I Got High and Went to See the Orchestra at Red Rocks

A show at Red Rocks this summer.
A show at Red Rocks this summer.
Eric Gruneisen

By Chris Walker

Do you have anything that goes well with Beethoven?"

The clerk at the Denver Wellness Center looks at me strangely before motioning me over to a display case full of various THC-infused candies and baked goods.

"Well," he says, "we've got weed cookies, gummies, lollipops, chocolate.... I think any of them should work fine."

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"Right," I say, squinting and pointing toward a foil-wrapped chocolate bar. "So you're sure that one pairs nicely with classical music?"

I want to have the proper goods. Tonight I'm going to Red Rocks Amphitheatre for the Colorado Symphony Orchestra's end-of-summer concert. Normally that wouldn't require a visit to a pot dispensary beforehand, but this show is the finale of the orchestra's first Classically Cannabis series, for which the cannabis industry ponied up nearly $130,000 in sponsorships.

The cannabis series has drawn both praise and criticism for the CSO, which lost at least twenty prominent donors after announcing the partnership. Still, CSO director of community and media relations Laura Bond told Westword earlier this summer that the overall effect of the series has been positive. "We've come onto the radar of a lot of people who might not have known about the symphony," she said.

That's important, because orchestras around the world are facing a dwindling audience for classical music. Let's be honest: Most young people and millennials -- such as myself -- just don't listen to classical music that much (if at all).

In 1937, the median age at classical concerts was around thirty. Now, according to New York City classical station WQXR, that median age is 73. And although the Colorado Symphony Orchestra has drawn some younger crowds by collaborating with artists such as DeVotchKa, Senior Vice-President of Innovative Programming Tony Pierce acknowledges that the organization can't just rely on collaborations with pop musicians. Classical music remains an orchestra's artistic bread and butter. But how do you get young and new audiences to those shows?

That's been the challenge for Pierce and the rest of the CSO. It has tried everything from a "Beethoven and Brews" 5K to working with the Colorado Rockies to compose a new team theme song. "If you look at what the Colorado Symphony has been up to over the last couple of years, it has been these kinds of initiatives," Bond told us. "It's not just cannabis."

But the Classically Cannabis series certainly drew the most publicity in the lead-up to last month's "Red Rocks on a High Note" performance.

I happen to fit right into the evening's target demographic: a 25-year-old who tokes recreationally from time to time. I also appreciate classical music, but almost never choose to listen to it over rock, hip-hop or even jazz.

So I wondered: Would getting high at a classical concert get me hooked on Brahms?

Would I want to come back for a Mahlerfest? Could I get pumped on Debussy?

I arrive at the Red Rocks parking lot just around sunset. Accompanying me is a friend named Rachel. After the army of yellow-vested attendees guides us into stacked parking, we eat our edibles. It's 7:15 p.m.

Rachel bites into her snickerdoodle. I had planned to measure off two squares of my espresso-flavored chocolate bar, but discover that the whole thing is nearly melted -- so I make a conservative guess. From that moment, we figure we've got 45 minutes before the THC kicks in, but we bring the rest of the chocolate bar with us in case we need more. I scan for weed-related activity in the parking lot, but most of the crowd is about what you'd expect at a classical-music concert: plenty of gray hair and even a few walkers.

It's not until we're inside the venue that we see any solid evidence of the cannabis partnership. At the top of the amphitheater are a few tents with dispensary employees handing out 10-percent-off coupons and glow sticks. Despite cannabis being the official sponsor, people can't buy it or even legally consume it at Red Rocks, of course, because Colorado law bans public consumption. A dispensary employee says he hopes that this will change in the future.

Rachel and I look for seats in one of the middle rows of the amphitheater and settle in just as the conductor takes the stage.

"The Colorado Symphony thanks Edible Events Co. and our sponsor, Bhang Medicinal Chocolate," booms the conductor, Scott O'Neil.

A few in the audience whoop like they're at a frat party. Most chuckle lightly, nudging each other like they're in on a dirty joke. Clearly, the idea of a weed partnership is not being taken very seriously yet.

The first piece, "Short Ride in a Fast Machine," by contemporary composer John Adams, begins, just as I feel the edible kick in. The acoustics at Red Rocks are amazingly well suited to the CSO. As strings clash against each other in swift, atonal chords, it feels as though sound is coming from the very rocks that surround the amphitheater.

After a selection from Beethoven's Fifth and a piece by Mascagni, the orchestra launches into the score from the movie There Will Be Blood, composed by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.

I'd seen the film before but forgot how trippy the score is, with violin and cello sounds aching and bending under tremendous dissonant strain. I suddenly feel like my head is being split in two.

"Someone really knew how to fuck with us," Rachel says.

 

I'm looking for any source of distraction until I remember -- oh, yes -- my sandwich! I had ordered the "large" sub sandwich at a deli on our way to Red Rocks and was handed a fourteen-inch cylinder of bread and meat and veggies so hefty, I might as well have been carrying a set of architectural plans into a construction site.

"There's no possible way you'll eat the whole thing," Rachel had predicted. But with the strains of There Will Be Blood in the background, I get to work, imagining that I am Daniel Day-Lewis and getting through that sandwich is my oil empire. Having a personal soundtrack by a world-class orchestra has never before made eating so epic.

After triumphantly finishing my sandwich, I am really beginning to enjoy myself. Especially when I notice that the lady's feet next to me are moving in distinct patterns to the music. It's like she is personally conducting the band with the circular motions of her legs. I decide to spend most of the next song -- John Williams's theme from E.T. -- watching them in rapt attention.

It would've been cool to have some lasers going during Holst's The Planets, which comes on next, but alas, it is not to be. There is no light show to match the anger of Mars or euphoric bumbling of Jupiter.

Then again, Red Rocks itself is visually stunning. I contemplate the city's skyline in the distance. The orchestra's sound is relentless, turning me into Jell-O -- so rich and layered that I can't take it. It seems so much more dense than the reggae or rock or hip-hop I'd normally listen to in such a state.

Let me tell you, classical music is some intense shit.

By the time the orchestra finishes with Ravel's Boléro, both Rachel and I are sorry the show is over. "Wait, that's it?" she asks. It seemed like both the longest and shortest show of our lives.

On the way back to Denver, we reflect on the experience.

"You know, I really think I'm going to be more of a [classical] fan," Rachel says. "I may even play flute again."

"Yeah, it was definitely something I'd do again," I agree.

Of course, it's one thing to take part in an experience as a novelty. The real question is whether listening to classical music is something people my age could get into anyway, while sober.

As a test, I put on some Mozart one morning before leaving for work. And you know what? I really enjoyed it. I think I'll do it more often.

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