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Stories From The Water

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National Geographic Traveler 1994

National Geographic Traveler
National Geographic Traveler, May/June 1994, Jeff Rennick.
The Audience quiets. Stage lights go up. Violinist Guido Lamell raises his bow, pauses a beat while cellist Gloria Lum, violinist Mitch Newman, and Meredith Snow on viola, wait. Guido nods. The music begins. Beethoven’s Quartet for Strings, opus 18, No. 4 in C minor.

Evening concerts are nothing new for these musicians, all member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But this is different. This concert is in the wilderness. On this night their stage light is a Coleman lantern, their stage a grotto carved into a sandstone cliff. The audience sprawls on the sand; a dozen white water rafters, listening quietly behind sunburned faces.

Classical music may seem utterly unrelated to cactus and canyons. But humans have long heard music in nature—the bass vibrato of distant thunder, the staccato of a stream, a sweep of strings in the wind—and been inspired. Beethoven, Hayden, Vivaldi, and contemporary composers such as Paul Winter have worked natural sounds into their music.

“There is an undeniable musical quality about nature,” says Nancy Laupheimer, a flutist with the Santa Fe Symphony. To bring the two together again, she teamed up with Dvorak Kayak and Rafting Expeditions to create the annual “Classical Music Journey.”

Usually set on Colorado’s Dolores River, the journey offers plenty of rapids during the day, the instruments stowed in watertight containers. Passengers can ride either safe, stable white-water rafts or try their skills in an inflatable kayak. There are side canyons to hike, rock art to wonder at, wildlife, swimming and lots of spectacular scenery.

At night, camps are set up on shore. The guides prepare meals like blackened salmon with white wine. And the music is impeccable. “We are perfectionists,” Meredith Snow says. “So it doesn’t matter where we play—we want to do our best, Carnegie Hall or here.” Against the canyon walls, the notes seem to echo for days.

“It is the perfect combination,” says Bill Dvorak, outfitter and fifth cousin of composer Antonin Dvorak. “Music lovers come for the quartet and fall in love with the river, and paddlers come for the rapids and fall in love with the music.” The eight day trip allows time for impromptu concerts, early morning practice sessions, even a few music lessons. There are four scheduled performances, including a “formal concert.”

Bach and the backcountry. Somewhere in the wilderness, violinist Guido Lamell nods his head, draws his bow, and the canyon fills with music. Long after the concert ends, the wild river keeps flowing as if still humming along.