A quick peek inside the high-ceilinged interior of the Space Gallery on Friday night revealed nothing particularly newsworthy: Large canvases of post-modern art drew occasional glances from a gathering of 250 well-dressed, beer-sipping adults who chatted amiably as a brass quintet led by Colorado Symphony trumpeter Justin Bartels played in a corner.
To the casual observer, this gallery event on the sleepy fringes of Denver’s Santa Fe Arts District looked and sounded like any other.
But it didn’t smell that way.
Out on the open-air patio, as advertised, several dozen patrons of the Colorado Symphony’s first “Classically Cannabis” event casually smoked pot without fear.
The unmistakably pungent aroma of marijuana may have been doused by the intermittent drizzle. But the rain was not heavy enough to dampen the spirits of those present at this controversial event.
Despite Colorado voters’ approval of Amendment 64, legalizing the possession and sale of marijuana under newly established conditions, the collaboration between a major civic arts institution and the marijuana industry caused a media flurry when the Colorado Symphony first announced the series a month ago.
The event grabbed even more headlines two weeks later when the City of Denver sent the Colorado Symphony a letter warning the organization against staging a ticketed event involving the public consumption of marijuana, which is still illegal in the state of Colorado.
The Symphony responded by turning the event into a private affair for invited guests, forced to make ticket refunds of nearly $10,000 to those who’d purchased tickets to the inaugural concert.
Through all this, the Colorado Symphony’s commitment to the cannabis industry attracted continual international media attention.
That may have explained the jitters of orchestra officials in the days leading up to the inaugural “Classically Cannabis” concert about how journalists would portray the proceedings if granted the full run of the gallery.
The orchestra’s public relations department went backwards and forwards over whether to allow access to photographers working on behalf of media organizations, including CPR. In the end, they allowed photography under controlled conditions.
At the event itself, members of the media, closely monitored by five hired security men, conducted interviews and snapped pictures everywhere except the smoky patio where shooting was not permitted.
They represented such venerated organizations as The Times of London and The New York Times. A video crew accompanying CBS reporter Barry Petersen recorded an upcoming segment for “CBS This Morning.”
The Symphony needn’t have worried, though: The crowd was on its best behavior.
“Just look around,” pot advocate and local lobbyist Shawn Coleman said, gesturing towards the mild-mannered smokers nearby. “This shouldn’t be news.”
Coleman represents the interests of members of the newborn cannabis industry, such as Wellspring, a supplier of medical and retail marijuana.
Standing by his display table, Wellspring representative Evan Butman sneaked a hit from a nearby bong. “The music is 100 percent why we’re here,” Butman insisted with a grin.
Wellspring was one of five event sponsors who were on hand to distribute brochures, but not their herbal products -- this was strictly billed as a Bring Your Own Cannabis (BYOC) event.
Outside the gallery, several invited food-truck vendors gave out generous samples of their entrees and desserts. Sponsors had paid in advance for their services for the evening.
“There’s a new level of sophistication about cannabis,” event sponsor Richard Yost said.
The smartly dressed cofounder of the New York-based Ideal 420 Technologies, which sells organic-soil packages and root stimulants for home growers, had contributed $13,000 to the soiree as its title sponsor.
Another handful of pot businesses chipped in $5,000 each.
The obvious attraction here was the unusual mix of newly legalized pot and traditional classical music.
But the underlying theme was money.
“We expect to take in $40,000 tonight,” Colorado Symphony chief operating officer Evan Lasky said. Lasky added that the series of three gallery events and a September show at Red Rocks could earn the financially-struggling orchestra $200,000.
Just as the pot lovers quietly puffed without embarrassment, Lasky felt no guilt about collaborating with leaders of the cannabis industry.
“They came to us -- we didn’t look for them,” Lasky said. “The press thought we were supporting them. But they’re supporting us.”
The evening’s organizer, Edible Events founder Jane West, welcomed the crowd by thanking the orchestra, “for sticking with us through this journey.” Edible Events specializes in hosting social gatherings where legalized pot-enhanced food and drinks are provided.
Patrons clearly supported the musical offerings as they gathered in a tight semi-circle. The musicians were enthusiastically applauded during the 70-minute concert of both familiar and unfamiliar classical pieces, including arrangements of Wagner, Debussy and other canonical composers.
A stirring reworking of Puccini’s beloved aria, “Nessun Dorma,” drew the loudest cheers after the quintet opened with a fun surprise, the ominous fanfare from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The familiar tune immediately pulled smokers in from the patio.
In a narrow loft above the gallery floor, listeners ranging in age from early 20s to mid-60s observed the goings-on below.
“This is a blow for freedom!” a Boulderite in suit and tie said, as he joined a group of Baby Boomers, two of whom had driven here from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
All smiled when asked if they were high. And all declined to give their names.
At the end of the concert, the brass quintet offered the Beatles classic “Yesterday” as a mellow encore.
Indeed, it seems like only yesterday that such evenings of openly consumed marijuana and classical music would have been thought impossible.
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay.
Marc Shulgold is a freelance writer, teacher and lecturer. He was previously the longtime music and dance writer at the Rocky Mountain News.