some 60 students who participate each summer.

It is the totality of Festival Hill, the care of planning, and the seriousness of intent that is to beguiling. Mr. Dick believes in the value of this sort of place. He believes in the importance of passing down a tradition from generation to generation (he notes that the tradition he is trying to maintain is that of Arthur Schnabel, the noted pianist).

He even hopes to add singing to the agenda sometime. "In this country, there's no lieder tradition, and I'd like to see us do something about that. . . ." At the same time, he stresses that he does not want Round Top to turn into a competition. So it is the laborious process of finding a faculty that interacts well, a student body that is talented and able to learn from this sort of intense but noncompetitive situation, and coping with the expansion of the physical facilities.

"You can't do everything at once, nor should you, because you don't see what you need at the outset," observes Mr. Dick. Looking around Festival Hill, however, one sees a flexible unfolding of a master ideal -- from the Tchaikovsky gates at Clayton House (replicas of the gates at the composer's home in Russia, where Mr. Dick was a finalist in the Tchaikovsky Competition and then the first finalist to be asked back as a judge) -- to the area where the concert hall will one day proudly stand.

That it all happens in the seemingly improbable countryside of this vast state is but one of the countless marvels that is Festival Hill at Round Top.

The idea of Round Top centers on the orchestra and around the guest faculty members that this year included Young-Uck Kim and Ida Kavafian, violinists, Yehuda Hanani and Paul Tobias, cellists, James VanDemark, double bass, Thomas Bacon (principal horn of the Houston Symphony), and Jeannette Haien and Patricia Zander, and of course, Mr. Dick, on the piano.

There are private and master classes for the instrumentalists, chamber music courses, and the orchestra itself.

Students can apply for fellowships that reduce the cost to as little as 1/3 of the actual expense. Room and board is provided on the Hill. The rooms can accommodate five people, though four is more like the norm. And all rooms (except in the schoolhouse) double as fully soundproofed practice rooms as well, with other a foot of insulation between walls. Unlike places like Marlboro, one is not likely to hear music coming from these buildings, which are air conditioned and soundproofed.

Students perform in the orchestra, and sometimes at the Sunday afternoon concerts in the Clayton House rooms. Orchestra concerts are held outside on the portable shell that is set up for the season, and chamber concerts are given in the courtyard of the house, named after Mr. Dick's teacher, the late Dalies Frantz. The weekend I was in attendance, the visiting musicians included Messrs. Kim and Hanani, Miss Zander, and Mr. Dick.

That weekend also happened to be the festival's 10th anniversary celebration. The Houston Symphony Orchestra was there and Mr. Dick played the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto, and the orchestra's new artistic adviser, Sergiu Commissiona, conducted Rossini's "Semiramide" overture and Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony.

Music out of doors is not ideal, but everyone made the best of it -- the orchestra rendering a rousing and superbly proportioned Tchaikovsky under Comissiona. Maestro and soloist rose to true heights in the "Adagio" of the concerto, where Mr. Dick allowed those opening chords to sound so quietly, so far apart, as if to invoke another world altogether.

Truth to tell, the chamber music was more energetic than polished, but the audience that gathered appreciated every bit of it -- whether Mr. Hanani's large-tone, heartfeld Bach, Mr. Kim's and Miss Zander's lovely Mozart, or Messrs. Dick, Kim, and Hanani's impassioned, energetic Brahms.

But as with so many other places -- Marlboro, Aspen, wherever -- the story of Round Top is not just the concerts, open to the public.

And indeed a festival that is some two hours out of Austin and 2 1/2 hours out of Hoston is not destined to draw tens of thousands to its stages.

I asked Mr. Dick, "Why Round Top"? He noted that he had first come to the area to play at a restoration village in 1968 and was immediately struck by what he saw there. A few seasons later the series of concerts, which by now had some master classes thrown in, had moved to Round Top, where another historic village was being restored.

As the idea of master classes around the series of concerts grew into a festival idea, it became obvious to Dick and his board that a permanent home was needed. The next step was buying property and settling in, which is how Festival Hill became a reality. As he ruminates about the entire project, he states, "I would like to see this as a real definition of 'academy' -- people coming together and stimulating one another."

And the six weeks of concentrated effort fit into his overall life as a concert pianist; i.e., devoting only a certain amount of time teaching in a master class context, so the rest of his time can be free for practicing and concertizing. And when Festival Hill is fully geared up, it must be quite a place: orchestra rehearsals outside, chamber music rehearsals in the Clayton House, and countless corners where students practice.

Some of the minutiae of execution are a bit erratic, which is to be expected from a young institution. And one senses a bit of overly ambitious expectations in programming, when looking over the season's schedule, that can only lead to less than fully prepared performances.

These are all things Mr. Dick will have to (and is doubtless beginning to) address himself to.

Festival Hill is in the slow process of expanding its facilities. For the first thing to hit you, if you are fortunate enough to be roaming through Clayton House, is the quality of the woodwork -- especially the Victorian trim on the walls, around doors and windows. It turns out that the area was originally settled by wealthy Germans, who brought over craftsmen and artisans so they could have the sort of home they were accustomed to in the homeland.

Round Top and other nearby towns are populated by these artisans' children and grandchildren, who are now doing all the restoration work on the property. This is an especially big project when it comes to the Meinecke House, which has just been moved to the Hill and is being transformed into a conference center. The old Victorian Ranch House had all its oak doors intact. That woodwork will be restored and, where necessary, re-created. At the same time foot-thick walls will be installed for total soundproofing. A fully usable basement has been added under the house of kitchen and cafeteria, and an upstairs is being built into the copious attic space.

These craftsmen are pleased to have a chance to tackle a creative project rather than just patch clapboard or fix window frames. They say that they are leaving a legacy for their grand- and great-grandchildren. And when Meinecke House is finished, it will non only be a new addition to the accommodation-rehearsal facilities of Festival Hill, but also a winter conference center that will be a source of much-needed income for the festival.

When Meinecke is finally complete, the crowning project will begin -- the building of a concert hall that will seat about 1,000. Outdoor concerts are a lovely ideal, but what with tarantulas that crawl onstage or up legs, and what with traffic on the road, barking dogs, winds, etc., etc., an enclosed space is a necessity if Festival Hill is to keep thriving as a performance place where people really want to come to hear music.

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