The roar of distant rapids echoes like the beat of timpani against the red sandstone walls of the age-old natural amphitheater. Somewhere in the darkness a night bird's song pierces the noise made by the rushing river.
Suddenly two men, wearing black tie and tails, and two women, in formal gowns, march into the amphitheater, all carrying musical instruments. They are members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and they move with practiced formality onto nature's rocky stage, which on this night is lit by a single lantern suspended from a tripod made of crossed oars. The musicians seat themselves, tune their instruments and begin to play Dvo‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬•àk's Opus 96, the so-called American Quartet, which the Czech composer wrote 100 years ago during a three-year stay in the U.S.
The musicians are nearing the end of an eight-day, 100-mile raft excursion down the Dolores River in southwestern Colorado, riding the rapids by day, playing classical music outdoors by night.
The decision to play Dvo‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬•àk's composition is not without reason. Perched on a rock just outside the ring of light cast by the flickering lantern is another man named Dvo‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬•àk—Bill Dvo‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬•àk, 44, of Nathrop, Colo. Not only is he a fifth cousin to the composer ("My aunt went back to Czechoslovakia and traced the genealogy," Bill says), but he is also the man largely responsible for taking dozens of members of the L.A. Philharmonic down Western rivers over the past 12 years. A great bear of a man with muscular arms, a drooping mustache and twinkling eyes, Dvo‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬•àk has been steering neophyte rafters down various Western rivers for the past 24 years. The musicians, who do not pay for their trips and are invited as a special attraction for other rafters, are his favorites. "These people are full of life, up for anything, and the music adds a special touch," Dvo‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬•àk says. "This is something I've come to look forward to every year."
As the quartet concludes the Dvo‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬•àk piece, a river breeze rustics the musicians' sheet music, and the sound of their strings resonates against the great stone vault, spills down the ancient walls and eventually drifts down Slickrock Canyon like wood smoke. At the last note a small audience of guides and nonmusical rafters applauds so loudly that even the river noise is momentarily extinguished.
As the musicians rise to bow, the audience sees that beneath the men's black tie and tails their chests are bare, and they are wearing garish beach shorts and Teva sandals. One woman's black dress turns out to be see-through; beneath it she is wearing a black bikini.
"We're very serious about our music," says Mitchell Newman, a violinist, "but the whole point in coming here is to relax and let ourselves unwind. We can play well and still have a good time."
During the journey, which has taken them from the mountains to the desert, the musicians have given as good an account of themselves on the river as they have on its banks. With their guides, they have negotiated a rapid called Snaggletooth, which has chewed up its share of rafts, and have paddled long hours in tiny inflatable kayaks.
"I'm feeling parts of my body that I have never felt before," says Meredith Snow, who plays the viola. "When big muscles are sore, little ones don't work as well either."
Still, throughout the journey the musicians have performed unstintingly, and the music they have chosen has been as grueling as the river itself. "We haven't skipped the hard stuff," says violinist Guido Lamell, referring to pieces by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms.
"The music that appeals to us most is the most moving," says Snow. "To me, Schubert is the most soulful of composers. Mozart is energetic, and Brahms is so lush. They represent the things we've experienced on the river."
As a precaution against the ravages of nature, the musicians have brought along their second-line instruments—though these are valued at many thousands of dollars apiece—which are stored in a waterproof box lashed to the bow of Dvo‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬•àk's raft. At one time or another, each of the musicians has been dunked by the rapids and left to bob among rocks in nothing more protective than a life vest. But calluses or bruises seem a fair exchange for an experience that, most agree, has altered their outlook on life.
"This has made me much more confident," says Snow. "I feel so capable. This makes me believe I can do anything."
Charles Meyers is a journalist who lives in Lakewood, Colo.