Laguna Beach Music Festival returns – concerts, discussions and live music are back, mandolinist Chris Thile creates vibrant event


Expect some contrasts to arise when mandolinist Chris Thile brings his talent as artistic director to the harmonious Laguna Beach Music Festival starting March 30. The MacArthur Fellow and Grammy-winning artist is so thrilled at the collaborative opportunities he can barely contain himself. 

“I’m a contrast junkie. I love hearing the width and breadth of what music has to offer,” Thile said. “This is a weekend that really runs the gamut of textural possibilities and perspectives.” 

Although he’s curated many performances, and his experiences on live radio (he hosted Prairie Home Companion when Garrison Keillor retired in 2016) have allowed him to control content, this is Thile’s first time curating an entire festival. 

“Bringing it into its present shape is quite a process – and a rewarding one,” he said. “It takes time to figure out the fun collection of people who can all do it. Ultimately, this festival is full of people who make music for an engaged audience.”

Thile will be joined at various times by vocalist and flutist Nathalie Joachim, whose interdisciplinary skills navigate from classical to indie-rock; the group yMusic, whose chamber music breaks boundaries and violinist Tessa Lark and bassist Michael Thurber who fuse classical and American music to critical acclaim. 

Laguna Beach Chris Thile

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Photo by Josh Goleman

Chris Thile, recipient of both a MacArthur Fellowship and a Grammy, is the artistic director for the 20th Laguna Beach Music Festival 

“I have a voracious appetite for musical exploration and this (festival) gives us a safe place to think about what we can do with our contributions,” he said. 

The collaborations play off Thile’s eclectic love of all kinds of music –including a bluegrass background that was nurtured while growing up in Oceanside, CA (and matured when he started living in Kentucky) as well as classical, rock and jazz. 

His far-reaching talents brought him to the attention of the LBMF coordinators – Laguna Beach Live! and the Philharmonic Society of Orange County – when they were planning a special 20th anniversary festival in a pre-COVID era. Thile’s exploratory musical ways seemed a perfect fit as the multi-day festival includes not only traditional concerts, but also presentations at schools and the Susi Q Center.

Laguna Beach yMusic

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Courtesy of Philharmonic Society of Orange County 

yMusic, a chamber group that doesn’t fit in the traditional chamber group mold, will speak with Laguna’s middle and high school students, as well as perform with Thile at the Laguna Playhouse on April 2 

“It feels luxurious to get some time to prepare in a traditional festival environment,” Thile said from his home in Brooklyn. “They (festival organizers) have been so accommodating. They haven’t been busy saying ‘no’ a bunch.”

That’s the same attitude Thile experienced when he was 5 years old and saw someone playing a mandolin in Carlsbad. 

“I fell more in love with that guy than the instrument. If he’d been playing the kazoo I’d now be a kazoo player,” he recalls. “I don’t think we really choose our instrument…I have as little control over the mandolin being my instrument as the fact that my voice is a little bit reedier and higher than I wish it were. In a way, I think it’s as random as that.” 

That mandolin player not only inspired Thile to pick up the instrument, he became his teacher for six years. Thile thrived being a Californian playing bluegrass, had a record label contract and ultimately earned a Grammy in the Contemporary Folk category with his band Nickel Creek.

Laguna Beach Lark and Thurber

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Courtesy of Philharmonic Society of Orange County 

Violinist Tessa Lark and Michael Thurber on bass will perform April 3 with Thile at the Laguna Playhouse 

But when his family moved to Kentucky, where bluegrass was the norm, he realized the limits of his musical knowledge. “What I found was that I needed to listen to my parents’ entire record collection,” he said. 

John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Yo-Yo Ma and Bach’s cello suites revealed a world of new wonder.

“My parents were encouraging, but not overly encouraging. When I said I wanted to be in some contest or something it was my own doing,” Thiles said. Their low-key manner allowed him to develop a joyful, exploratory, love of music. 

Laguna Beach Joachim

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Courtesy of Philharmonic Society of Orange County 

Nathalie Joachim, a Brooklyn born Haitian-American flutist, composer and vocalist will join Thile at the Laguna Playhouse on April 3

And he expects that adventurous music will be on full display during the festival. “There’s a kind of music that smacks people in the head – and there is nothing wrong with that. But this (festival) is music that wants participation. It’s not yelling at you through a bullhorn about itself – it’s inviting you to have a seat with it at the bar.”

The musicians performing and the venues of the 20th Laguna Beach Music Festival are diverse: 

–Thile will open the festival with a solo performance at a private home in Laguna Beach on Wednesday, March 30 at 6 p.m. 

–yMusic presents a lecture demonstration at both Thurston Middle and Laguna Beach High schools on March 31 in the morning. 

–Thile performs April 1 at the Susi Q at 10 a.m. and the opening night concert will be held at Laguna Playhouse at 8 p.m. 

–A seminar on entrepreneurship in music will be held at Chamber Music OC on April 2 at 9:30 a.m. 

–Thile and yMusic perform at Laguna Playhouse on April 2 at 8 p.m. 

–Thile and Friends including Joachim, Lark and Thurber, perform at the Laguna Playhouse at 3 p.m. 

This year’s festival has an added amount of excitement because it will be performed live – something everyone has missed since COVID. “I’ve been really excited to get back to it with an audience,” said Thile. “By experiencing it, they’re impacting the art. When a person’s ears hear music, they change the music forever. It’s not that art just changes you, you change the art.” 

And he feels extra lucky that he’s able to perform in Southern California, where he grew up. 

“To have all of this and in a setting as beautiful as Laguna Beach – wow. This is the dream. This is what we do and we’ll never take it for granted.”

For tickets and more information on Laguna Beach Music Festival, visit