Last night, Sandy and I attended the opening night concert at the Round Top Festival Institute. Each summer, close to 100 of the most promising music students from around the world gather in small-town Texas to hone their skills and learn from master musicians. The stunning concert hall is a five-minute drive from our new home, The Free Bird Ranch. It seats 1,000 and looks like it was picked up from Vienna and plopped into the middle of rolling farmland in Fayette County. Despite pandemic restrictions that limited this year’s class to about 30 students, the concert, celebrating the 50th year of the Institute, was truly breathtaking. Like all worthwhile endeavors, it began as the dream of one committed, visionary, and unique individual – legendary pianist James Dick.
James grew up on a farm in Kansas. After graduating from the University of Texas and touring the world playing concerts, he was introduced to philanthropist Ima Hogg. Over lunch at her extraordinary home in Houston, Bayou Bend (a repository of a world-class antiques collection), she asked him if he’d ever heard of Round Top – he had not. The philanthropist-pianist duo began wandering around a field with weeds up to their eyeballs, imagining a place where beautiful music could be made and shared. Dick started out by borrowing space in local folks’ homes and teaching students there, then he purchased six acres and an old schoolhouse. Today, Festival Hill occupies an astounding 210 acres, and includes the restored Bates Chapel concert venue, a gorgeously crafted stone courtyard, charming lodging and teaching facilities, a magnificent herb garden, and the Old World concert hall. Like all great visions and visionaries, this vision came to pass because of the tenacity of the dreamer, the worthiness of the cause, and the support of many individuals.
For a worthy vision to come to fruition, it must first be one of clarity and clear purpose. The late President of Notre Dame University, Theodore Hesburgh, once said: “The very essence of leadership is that you have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” While it may have been a piano rather than brass, and words as well as notes, the founder of the festival was clear with his vision and able to imagine and articulate what would eventually become a reality.
Secondly, a worthy vision benefits others and makes the world a better place. It is not simply a showcase of one’s personal talents (although there is nothing wrong with spotlighting one’s extraordinary artistic gifts). But the Festival Institute is about helping students grow, learn, and thrive. After their six weeks in Round Top, they emerge far better musicians than when they arrived. They go forth into the world and gather up others to create and lend voice and instrument to the great cosmic symphony – one that helps us to harmonize and come together to create a more melodic planet, in tune with the dream of its Creator.
Thirdly, seeing a great vision take shape requires collaboration. Others must lend a hand, an idea, a song, or hefty check to support the vision. Ima Hogg was James’ partner early on, but many others joined his team to help see the vision to fruition. Even as the founder ages, a new generation of leaders must be raised up to support, expand, and further the cause. We have been already blessed to connect with wonderful people who support the Institute – board members, staff members, financial supporters, musicians; it takes a community to build a community – whether it is economic, artistic, educational, or spiritual.
And finally, the vision worth pursuing must lend some beauty along the way. As soon as one enters the concert hall, one is mesmerized by the beauty of the building. It is obvious that great care, foresight, and craftsmanship went into its imagining and creating. And with the downbeat of the conductor’s baton, the sounds emanating from the stage were downright transcendent, taking the listener to a place of deep joy, wonder, and even praise. It was a beautiful evening, made possible because of a beautiful idea centered on making beautiful music.
Of course, my observations are not exhaustive. Realizing a vision also takes tenacity, perseverance, and sacrifice. James Dick spoke of the “grit” necessary to keep the vision alive during a devastating pandemic that greatly reduced the impact of the Institute and its funding sources. Talent and temperament play a role as well. Without resources, dreams remain in the realm of the imagination. But clarity, cause, collaboration, and beauty are at the core of a dream realized. Sandy and I genuinely enjoyed the evening, and will be attending as many concerts as possible. And who knows? Perhaps our talents, dreams and experiences will someday play a small part in the extension of this glorious dream. We are lovers of music and beauty, creativity and those who are creative. All of these reconnect us to the Creative source of all being.
William “Father Bill” Miller is an Episcopal priest and writer living in Round Top, Texas. He is the author of “The Gospel According to Sam,” “The Beer Drinker’s Guide to God,” and “The Last Howlelujah.” He loves his wife Sandy, dogs, music, and tacos. He is the founder of Saint Cecilia’s in Round Top – a creative spiritual community that celebrates the arts and artists – coming fall of 2021!