When the Colorado Symphony announced recently that it would hold a series of bring-your-own-marijuana fund-raisers, called “Classically Cannabis: The High Note Series,” sponsored by the state’s newly legal cannabis industry, the orchestra got laughs on late-night talk shows and was featured in publications that rarely cover classical music, including High Times.
Now the city of Denver is asking the orchestra to call off the events, arguing that they would run afoul of laws prohibiting the public consumption of marijuana. The symphony, which planned the fund-raisers as private events in an effort to comply with the law, is mulling whether it can go ahead with the first one, scheduled for May 23.
With the fund-raiser concerts now in legal limbo, the time seems ripe to consider some of the artistic possibilities of cannabis-friendly classical concerts. Before the city raised its objections to the Colorado Symphony’s plans, The New York Times asked several prominent conductors, composers and musicians what they would program to appeal to concertgoers taking advantage of Colorado’s recent referendum legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.
Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, suggested Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” which musically depicts an opium dream in parts, and “The Poem of Ecstasy,” by the Russian composer Scriabin, who became fascinated by mysticism late in his life. “Does Scriabin’s ‘Poem of Ecstasy’ really need an explanation?” he asked in an email.
Scriabin was also one of the choices suggested by Jeremy Denk, the pianist and author, who will be the music director of next month’s Ojai Music Festival in California.
“Messiaen, Scriabin — things where the composer claims certain chords have certain colors, and that have rapturous, endless clouds of notes” were Mr. Denk’s suggestions in an email. “In that same vein, but perhaps a bit more austere,” he said, he would recommend late works by Liszt and pieces by Charles-Valentin Alkan, a virtuosic 19th-century French pianist and composer, and Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, a 20th-century English pianist and composer.
“Probably some of the more ‘out there’ madrigal rep would be good, too,” he said, recommending the work of Gesualdo, an Italian nobleman famous for a murderous personal life, who wrote madrigals around the turn of the 17th century. “It’s very whoa-inducing,” he said.
The composer John Adams, whose oratorio “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” was recently released by Deutsche Grammophon and whose 1991 opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” will get its Metropolitan Opera premiere next season, offered an entire playlist by email.His recommendations, along with his annotations: Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 (“that adagio will last for a mere six hours”); Stockhausen’s “Helicopter String Quartet” (“won’t seem so high after all”); Messiaen’s “Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum” (“the saints will REALLY go marching in”); Milton Babbitt’s “Relata II” for orchestra (“will suddenly make perfect sense”); the Minimalist composer Terry Riley’s “A Rainbow in Curved Air” (“will come in all colors”); and his own “The Dharma at Big Sur” (“I swear I didn’t inhale”).
This kind of cannabis-inspired programming for the concert hall may be some time off, even if the Colorado Symphony prevails over the city’s objections. The symphony’s plans, which its lawyers are still weighing, are on a considerably smaller scale.
Its first event, sponsored by several companies in the cannabis industry, was to be a fund-raiser. People donating a minimum of $75 would get to attend a fund-raiser at a local gallery, featuring a small ensemble from the orchestra playing a program that has yet to be announced. Any smoking would be restricted to a private patio, away from the musicians.
“Cannabis will NOT be sold at any ‘Classically Cannabis’ event,” the orchestra notes at its website, adding that guests would be encouraged to find alternatives to driving, with discounts for car services available. The symphony’s regular concert venues and programming, it adds, would “remain cannabis-free.”
In a letter objecting to the proposed fund-raisers, the city’s Department of Excise and Licenses wrote that it was advising “that you cancel the effort to use your business to provide an event for the public consumption of marijuana in violation of local and state laws.” It warned that “failure to follow the law may result in civil and criminal penalties.”
The letter also cautioned that the cannabis-themed events could endanger the symphony’s contract with the city for the use of Boettcher Concert Hall.
Jerome H. Kern, the chief executive of the Colorado Symphony and co-chairman of its board of trustees, said in a statement that the orchestra took the issues raised by the city very seriously and was reviewing them with its legal team.
“When the Colorado Symphony accepted support from the legal cannabis industry — as a means of supporting our financial operations and connecting with a culturally diverse audience — we believed we did so in full compliance with the law,” he said in a statement. “We’re confident that any questions can be resolved quickly.”
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