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.
Long recognized as one of the world's leading flutists, Ransom Wilson is Music Director and Conductor of the Redlands Symphony and Artistic Director of Le Train Bleu. He is also Professor of Flute at Yale School of Music.
Listen to the 2017 Texas Festival Orchestra, conducted by Ransom Wilson, performing Maurice Ravel's Alborada del gracioso, below. Recorded in Festival Concert Hall on June 24, 2017; Andy Bradley, recording engineer:
Learn more about Ransom Wilson, his 2018 Round Top program, and his life as a conductor and flutist, below:
How did you fall in love with classical music, and with the flute?
I went to an orchestra concert at my grade school in Alabama. I loved the way the flute sounded, but I was intrigued by the piccolo because it could be heard above the whole orchestra! Thank goodness no local flute teacher would allow me to start on the piccolo. Pretty quickly it became obvious that I was born to play the flute.
How and when did you fall in love with conducting?
I had been traveling a lot as a flute soloist when I began to be fascinated by the sound of string instruments. At the same time, orchestral repertoire was becoming more and more interesting to me. By 1981 I felt I had to do something about it. So I contacted my alma mater, The Juilliard School, to ask their advice. They put me in touch with a wonderful young conductor, Roger Nierenberg. At the time he was conducting the Juilliard Pre-College Orchestra, and he happened to be a skilled and insightful teacher. I was serious about developing a classic technique, so studied with him for 6 months before I even did my first rehearsal.
More study with Roger led to lessons with my other teachers: James Dixon, Otto-Werner Mueller, and the great Leonard Bernstein. All three were old-fashioned in their approaches, and all had studied with or were devotees of old European conductors. Dixon had won every prize it is possible to win as an American conductor, and was a Fritz Reiner fanatic. Mueller was considered the greatest conducting teacher in America, and taught at Yale, Juilliard, and Curtis. He had studied in Germany before WWII, and then in Russia with Igor Markevitch. He spoke several languages and was an uncompromising teacher. I'm sure I never reached his standards, but from him I learned an impeccably clear technique and to have a unique overview of the music. He also taught me that anything – no matter how difficult – can be learned if you apply yourself to it.
Leonard Bernstein was the only true genius I have ever known. He had invited me to be the soloist in his flute concerto called Halil. We went on two world tours with the Israel Philharmonic, and I was always first on the program. For the rest of the program he would let me sit in the orchestra just to watch him conducting Brahms and Mahler. What an experience! I learned how important it is to have an emotional connection to the music, and to show that connection to the orchestra. He gave me private lessons as well, where I learned about his very personal views on composition and musical form.
What does the art of conducting mean to you?
It means establishing an emotional and spiritual connection with the music, which will help the orchestra to play their best. I think of my job as that of an enabler, allowing the orchestra to work as a better team.
How long have you been coming to the Round Top Music Festival?
For about 7 or 8 years!
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?
The most important thing I can impart is the fact that in order to have fun in the concert, you have to be serious in the rehearsals. Of course that extends to their personal work on their own instrument as well!
What do you end up learning from these young musicians? How does this Festival enrich you as an artist?
I prefer to work with young musicians. They have so much energy and freshness, it helps me to stay young. What I do for them is to keep them on the rails!
Does the scenic location of Round Top and the Texas landscape inspire you in any way?
Yes, it's like being in the 19th Century … a quieter, simpler time. You can really concentrate on what you love in Round Top.
I have heard that the food is great at Round Top! Do you have a favorite local dish, or Texas specialty, that you look forward to when you come to the Festival?
I'm from the Deep South, but I live now in Connecticut. So whenever I'm around down home food, I go crazy. Of course Texas BBQ is legendary, but the fried chicken is also surprisingly great. My favorite place is Gold 'n Crisp in La Grange. It is individually owned by the original owner. The fried chicken is as good as I remember from my childhood in Alabama!
Is there a theme to the program you're presenting on July 7?
It's the 100th Anniversary of Claude Debussy's death, so it is a collection of some of his greatest works – Nuages (“Clouds”) and Fêtes (“Festivals”) from Noctures, Images for Orchestra, Danse – with a violin work by Chausson thrown in for good measure.
Can you tell me about your personal affection for French music?
Since I was a small boy, I have been fascinated by France and French culture. I love the food, the art, the music, and the people. The French are so incredibly proud of their colorful history and culture. With good reason, as far as I am concerned, and I adore them! The first time I heard flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal when I was 15, I was hooked. He eventually became my main teacher, and is still my greatest inspiration. I learned French in order to study with him, and still I go there very often. I'll be going to Paris this August to teach a week-long masterclass in French and English.
As you just mentioned, you studied with the great Jean-Pierre Rampal early in your career. What was JPR like?
He was not the kind of teacher that gave you specifics about technical difficulties. He was all about inspiration. His approach to music and living was all about joie de vivre, and he was the most generous person I have ever known in my life.
What is the funniest or most unusual thing that has ever happened to you, or that you have witnessed, on stage during a concert?
I was playing in an orchestra in a concert when there was a power failure. It was the slow movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, and the orchestra continued to play from memory for a surprisingly long time. But eventually the music slowly evaporated. It was an extraordinary sound!
As a musician who has had, and continues to have, such an accomplished and versatile career, what is the best advice you ever received?
"If you are thinking about technical issues during a performance, you're not giving a good performance."