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Round Top: Setting the Stage

The elaborately carved woodwork throughout the Festival Institute's three-level concert hall enhances not only the venue's beauty, but also its acoustics. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

In the fertile, rolling hills southwest of Brenham, the village of Round Top (pop. 77) possesses the reliable charms of many small Texas towns, including family-owned restaurants that specialize in pies and pastries, cozy B&Bs, and plentiful shopping. Well-known by antiques-lovers for the spring and fall antiques markets that swell the population a hundredfold, Round Top also offers a surprise for connoisseurs of the performing arts. Rising above the oaks and pines off Jaster Road, a towering cupola caps the metal roof and gabled win-dows of an elegant, 1,000-seat concert hall surrounded by gurgling fountains and lush landscaping. Amid this bucolic setting, a sign near the entrance announces the Round Top Festival Institute—an internationally acclaimed, 210-acre campus that draws performers and audiences from around the world.

Gardens and fountains contribute a European vibe to the 210-acre campus. (Photo by J . Griffis Smith)

Here, on any given weekend, visitors attend not only concerts but also film screenings, dance performances, and arts-related symposiums, or merely stroll about the well-tended grounds, which are open to the public year round. In the spring, guitar enthusiasts congregate here for an annual guitar festival, gardeners drive in from around the state to attend a forum on herbs, and others come to hear respected poets read their works during the Institute’s yearly poetry weekend. In the summer, accomplished young musicians from around the world arrive in Round Top to take part in the Institute’s prestigious classical-music academy and give performances to audiences from near and far.

At the center of the activity is the main concert hall, which represents a kind of musical “field of dreams” for the Festival Institute’s founder, James Dick. A Kansas native, Dick received his training at the University of Texas at Austin before launching an international career as a concert pianist. The Festival Institute, which celebrates its 40th anniversary season this year, got its start in 1971, when Dick, inspired by his love of teaching, initiated a summer program for budding pianists to hone their skills amid the scenic backdrop of Fayette County.

Inspired by his love of teaching, pianist James Dick founded the Festival Institute in 1971. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

What started as a 10-day series of master classes for a small number of pianists now spans six weeks, from June through mid-July, and accommodates more than 80 international students (average age: 21) who specialize in piano, strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. The Institute grants full scholarships to participants, who must audition for a coveted spot in the program, and when accepted, train under six different conductors and a renowned faculty. Throughout the summer weeks, visitors can hear strains of classical music wafting across the grounds as the musicians rehearse for the popular weekend concerts, many of which are free to the public.

After the students leave, the Institute hosts an eclectic lineup of public performances and events known as the August-to-April Series. The 2009–2010 season offered such diverse acts as the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin, the Synergy Brass Quintet, the International Guitar Festival, the Texas Medical Center Orchestra, and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Houston. (The 2010-2011 calendar comes out in late April.)

In the early days, before the hall was built, the Institute held concerts by students, teachers, and visiting orchestras in an open field, with the musicians performing on a massive mobile stage. Audience members sat on bales of hay or brought their own folding chairs. Ivy Geiger, a longtime supporter of the Institute, recalls how she and her late husband lounged on blankets under the stars with Brie and champagne—waiting for the music to crescendo before daring to pop the cork

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