The Round Top Music Festival is a long-time Texas classical music tradition. Founded in 1971 by concert pianist James Dick, the summer institute is a training ground for exceptional young musicians from universities and conservatories around the world.
The annual six-week festival has become known for its orchestral concerts, chamber music recitals, and masterclasses, as well as for its 210-acre campus in the Texas Hill Country filled with historic architecture, fountains, gardens, herb collections, and cats.
In this series, Notes from Round Top, we'll feature concert recordings and interviews with conductors of the 2018 Round Top Music Festival, which takes place June 3 – July 15.
Listen to the 2017 Texas Festival Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Kulenovic, performing the 1st movement of Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony, below. Recorded in Festival Concert Hall on July 8, 2017; Andy Bradley, recording engineer:
Vladimir Kulenovic will conduct the 2018 Texas Festival Orchestra in concerts on Saturday, June 30 and Sunday, July 1. This summer's orchestra is made of up approximately 90 artists chosen from more than 500 applicants.
Learn more about Vladimir Kulenovic, his 2018 Round Top programs, and his life as a conductor, below:
How did you fall in love with classical music, and specifically with conducting?
I fell in love with music most naturally, since I was fortunate to enter the world of music at the very earliest age, before even being conscious of my own identity. I credit my dear parents for that opportunity. My mother was performing all of Bach's harpsichord concertos around the time of my birth, and my father was a prolific composer. The "legend" goes that I "stole" my father's conducting baton before the age of three, while he was practicing Stravinsky's Firebird. It was my favorite toy through childhood, and the family joke is that I still refuse to return it!
How long have you been coming to the Round Top Music Festival?
I have been coming to this magical music haven for four summers now.
At Round Top, you are a mentor as well as a conductor. What do you hope to impart to these young musicians during your week with them?
Every great work of music is a prism. My clearest service to these capable musicians at Round Top is to offer them my viewpoints and the highest level of musical excellence, as well as to create an artistic process that will allow for their individual self-expression and realization.
What do you end up learning from these young musicians? How does this Festival enrich you as an artist?
As I said above, a musical work is a prism. The artistic process is a process of communication. I will learn an equal amount from each and all of the musicians, as they will from me. A conductor's first instrument is open ears, second is an open mind, and third is open arms to embrace his colleagues.
Is there a theme to the program you're presenting on June 30?
Actually there are two programs that we are doing this year. Philosophically speaking, one can say that the ‘past’ and the ‘future' are two overarching themes between the programs. One program (June 30) concentrates on Bruckner and Sibelius, whose works contain a certain nostalgia towards the past, while the other program (July 1) features American music, which is entirely optimistic and looking forward to the future.
The June 30th program will open with the Sibelius Violin Concerto – a famous and beloved work. Why do you think this concerto has remained so popular with audiences? How does it speak to you, personally?
This is a singular piece by all means. The vulnerability of the autobiographical elements of its narrative is one of the most moving experiences a performer can experience while identifying in the first person. The dense emotional expression, which is omnipresent, demands a near emotional sacrifice on the part of the performers. It is life or death by all means, and the depth of every note leads me into the unknown at my every encounter with this introspective masterpiece.
The soloist for the Sibelius concerto will be violinist Stefan Milenkovich. Have you worked with him before? What do you enjoy about performing with him?
I have known Stefan since my childhood, as we both grew up in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. I always looked up to him as an artist, and it is always a special privilege to work with Stefan. I have performed beside him on several occasions throughout our careers, and each instance has been a uniquely profound experience. What can be said of Stefan can be told of only a handful of performing artists through our history: he is a once-in-mankind phenomenon, and we are lucky to witness the gift that his performances always are.
Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 is on the second half of the June 30th program. Do you remember the first time that you heard (or conducted) that work? What were your impressions of it then, and how has your appreciation of it deepened over time?
The first time I heard it, I had a sense that I had heard this piece and known it forever. I absorbed it very quickly in my studies, but only with a realization that my work with it will last me a lifetime and still not be enough. At this time, I feel the piece is working on me more than I am working on it.
What has been your proudest moment as a conductor?
Utah Symphony Outdoor Concert in Taylorsville, Utah. An 8-year old named Gabe came with his grandmother during intermission. His grandma told me that he always wanted to be a conductor. Instantly and spontaneously, I offered him a chance to conduct the Utah Symphony with me in the last encore, “Stars and Stripes Forever,” even though it was apparent that he had no formal musical education. He took me up, in spite of his grandma's uneasiness, and after a 10-minute lesson he was ready to go. We started the piece together, and after four bars, I walked away from the podium leaving him in front of one of the largest orchestras in the United States. He was brilliantly terrific, and it was a triumphal success! As I walked off the stage with him, his mother took me aside in tears of happiness and told me what I didn't know: that Gabe had a brain tumor. We stayed friends. I spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas with them while I lived in town, and both Gabe and I got the greatest gift in life.
Who is your conducting hero, and why?
My dad. Because he is the bravest.
What is the funniest or most unusual thing that has ever happened to you, or that you have witnessed, on stage during a concert?
A black cat once wondered on stage during my performance of the Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms with the Macedonian Philharmonic in Skopje in 2011! She survived, and so did Brahms – the orchestra played beautifully!
You'll also conduct the Patriotic Concert on July 1. What do you enjoy about American music, from the traditional (like Sousa marches) to the contemporary? And what does it mean to you to lead this concert and national celebration at Round Top?
I am a proud American Citizen, and this country has provided my family and me a safe haven in times of distress in my home country of Yugoslavia. One thing that all my friends know about me is that once I have a reason to be grateful to you, I will never stop expressing my gratitude. American people are such friends of mine, and I will spend my lifetime thanking all of them through the music, especially American music, that celebrates this friendship. Thanks for having me here!