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Hell or High Water, an Orchestra Celebrates the Erie Canal

The canal linked the Hudson River to Lake Erie, making trade faster and cheaper and propelling New York’s economic might. To celebrate the bicentennial, the small, artistically vibrant Albany Symphony commissioned new works inspired by each stop on its tour. It paired them with excerpts from a more famous aquatic work, Handel’s “Water Music,” which was first played 300 years ago this month for King George I of England on a barge trip on the Thames.

In these days of changing concertgoing habits, many orchestras find it increasingly important to connect with audiences outside their halls. Some are fortunate enough to have summer homes: The Boston Symphony Orchestra has Tanglewood; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Ravinia Festival; the Cleveland Orchestra, the Blossom Music Festival. Others venture farther afield: The Utah Symphony will tour state parks and monuments next month.


The Albany Symphony’s music director, David Alan Miller, leading a children’s choir at Riverlink Park.

Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

But the Albany Symphony added another dimension for its weeklong tour, which will end on Saturday in Lockport, about 25 miles northeast of Buffalo. The orchestra not only asked young composers to write pieces inspired by each stop — Albany, Schenectady, Amsterdam, Little Falls, Baldwinsville, Brockport and Lockport — but also had them spend time in the communities they were writing about, learning their histories and collaborating with local artists.

It all fits with Mr. Miller’s model for the Albany Symphony: community outreach, concerts that explore both places and history, and a devotion to new music. That dedication to living composers has won the small orchestra invitations to Carnegie Hall and a Grammy Award, for a John Corigliano recording, in 2014.

“The dead ones we love, and we play them, and our audience loves them,” Mr. Miller, the orchestra’s music director since 1992, said in an interview. “But we’re every bit as committed to — and perhaps even more committed to — our own living, emerging composers.”


The composer Angélica Negrón performing with the Albany Symphony at Riverlink Park.

Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

When the orchestra commissioned Angélica Negrón to write a piece for Amsterdam, she initially planned to involve two local children’s choruses. Then she heard the River Valley Ringers, the bell ringers who play at the local United Presbyterian Church.

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty – River Valley Ringers Video by timpani4you

“The bell choir, I was not going to write for,” she recalled shortly before the concert. “But when I heard them, I thought, O.K., I’m writing for you!”

The white-gloved ringers opened her piece. “It’s been such a joy, such a joy,” said Margaret Lazarou, 88, who taught music in Amsterdam’s schools for 33 years and conducted the church’s bell ringers from her wheelchair. “And this bell music is like no music we’ve ever played before.”


Listening to the Albany Symphony perform at Riverlink Park.

Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

Rich and Sarah Doncaster of Akron, Ohio, heard the concert from the deck of their new boat, the Katherine Rose, which was moored in Amsterdam while they waited for canal traffic to reopen so they could continue their journey from Chesapeake Bay to Cleveland. They joined a select group through the centuries that has heard Handel’s “Water Music” as it was meant to be heard — on the water — but they said that it was Ms. Negrón’s new piece, “Mapping,” that made an impression.

“It was beautiful,” Mr. Doncaster said afterward. “Especially the kids. There is something about the innocence of the kids’ voices that is really inspiring.”

Digging the canal — initially 363 miles long, 40 feet wide, and only four feet deep — was a staggering feat of engineering and muscle. (It seems even more impressive two centuries later, when big infrastructure projects tend to languish.) For the Albany Symphony, the tour commemorating the bicentennial posed its own challenges.


Debris from flooding clogged the Mohawk River this week.

Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

Mr. Miller had yearned for such a trip for years. He initially hoped to float the whole orchestra down the canal — what he calls his Huck Finn dream — but abandoned the idea when he learned how long the canal actually was, and that there were stretches where the speed limit was under 10 miles per hour. Then there was the cost.

The bicentennial offered an opportunity. Although the canal’s commercial dominance ebbed as more freight was carried by railroads and then on interstate highways (only 163,671 tons were shipped on it last year, down from a peak of 6.4 million tons in 1880), the state now sees the canal as part of a different economic engine: tourism.

So the state planned a series of 200th-anniversary events in the hopes of attracting more visitors to a region that suffered terribly when industry left. It made recreational boat travel free on the canal this year; Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced a plan to complete a network of hiking and biking trails along the canal by 2020; and the state supported the orchestra’s tour with grants of roughly $371,000, which is a big sum for an ensemble with an annual budget of $2.7 million. Donors and local businesses made up the rest.

The concert drew a large crowd to Amsterdam, which was dealt a serious blow when its carpet mills began closing in the 1950s but has been working to revive its downtown with its recently expanded Riverlink Park, where the orchestra played.

As the Albany musicians tuned up, Amsterdam’s mayor, Michael Villa, surveyed the audience members, who had opened lawn chairs on every available patch of grass and were lining up at trucks offering ice cream, fried Twinkies, barbecue and wraps.

“I’m getting calls that there’s nowhere to park,” he said, happily. “If that’s my biggest problem, I’ll take it!”

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