Bringing the Music Outdoors
Desolation Canyon, 125 miles north of Moab, Utah is, as its name implies, a harsh and barren place...a serpentine, 1500-foot deep gouge in the earth's stubborn crust, carved an inch or so deeper every couple of centuries by the silty, brown waters of the ineptly named Green River.
But the sheer, sandstone walls and watery floor of this empty gorge are hospitable to the delicate strains of string music...a natural concert hall, more than a hundred miles from the nearest outpost of civilization.
Mary Harrison is a violist with the Boulder Philharmonic. She's also something of an amateur booking agent for Bill Dvorak's Kayak and Rafting Expeditions, the oldest whitewater rafting outfitter in Colorado. It's not Harrison's job to book clients for rafting trips, but rather musicians who are willing to come along and play in what is probably one of most unusual gigs in the business.
That's because, the musicians in this case a string quartet...two violins, a viola, and cello...all sleep in tents, eat outside and paddle with the rest of the guests, instruments and all, on the 90-mile journey down the river in inflatable rafts...which, says Harrison, usually leads to the next question.
Actually, the concerts are held on the riverbanks at the end of each day·a cocktail-hour oasis of culture in the heart of wilderness.
Just as it takes a certain type of musician to come along on a gig like this, which, by the way, pays nothing more than room and board, it takes a bit of specialized equipment to handle some of the challenges of river travel. Cellist Harry Gilbert.
Gilbert's picnic cello, like all the other instruments on the trip, is an expendable, less expensive version of the one he plays professionally.
Still, the instruments need protection while bouncing along fairly rough, class three white water. So, all musical gear is stowed in the music box, an eighty cubic foot waterproof, insulated aluminum footlocker strapped to the gear boat, usually paddled by trip leader and company founder Bill Dvorak.
Dvorak offers two musical rafting trips during the summer, this one on the Green, and the other on the Dolores River in Colorado. He says he came up with the idea of bringing musicians along on his rafting trips 15 years ago, after one of his clients, a violist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, heard the reverberating sounds of someone playing a harmonica in a side canyon.
Dvorak grew up on a ranch in Wyoming, spent time in the Australian outback, and has lived much of his life in the outdoors. Still, it's no coincidence that this rugged river cowboy has an affinity for the high culture of classical music. He is, after all, a distant cousin of the great Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak.
So, it's also no coincidence that plenty of Dvorak is played on the trip, together with Beethovan, Brahms, Mozart and Handel, whose water music suite in F, first performed in 1717 on the King of England's royal barge as it floated down the Thames, seems particularly appropriate.
The pace of this rafting trip is relaxed, eight days as opposed to the usual six it takes to get down river. The meals -- well, they're elegant, by river standards...shrimp cocktail, Dutch oven-baked chocolate cake, and wine with each meal served in delicate stemware.
Passengers pay about $1700 for the trip, a trip which attracts everything from blank stares to applause from other rafters. And it's no wonder -- it's not every day you come upon a string quartet playing in a field of wild grass or along a riverbank, out in the middle of nowhere. Yet it's the location, especially at sunset, when the canyon walls are bathed in red and orange, and the stars begin to twinkle overhead, that adds dimension to this musical experience, a dimension which an auditorium can't begin to touch.
But aside from the natural beauty, the informality and camaraderie of the musicians themselves make listening to classical music here a more human experience. Removed from the high altar of a traditional stage, and stripped of their tuxedos and evening gowns, the members of the quartet are just people, joking around the campfire, wearing bathing suits, swatting mosquitoes like the rest of us. And the feeling, says violinist Debbie Ellet, is mutual.
On the Green River in eastern Utah, I'm Tom Verde for The Savvy Traveler
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