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Among the highlights of this year’s Virginia Arts Festival is the world premiere of a mandolin concerto composed by Chris Thile and co-commissioned by Virginia Symphony Orchestra. Thile, a four-time Grammy Award winner, will perform the work May 19-21 with the orchestra, conducted by Eric Jacobsen. We checked in with him to talk music, collaboration, and the hope for mankind.

What do you like about performing in Virginia?

Virginia is a huge part of my musical year. There’s such an incredible bluegrass tradition here and so many bands that laid the foundation for the musical house that I’m building. This is sort of a stylistic homecoming.

What’s it like to be a part of such a grand, ambitious collaboration?

I feel lucky because my entire career is built on collaboration, which is the clearest, most direct path to personal transcendence. You open yourself up to the hopes and dreams of another musician. You are doing a creative trust fall. Now, getting to work with Virginia Symphony Orchestra, talk about opening up to the hopes and dreams of your fellow human beings. How about 60 of them?

You’ve described this new piece as “a big ol’ narrative song cycle/mandolin concerto that tells, plays, and sings the true story of the time I attempted to impress a Starbucks executive and accidentally met Carrie Fisher as a result.” Can you elaborate?

I wrote a concerto before and was medium-satisfied with the result. I knew that if I did it again, I had to be sincere. It had to come straight from me. I sing in all my projects, so I wanted that to happen. I was looking for a text, a libretto, for the scene, and could not find anything that was getting the ball rolling. I realized all at once that this story was it. It’s my favorite story to tell.

Walk us through the process of creating a concerto.

It’s a massive undertaking writing music for 60 people. You have to be able to play it for yourself in your head, to hear the tone and shape. I compose a lot of music in English. I say out loud, “and then it’s going to do this.” I hum, play, and think, “I’ll start in this key then transition to this.” It’s kind of like a tent – it doesn’t look like it would be of use to anyone until it’s up. The next thing you know, you can sleep in it.

Why are large cultural celebrations like the Virginia Arts Festival important for us?

There’s myriad evidence of human beings being the worst in all these different ways, but myriad evidence that we are the best, wanting to share the beauty that we find in the world. The Virginia Arts Festival is that gesture: Take heart. There is still hope for us. Look at these beautiful things we can do together.

Interview conducted and edited by Ben Swenson

Don’t miss at the 2023 Virginia Arts Festival |

June 9 | Bria Skonberg. Canadian vocalist and trumpeter described by The New York Times as “the shining hope of hot jazz.” Perry Pavilion, Norfolk.

June 16-18 | Williamsburg Live 2023. The Wood Brothers, Kenny Loggins, and Keb’ Mo’ descend on the colonial capital for a music-filled weekend. On the lawn of The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

July 6 through Sept. 2 | “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” Encounter the artwork of the Dutch master as you never have before. Virginia Beach Convention Center, Exhibit Hall A.

For the Virginia Art Festival’s complete lineup, visit

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