With two decades of success behind them, the forces that partner each year for the Laguna Beach Music Festival — the Philharmonic Society of Orange County and Laguna Beach Live! — could have played it safe for their 20th-anniversary event and stayed in the comfortable harbor of a traditional chamber-music weekend. Instead, they opted to sail into uncharted waters with a fearless musical adventurer at the helm: Grammy Award-winning mandolinist, singer, and composer Chris Thile is the festival artistic director. For a quick guide to Thile’s remarkable music and history, check out our recent Essential Chris Thile.
Thile, for one, couldn’t be happier. As he told SFCV in a phone interview, “I’m really excited about this. It’s the first thing I’ve curated that had this kind of a classical lens, and you can see all the loopholes I’ve insisted on finding. All credit to the Laguna Beach folks for not just rolling with it, but for matching my enthusiasm for pushing and pulling at the perceived boundaries of a ‘chamber music’ festival.
“Of course, there’s no friendlier, more inclusive pair of words than ‘chamber music,’” he added. “I feel like if we have a chamber of some sort and music, then we have chamber music. And I might go so far as to say we don’t want tons of electricity involved, but beyond that, the festival folks made it clear that I had a pretty blank canvas to work with.”
Thile assembled a remarkable roster of like-minded musical adventurers for the weekend’s journey, including new-music ensemble yMusic, vocalist/flutist Nathalie Joachim, award-winning violinist Tessa Lark, virtuoso bassist Michael Thurber, and members of Salastina. “Especially coming out of the last few years that we’ve had,” said Thile, “I welcome the chance to not only get to hang out with some dear friends that I’ve collaborated with a bunch at this point, yMusic for example, but also with some people that I’ve had brief-but-joyful interactions with, like Nathalie or Tessa and Michael.”
The mandolinist is adamant that he doesn’t want to characterize this coterie as a bunch of renegades. “I get a little bristly when people talk about ‘genre busters’ and things like that,” he said. “You are increasingly finding musicians who have grown up without the concept of genre. They just have access to the world’s music and they are members of a global music-making community that is more-or-less borderless, and they are training themselves accordingly, to be ready for the width and breadth of what music has to offer. My dearest hope is that this year’s festival is a reflection of that development within the realm of serious music-making.”
When asked about the challenges of pulling together a festival’s worth of music with some new collaborators, he’s quick to dismiss that concern. “When you enlist collaborators of this caliber, content is never the issue, it’s how to whittle it down” he said. “Any one of these artists could curate a festival like this. They come with ideas, and that’s always what I want. I feel like I’m a point guard here. I don’t need to score; I need to get the ball to someone who can score. My role is to run point and pass the ball to the other musicians.
“We’ve had great conversations with all the musicians about the music they want to put forward, and things that I think will be interesting to this particular audience. Plus stuff that I, as a music lover, am dying to hear them do. There’s stuff that’s right in their wheelhouse, but then we stretch a little bit together, in a way that we’re all champing at the bit to try, even though it might be a bit of a workout,” he said.
Thile will play a solo mandolin and voice concert this Friday, April 1, which ranges from transcriptions of Bach’s Partita No. 3 (BWV 1006) and Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin to interpretations of the bluegrass music he cut his teeth on. Saturday finds Thile playing with yMusic in a program that includes pieces by Gabriella Smith and Missy Mazzoli, as well as yMusic originals and a raft of Thile songs that will get a kind of premiere at the festival.
“While the songs themselves aren’t new, the arrangements are brand-spanking new,” said Thile. “Each of the songs was written in a week or less back when I was doing the radio show, but the performances listeners heard on the program were really just sketches. When yMusic’s [Rob] Moose suggested that he do some arrangements of those songs, it felt like an opportunity to complete them. Moose’s arrangement prowess is such that he really became a co-composer of the songs, and they’ve changed to the point that when we play them later this week, they really will be premieres.”
On Sunday, the concert showcases compositions by Nathalie Joachim and by Tessa Lark and Michael Thurber, with Thile and Salastina in the mix. “I’ve never actually had the chance to play with Nathalie and have only seen her perform with Eighth Blackbird,” said Thile, “but her music has been blowing me away lately. Such comfort and warmth emanating from everything she plays and writes and sings. She’s an extremely bright bulb on the scene right now.
“Tessa and Michael are a couple of magical beams that are pointing the way for classical — no I don’t even want to say that — just for musicians in general. These are two people that have all the facility and experience you would expect from artists who are steeped in a conservatory background, but then they’ve got the intuition and spontaneity of musicians who grew up playing on front porches and in the back rooms of pizza parlors. And so the music they make together emphasizes that kind of versatility,” he said.
Thile added, “All the musicians will do some things from square in the middle of what they are up to right now. We all have these anchors of things we’re familiar with from the core of what we’re currently doing, and from that point of comfort and confidence, we get to stretch out and take some chances.”
In addition to the weekend concerts, the festival offers additional seminars, presentations, and so forth. Details about the artists, concerts, events, and tickets are available at the festival website.