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.
A Texas native, Carl St. Clair is Music Director of the Pacific Symphony and of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Costa Rica, and he serves on the faculty of the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music.
Listen to the 2016 Texas Festival Orchestra, conducted by Carl St. Clair, performing the 4th movement of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10, below. Recorded in Festival Concert Hall on July 16, 2016; Andy Bradley, recording engineer:
Carl St. Clair will conduct the 2018 Texas Festival Orchestra in the season-finale concert on Saturday, July 14. This summer’s orchestra is made of up approximately 90 artists chosen from more than 500 applicants.
Learn more about Carl St. Clair, his 2018 Round Top program, and his life as a conductor, below:
How did you fall in love with classical music, and specifically with conducting?
My relationship began with music in the Hochheim Baptist Church (membership about 25 or so, mostly farmers) in Hochheim, Texas (population about 36 people) and also on our neighbor's front porch – the Moore's house down by the Guadalupe River. It was all homespun and certainly not classical, but it was heartfelt and passionate.
My relationship with the piano came as a birthday gift for my 6th birthday. My mom had promised me the best gift ever. For a south Texas farm boy, piano lessons were the furthest thing from my mind. As it turned out, it was the best gift she could have ever offered me. My Aunt Leita Lepori was my piano teacher. She helped mold me into the musician I am today, even from that very young age.
Conducting was something that entered my mind much later, not until I was a senior in college at the University of Texas at Austin. My teacher there was Dr. Walter Ducloux. It was a blessing in that he was from the Weingartner and Furtwängler traditions in Austria and Germany. It was a marvelous entrance into the 19th-century Romantic and Germanic opera and symphonic repertoire.
What does the art of conducting mean to you?
It is interesting that in your question you refer to it as the "art of conducting." I am not quite sure that it is an art in of itself. To me, conducting is all about "service" – serving the composer and the musicians performing. It is about creating an atmosphere so that music of the utmost integrity can be created. Controlling the atmosphere so that music can "grow," if you will, is one of my main objectives while on the podium.
How long have you been coming to the Round Top Music Festival?
I believe that my first visit to the Festival was in 1995. All I remember is that the wonderful concert hall there was yet to be completed. I first remember hearing (pianist and festival founder) James Dick perform with the Austin Symphony in the very early ‘70s in Austin. This was my first experience with him. He performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the late Akira Endo. It was just amazing! And, it was my first time to hear a Rachmaninoff piano concerto live. This is one reason it is such a wonderful experience to have the chance to perform Mozart's K. 453 with him this season on July 14. Last year's Beethoven Fourth was a thrilling conclusion to the Festival. It is always a great pleasure to have the opportunity to return to Round Top.
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?
PASSION! There must always be a balance between reason and passion in our music making, but if I am going to err, it will be on the side of "passion." Also, since my life as a conductor is in the professional arena, I hope to present the professional expectations with which they will be met in the "outside" world.
What do you end up learning from these young musicians? How does this Festival enrich you as an artist?
This August 25th will mark the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein – my friend, mentor, and teacher. If you reflect on his life, especially during the last years, he spent an inordinate amount of time with young orchestras, young musicians, conductors, and composers. He was rejuvenated by their youthful passion and lust for music making. He received almost as much as he gave from these experiences. When I am conducting young orchestras, perhaps with repertoire they are experiencing for the first time, it is an exhilarating experience. One that renews my own energies and inspires and motivates me. Also, I made a promise to Mr. B. that I would "give back" as he had given to me.
Does the scenic location and the Texas landscape of Round Top inspire you in any way?
When I am at Round Top, I am overwhelmed by a strong sense of nostalgia. Having grown up not far from there, the smells, even the sweltering heat, and the landscape bring back memories of my childhood growing up on a farm on the Guadalupe River basin. There is a freeing sense which comes with the openness of undisturbed nature. All of this surely helps one's creative juices and offers a backdrop for deep thinking and beautiful music making.
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?
If there were a cook-out/off among the various music festivals I have been a part of around the world, without doubt, the Festival at Round Top would take home the blue ribbon. Everything is tasty!
Is there a theme to the program you're presenting on July 14? How does Mozart fit into an otherwise modern program of Debussy and Shostakovich?
First off, when I select repertoire for any such guest engagement, I want to share repertoire with the orchestra that they will be performing throughout their careers – standard repertoire, which remains part of the mainstay of works on concert stages today. Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 are just such works. Also, the opening work which precedes a delicate and exquisite Mozart Piano Concerto cannot be overly boisterous, so the impressionistic delicacy of the Prelude fits perfectly. This first half serves as a compliment – by being in strong contrast – to Prokofiev's powerful Fifth Symphony, which he composed while WWII was still raging.
The program will open with Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. What do you think is the genius behind this piece?
As you know, Boulez considered this work to mark the onset of "modern music." Its free-flowing, almost improvisational nature, set with impressionistic orchestral colors takes the listener on a timeless musical journey. Debussy himself said that it is "a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams of the faun in the heat of the afternoon ... he succumbs to intoxicating sleep, in which he can finally realize his dreams of possession in universal Nature."
Are there any "fun facts" to share about Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17, K. 453, which you will be performing with pianist James Dick? And what do you love about it?
It is a concerto that features wonderful musical dialogues between piano and the woodwinds. This is not surprising in that it was written around 1784, the same time that Mozart composed his Quintet in E-flat major for Winds and Piano. I do know that Mozart composed no less than 5 masterpiece piano concerts which begin with the same rhythmic beat, which (it is said) stems from his hearing a marching band outside his window. All said, this concerto exudes with the same sense of joy of most of his music. When I am asked about my five "desert island" CDs, I always say the same thing – "any 5 Mozart Piano Concertos." They are like operas without words.
What are a few things you would like us to know about Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5?
Prokofiev hadn't composed a symphony in about 14 years before composing his Fifth. It was just building up inside him. He composed it in just a few short months. It is a powerful wartime symphony. Though he was in Russia when he wrote it, the influences of his travels before returning to his "motherland" can certainly be heard.
What is the funniest or most unusual thing that has ever happened to you, or that you have witnessed, on stage during a concert?
It was in Sofia, Bulgaria when I was conducting the Philharmonia there. We were rehearsing the Final of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony and I was talking about the incredible energy in the music and that Wagner had termed this as the "apotheosis of the dance." I was asking them to play with utmost energy and commitment when the entire orchestra – every person in the room – wagged their heads from left to right as if to say (indicate) "NO." I was so shocked. I had never said anything which prompted the whole orchestra, every musician, to respond in a collective "NO." I then very quietly got off the podium and asked the concertmaster if I had said something which had offended the musicians. They all had a big laugh when they explained to me that in Bulgaria moving your head from left to right meant YES and that moving one's head up and down – as we do in American and practically everywhere else in the world to mean YES – actually meant NO. We all had a big laugh on me, but the Finale was riveting when we began playing it again.
What is the best advice you ever received?
It is my life motto: work hard, be honest, be thankful, remain humble.
You are conducting during the final week of the 2018 Round Top Music Festival. I assume that, over the years, you have conducted during different weeks of the festival. Based on your experiences, what have you observed about how the orchestra grows through the course of the festival? What changes occur in these young musicians between Week 1 and Week 6?
The Round Top Music Festival is such a rich ground for musical growth and development, I can only imagine that during the festival there is immense improvement with each week. With such a dedicated, experienced, and talented faculty, each rehearsal, masterclass, or lesson takes each student a step further down their career path. Very often, I have heard from students that they had grown more in the few weeks of the festival than during an entire year at whatever institution of higher learning they might be attending. The intenseness of the Round Top Festival is just the opportunity for serious musicians to take giant steps in their personal and musical development.