Laguna Beach Music Festival brings the community together for an annual symphonic celebration.
By Sharon Stello
Bringing acclaimed musicians to perform in town, the Laguna Beach Music Festival has been going strong for more than two decades. Every year, local nonprofit Laguna Beach Live and the Philharmonic Society of Orange County come together to present this multiday showcase of classical and contemporary concerts combined with special events and community outreach programs.
This year, the 21st annual festival runs from Feb. 17-19 and features pianist Jeremy Denk, a recipient of the MacArthur Fellows “Genius Grant” and winner of the Avery Fisher Prize, as artistic director. Three concerts are planned at Laguna Playhouse; some feature both Denk and special guests.
In addition to the festival, Laguna Beach Live offers music education outreach for kids in the community and more than 30 concerts a year—from chamber music at Laguna Art Museum to a winter jazz series, which starts and ends this year with Grammy-nominated artists. The series kicks off Feb. 8 with trumpeter Bijon Watson and an all-star band in their jazz tribute to a pop legend, followed by Dan Barrett’s Old-Fashioned Jazz Band in a New Orleans-style Mardi Gras celebration Feb. 22. Next up is Brazilian vocalist and guitar player Kleber Jorge with his Rio Life quartet on March 8. The series is rounded out with trumpeter Tony Guerrero and vocalist Rachel Avalon performing straight-ahead jazz standards March 22, all at seven-degrees in Laguna Canyon.
Laguna Beach Live co-founder Cindy Prewitt, who was also named Citizen of the Year for the Patriot’s Day Parade last year, recently shared some insight into the music organization’s history and mission as well as a hint of what’s to come at this year’s festival.
Laguna Beach Magazine: How did Laguna Beach Live and the Laguna Beach Music Festival come about?
Cindy Prewitt: Laguna Beach Live came about while I was on the [city] Arts Commission and saw the lack of music in town. Two friends, Sam Goldstein and Joe Byrne, and I formed a nonprofit and applied for the new money the hotels were making available to bring in more culture to town. … [It] started with free chamber music concerts at … [Laguna College of Art & Design] in fall of 2001 and the Philharmonic Society of Orange County helped with finding musicians for us. PSOC had been planning to bring more music to Laguna for some time and the idea of a festival was under consideration. I wanted to expand Laguna Beach Live and so a natural partnership was formed to bring the first Laguna Beach Music Festival in spring of 2002.
LBM: In what ways has the festival changed over the last two decades and what has remained the same?
CP: Initially, the emphasis was on well-known artistic directors working with up-and-coming artists and we all learned from the process. As our audience developed, the artistic directors were invited to see the festival as an opportunity to work with others—not just new artists—in new ways. For example, the Ahn Trio in 2007 invited friends to compose specifically for them and the festival. A highlight was a piece by David Benoit, “a jazz vs. classical duel” that he performed with his trio along with the Ahn Trio. The concept of an acclaimed artistic director and friends has remained a constant.
LBM: What do you think people like about the music festival?
CP: The artistic directors are all widely acclaimed and most often seen in large halls in big cities such as New York or Los Angeles. But the festival brings them up close and personal to our local, intimate settings. The interesting pairings of the musicians is a real treat and may not be to be heard elsewhere. … And every concert is different. Thanks to donors and grants, we keep the ticket prices low so I think people are more willing to try new things.
LBM: What’s in store for this year’s festival program?
CP: Jeremy Denk, [a] MacArthur “Genius” award winner, is the artistic director. The New York Times has proclaimed him as ”a pianist you want to hear no matter what he performs.” He has invited violinist Stefan Jackiw and they will be joined by chorus members in a program of hymns, songs and sonatas—and that’s just opening night.
LBM: For those who can’t make it to the festival, what other music offerings does Laguna Beach Live present?
CP: We present monthly chamber music at the Laguna Art Museum, a series of jazz concerts, an annual Bluegrass and BBQ, and specialty concerts throughout the year. Additionally, we present free music classes for young children at the Laguna library and free concerts at the [Laguna Beach Community &] Susi Q [Senior Center].