Don’t let the name fool you: Round Top, just more than an hour’s drive from Austin, may have a quaint, even hillbilly moniker (it was named after the round tower on the postmaster’s house in the early 19th century), but it is the most culturally ambitious small town in Texas—emphasis on small. The 2010 census unearthed just 90 hardy souls who call Round Top home—although it will soon get two more residents when former Governor Rick Perry and Anita Perry move into their new custom home.
This unlikely setting serves as the magical backdrop for the Round Top Music Festival, the world-class series of classical music concerts that’s been an annual event each summer since 1971 and this year takes place through July 11. The Round Top Music Festival is considered one of the most smartly curated classical music festivals in the nation. This year, 92 young musicians were selected from more than 600 applicants to live on a full scholarship in Round Top over the summer, study with some of the most talented faculty members in the world, and perform in a series of engaging concerts. (The Round Top Festival Institute, which runs the Music Festival, had 56 applicants for French horn alone and picked just five musicians.)
The festival owes its existence to James Dick, the internationally acclaimed concert pianist and Texas Medal of Arts recipient, who grew up on a farm in Kansas, attended the University of Texas, and after two Fulbright Fellowships at the Royal Academy of Music in London (one wasn’t good enough), decided he wanted to teach music in the summers when he wasn’t touring. Although he was living in Austin at the time, he had never heard of Round Top, but friends recommended it. With his farm background, he loved the idea of fixing up such a rural space and turning it into something magical. “Restoration is a prime necessity in life; too many things are lost without thinking about their restorative values,” he says.
"When the Round Top Music Festival first came here, there was very little here. We're a catalyst for the whole region" —James Dick
Festival Hill, as the area that hosts the festival is known, was once just a measly six acres. Now it’s expanded to a leafy 210 acres, with 4,000 trees planted by the staff of the Institute and spacious concert venues that make it easy to imagine you’re in a European capital, not Central Texas. The stunning Festival Concert Hall, built in 2007, seats 1,000 and is often cited as being “acoustically perfect.” Each year, 8,000 music lovers from Austin, Houston, San Antonio, and surrounding areas attend the festival; to accommodate them all, there are now dozens of bed and breakfasts in Round Top and far more restaurants than there used to be. “When the festival first came here, there was very little here,” says Dick, who lives in Round Top yearround. “We’re a catalyst for this whole region. We’re in a very special spot. This isn’t like other concerts—they don’t just go into a cave of a concert hall. They can visit the gardens and hike and enjoy the whole special atmosphere.”
What, exactly, does it take to entirely transform a patch of dirt in rural Texas to one of the most sought-after performance spaces in the nation? “To create a place where all these other people get to shine—that is really a rare gift and to me, takes a muscular energy that a lot of artists don’t have,” says renowned poet Naomi Shihab Nye, who has been featured at the Poetry at Round Top Festival (also produced by the Institute). “To go out there and sit out in the audience with a full house of concerts by kids in the summer...I can’t quite grasp the fact that he was able to pull it off,” she says about Dick. “I have never seen him angry or miffed or ruffled; he’s a pure grace note of humanity.”