Next in this series on summer music festivals is the Round Top Festival Institute. I attended Round Top the summer after my first year of graduate school, and as with my previous summers at Brevard, I collaborated with incredibly talented students, studied with gifted and dedicated faculty, and played some great repertoire! Compared to Brevard, Round Top is set up in a slightly different way. Rather than multiple student orchestras and a faculty orchestra, Round Top only has one orchestra, made up of students. The quality of the orchestra is very high, and since every student who is accepted into the festival receives full tuition, competition for admittance can be pretty stiff. I remember working very hard on my audition tape, and no, I didn’t record it in a studio! I actually recorded it in a local church back home in NC, using a Sony minidisc recorder. If I recall, the tape requirements included Beethoven 7,the Ravel Pavane, and several other standard orchestral works. The horn section at the festival that year included students from Juilliard, Eastman, New England Conservatory, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (yours truly).
The six week festival included weekly orchestral concerts, usually with a different conductor each week, as well as an extensive chamber music series featuring students and faculty. The horn faculty that year were truly amazing: Bill VerMeulen (Houston Symphony/Rice University), Michelle Baker (Metropolitan Opera) and Nancy Billman (Dorian Wind Quintet). Each teacher spent a few weeks at Round Top, teaching private lessons, giving master classes, and coaching sectionals and chamber music rehearsals. The students also got to perform alongside many of the faculty in chamber music performances. Two chamber music performances I was involved with and remember very fondly were Poulenc’s Brass Trio and Malcolm Arnold’s Brass Quintet No. 1. Both of those performances were prepared in a matter of a few days – a very short time compared to the usual rehearsal cycle most college students experience. A “typical” day at Round Top looked something like this: Morning – warm-ups, sectionals, chamber music rehearsals, and private lessons; Afternoon – full orchestral rehearsal, followed by more chamber music rehearsals; Evening: chamber music concerts, individual practice time, and yes, sometimes more chamber rehearsals. Needless to say, the days went by very quickly, and before I realized it the festival was almost over. I should also mention that every student at Round Top participates in a work scholarship program to help defray some of their expenses. My duties included a lot of backstage work, moving pianos, striking stages, and in general assisting the stage crew before and after concerts. This was a tremendous experience in itself, and I came away that summer with a greater awareness and newfound respect for all the work that takes place behind the scenes of every solo, chamber, or orchestral concert.
There are certainly other important experiences I could relate here, but I think the description I’ve given so far should be adequate. Suffice it to say Round Top is an excellent summer festival, and a great professional training ground. Aside from the musical experiences, I made some great friends, and ate some great food! All of the meals at Round Top are prepared daily in house, complete with fresh herbs harvested from the local gardens.