Texas Music Festival

When Is a Local Festival No Longer Just Local?

The Texas Music Festival has attracted an international following.

By Michael Hardy June 2, 2014 Published in the June 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Over 400 musicians from the US and 18 foreign countries applied for places in this year’s festival. Courtesy of Texas Music Festival

In the late ’80s, Immanuel Olshan, the owner of Olshan Foundation Repair, and his wife Helen embarked on a tour of America’s top summer classical music festivals. They hit Aspen and Tanglewood, the Brevard Music Center Festival in North Carolina and the Idlewild Music Fest in Michigan, and returned home to Houston determined to start their own event, which, like the ones they had visited, would bring top classical music students together with established conductors and musicians for an intensive month of training and public concerts. 

Texas Music Festival

June 2–28. Check website for performance schedule, locations, and prices.

“Texas had nothing like that,” Helen remembered in a 1993 interview. “Why should our children have to pay airfare when we could establish one here?” 

The Immanuel and Helen Olshan Texas Music Festival, hosted by UH’s Moores School of Music, welcomed its first class of students in 1990. Although the nonprofit struggled with its finances for the first few years, it’s now grown into a top national festival, arguably surpassing its rival, the International Festival-Institute at Round Top. The TMF may still lack the name recognition of Aspen or Tanglewood (a Houstonia reader nominated it as Houston’s greatest underappreciated treasure in our March issue), but the classical music world has certainly taken notice. 

“I have a friend who attended the festival 12 or 13 years ago, and back then people didn’t really know about it,” said Xiao Wang, a violin student at the Manhattan School of Music who participated in the TMF in 2012 and is returning this year. “Now, everyone’s talking about it because the faculty is so good, and also because it’s free of charge.” This year, 400 musicians from the US and 18 foreign countries auditioned for one of the festival’s 95 fully funded spots, which are made possible thanks to the continued support of the Olshan Foundation and UH. (Immanuel died in 1992, Helen in 2002.) 

The festival, currently led by violinist Alan Austin, marks its 25th anniversary this summer with a month of public performances by the TMF Orchestra, bookended by Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection) on June 7 and Shostakovich’s mammoth Symphony No. 10—written after the composer’s denunciation by Stalin—on June 28. Packed between those two dates are a special performance at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion of The Ring Without Words, Lorin Maazel’s arrangement of music from Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, as well as the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Young Artist Competition, a series of performances by Moores School faculty, and the Classical Minds Guitar Festival and Competition.

Taiwanese-born conductor Mei-Ann Chen, the music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, will conduct the festival’s closing-night concert, featuring the Shostakovich symphony and a performance by Time for Three, an innovative string trio whose repertoire ranges across classical, pop, and jazz.  

“Where else are you going to play Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, and all those other monumental pieces in a single month?” Chen said. “That’s one of the joys of conducting students—they don’t know any boundaries. So you push them and they exceed their limits wildly, and that’s when you get magic. You come to the festival as a student and you leave as a musician.”

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