11/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Night at the Orchestra

Because we have two little kids, a fancy night out has recently meant something like "order a quesadilla at Qdoba and stuff it in your gullet a little more slowly than you would at home." But, my husband just turned 39, so we figured we should probably get cultured up in celebration of his birthday. He's also a musician and fan of Americana, so when he suggested we go to the "American Festival" at the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO) for our birthday night out, it seemed like a good idea.

I don't know much about the CSO -- we went one other time several years ago when a former boss gifted us his season tickets for an evening. To be honest, I also don't know much about instrumental music, or orchestras, or formal performances. So, take everything you read here with a grain of salt. But my guess is that the "American Festival" is intended to put younger butts in seats. I think somebody is figuring that maybe young people will be more up for sitting through Gershwin than Beethoven.

And I won't lie -- we were really pleased to have attended on that night. Both of us appreciate classical music, have played it at one time or another, and play it for our kids; but what we saw on Saturday night was also fun. I didn't feel obliged to get something out of it -- I actually got something out of it: beauty, laughter, awe.

Part of this has to do with Jeffrey Kahane, the CSO's departing conductor and music director. The first performance of the evening was Aaron Copland's "Suite from Billy the Kid," a dramatic, cinematic piece. Kahane wiggled and danced and gestured through the whole thing, a wild-haired Chaplin pied-piper. The audience collectively giggled at times, in cahoots with him as he cajoled the musicians to play faster or hammed it up with the audience, waiting for a crying baby to be carried out. The sound in the Boettcher Theater was tremendous, and it seemed like everyone in the theater was about to leap out of their chairs (some did, at the end of the performance, with also some whooping, which I didn't know was allowed at the orchestra. Those society folks -- you never know what they're going to do).

Copland was followed by Gershwin, of course, with Kahane on piano, though he popped off the bench more than Jerry Lee Lewis, a ball of energy. "Didn't you hear him miss a few notes?" my husband asked. "Yes!" I said. "And I didn't care!" Again, the sound was so vibrant and real and the performance so fast and tense and big that it was easy to forget how mundane Rhapsody in Blue has become in the age of United Airlines advertisements and piped-in elevator music. But it is beautiful music, sexy and coy in the way Americans are puritanical and sexy and outrageous and coy. As is Kahane, who might never be described as such except in front of that group of musicians.

The second half of the performance was devoted to original pieces by local composers--the first by William Hill, principal tympanist for the CSO. The last piece, which has been advertised the most locally here in Denver, was by Nickel Creek/Punch Brothers musician Chris Thile (you may have seen promo pictures of him looking like a Shakespearish Jude Law). I wish I could say I was as blown away by this: the concept -- a mandolin leading an orchestra, a concerto composed by a pop musician -- is delicious. I'm all for invention, and for the breaking down of "high" and "low" culture.

Still, Thile's "Mandolin Concerto" was either too experimental for me to understand, or too flat, un-symphony-like, to work. As J.C. Chasez is always telling the dances on America's Best Dance Crew, it needed more levels. And I remain unconvinced that the mandolin, which I adore, can carry an orchestra.

It's lovely to have the opportunity to think about these things, and to have had this experience, and to have enjoyed it so fully. Which is why it was so surprising that there were a lot of empty seats in the concert hall. I found this surprising in Denver -- a city that seems to pride itself on developing a cutting-edge music scene -- on a night intended to put butts in seats. Maybe I lack the perspective of a lifetime subscriber to the CSO. Maybe the more traditional stuff packs the house. Maybe the mandolin thing freaked out old society.

Or maybe we all just need to go the symphony a little more often.