The first shovels to dig the Erie Canal went into the ground on July 4th, 1817. When it was completed in 1825, the canal transformed the nation’s economy, allowing goods to move from the Hudson River to cities along the Great Lakes.
To mark the occasion, David Alan Miller, the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s music director, dreamed up the plan to commission and perform original works at seven stops along the route.
“And I conceived this crazy idea of actually trying to get all the way from Albany to Buffalo, which I didn’t realize at the time was about 350-plus miles," said Miller.
He also didn’t realize that the canal carries a strict 7-mile-per-hour speed limit, so floating and performing the entire distance in a week would be impossible.
So Miller and the orchestra compromised. They’ll be traveling by bus and performing on vessels floating in the canal.
“I just think this is the greatest thing we’ve ever done."
Symphony Board Chair Marisa Eisemann is on board with the idea to bring music out of the concert hall and into communities. She also sees it as a way to promote economic development, among other things.
“It’s very symbolic. This canal was the symbol of innovation and adventure, and that’s we, the Albany Symphony, are known for thanks to David Alan Miller," she said.
New York State Canal Corp. Deputy Director John Callaghan says he’s always looking to bring new ideas to the canal as it enters its third century. Public officials have wondered about the canal’s future as its role in shipping wanes.
“And part of what David and the Albany Symphony is doing is making the canal more accessible, more relevant to people, introducing it to them in a way they may not have thought about before," said Callaghan.
The Albany Symphony Orchestra received $371,000 in state funding for the project and raised the rest from private donors.
Miller says each stop on the tour will open with a piece of music that’s celebrating its own anniversary. Handel’s Water Music is turning 300.
“July 17th was the first performance of that,” he said. “And we’ll also end with some patriotic classics: Stars and Stripes as well as John Williams and things like that. So everything will have these bookends that are essentially the same, but the in the middle will be this substantial 30-minute-or-so-long, new composition inspired by and written for that specific community.”
The original piece for Schenectady was written by Annika Socolfsky. Before she started working on the piece, she didn’t really know much about the canal.
“I was really starting kind of at Ground Zero because about all I knew before I started work on this project was that one song, ‘15 miles on the Erie Canal,’" she said.
Socolfsky incorporated into her piece an actor playing the role of Charles Steinmetz, an electrical engineer whose discoveries helped turn Schenectady into the Electric City. She also pays tribute to the laborers who braved the mud and harsh conditions to make the dream of the Erie Canal come true.
“Basically, they built an incredibly long river that went uphill. That’s kind of crazy for 1817,” she said.
The orchestra’s tour will stop in Albany, Schenectady, Amsterdam, Little Falls, Baldwinsville, Brockport and Lockport between July 2nd and 8th.