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L.A. Philharmonic Floats Dolores River 1993

L.A. Musicians Find Harmony
Philharmonic Floats the Dolores By Charlie Meyers, Denver Post Outdoor Writer
June, 20, 1993, The Sunday Denver Post newspaper

Slick Rock – There is music in a river.

It sings to us in a rhapsody of ripples along a canyon wall, in the timpani of a rapid or the deep bass of a waterfall. The melody changes with each passing mile, a pounding beat through a tangle of rocks, a whisper over a long glide. Never ceasing. Always faithful to its own tune.

There is music upon the river, as well. It echoes through great sandstone chambers in a chorus of strings punctuated by the trilling of a flute.

In defiance of the river gods and, perhaps, a number of personal property insurance policies, members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic are playing a Beethoven string serenade beneath an overhang where the Dolores river has gouged through red sandstone like a blow from some great, dull cleaver. In the several hundred million years since the canyon was formed in this high desert of southwest Colorado, these rock walls have echoed wildly to nature’s rumblings, even to the plaintive wails of the Azasazi. Never have they heard music like this.

Instruments, precious in a monetary and aesthetic sense, have been packed inside a large water-tight container designed precisely for this purpose and lashed securely to a study raft. Still, this eight-day excursion on one of the classic white-water rivers of the West must tiptoe past a rapid with the ominous name of Snaggletooth, a frothing drop that has taken a bite out of many a boat. A river affords a more risky podium than a concert hall.

In various blends, orchestra members have been taking these river trips for the past nine seasons. The previous eight have been on the Green River in Utah; this is the first time on the Dolores, and the musicians, although dunked by the rapids, plainly are enchanted with it all.

There are four of them. Gloria Lum plays cello, Mitchell Newman and Guido Lamell the violin and Meredith Snow the viola. Often, they are joined by Flutist Nancy Laupheimer of Taos, N.M., a participant in the musical float since its inception.

Another constant in these excursions is white-water guide and outfitter whose lineage adds a serendipitous point of interest to a story that is spilling over with them. Bill Dvorak has been running rivers commercially longer than anyone else in Colorado and, as chance has it, he’s a fifth cousin of the Czechoslovakian composer Antonin Dvorak.

The name of Dvorak’s Nathrop-based Kayak and Rafting Expeditions Inc. is stenciled on all the river craft. The music of his ancestor comes easily to mind in a wild place that suggests the composer’s own New World explorations of a century ago.

At a place where a stark, red wall streaked with desert varnish extends far past the vertical, the musicians again assemble to play. Pictographs and petroglyphs of the Anasazi mingle with the scrawled graffiti of recent rafters, leaving one to ponder the progress of civilization, or lack of it.

Inspiring as the natural setting might be, there are tribulations never encountered in a concert hall. When the day fades, notes must be read by the light of a lantern held aloft on a tripod of crossed oars. Swirling wind ruffles the sheet music and blows sand into the fragile instruments. The very best wisely have been left home, but these also are treasures, each worth thousands of dollars.

The musicians are keen on these streamside performances.

“We’re perfectionists. We want to do our best no matter what,” Snow says of the venue. “We won’t get a chance to play this canyon again.”

But there also is a relaxed air that draws the guides and guests into an easy camaraderie with the reminder that, above all, this is intended as fun. In midstroke, the lantern suddenly flickers and fades. Everyone breaks into peals of laughter. A waltz by Tchaikovsky is played, and people begin to dance.

Later, Lamell entertains the troupe by playing a number of popular tunes on a handsaw. On several occasions, time is spent giving instruction to the guides, and Lum finds an enthusiastic cellist in Anicka Dvorak, 12-year-old daughter of the outfitter.

In turn, the musicians are schooled in the ways of the river, learning to row a raft and perform other rough chores.

“I’ve discovered parts of my body I never knew existed,” Snow says, flexing aching arms.

As the miles melt behind them, they gain increasing harmony with the river. From its beginning at a crossing called Bradfield Bridge, the float will carry the party nearly 100 miles, touching civilization only briefly at places with names like Slick rock and Bedrock.

This is a land with a rich history, dating from those ancient and mysterious Indians whose coming, and going, can only be speculated. More definitive was the appearance in August 1776 of two Franciscan Friars, Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestro Velez de Escalante, who found the river while leading a party from Santa Fe in search of an overland route to California.

They named it Rio de Nuestra Senora de los Dolores – river of Our Lady of Sorrows – perhaps in lament over being unable to cross its formidable canyon.

In 1896, a compound of uranium was discovered near the river, and when the process of separating it into radium was refined 10 years later, the ore was mined and shipped to Paris for experiments conducted by Madam Curie. Later, the uranium was used in America’s nuclear energy programs.

Now, with the uranium bust, the only real enterprise in is river recreation and even that has lagged with the completion, in 1988, of McPhee Dam, which squelched forever the wild, natural flows that had made this one of the great white-water rivers of the West.

“A lot of people have given up on the Dolores, but it still is a great float when the water is right,” said Dvorak, a bear of a man deeply tanned from many days on the water. “The season is shorter now, but people who pass it up are missing what I believe is the most beautiful canyon of all.”

The rafters are surrounded by walls hundreds of feet high, crowned by great buttresses and grandly eroded spires with the look of gargoyles.

In a tribute to their guide, and, perhaps, the wilderness setting, the musicians have chosen Dvorak’s Quartet No. 6, the so-called American Quartet, for their grand finale. For the occasion, they are wearing their river formals. Lamell is attired in tails and a bowtie, but no shirt.

Newman is wearing shorts with an outrageous fish design beneath his tails, a bowtie and a cummerbund of purple sequins. Snow has a black bikini beneath a filmy dress. Only Lum, who worked for five years with the Denver Symphony Orchestra, plays it straight in a traditional black gown.

When it is over, they are reluctant to leave and speak of how these languid days on a river have changed their perspective of life, how their music in the symphony hall will have even more meaning.

Snow is determined to rejoin Dvorak next season to take formal training as a guide “as long as my hands don’t get beaten up too badly.” Lamell, who is training to become a conductor, has become proprietary about the experience.

“I’d recommend it to anyone in the philharmonic, but I’ll only tell the people I really like.”