Barge plays home to floating concert hall - Soundings Online

Barge plays home to floating concert hall

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Bargemusic in Brooklyn, N.Y., has hosted some of the biggest names in classical music

Bargemusic in Brooklyn, N.Y., has hosted some of the biggest names in classical music

Moored at Fulton Ferry Landing, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge and less than a block away from the renowned River Café in Brooklyn, N.Y., is a small barge that boaters plying the waters of the East River pass regularly, but might never notice.

Rising and falling with the tide, the barge’s chipping white paint and rusty pipes don’t necessarily attract much attention from the water. But inside the floating steel frame there are nearly 100 wooden chairs situated in front of a small stage. Behind the stage, floor-to-ceiling windows offer views over the river onto Manhattan’s skyline.

Open now for three decades this inconspicuous waterfront spot is, believe it or not, where some of the world’s finest classical musicians have performed.

“From Yo-Yo Ma to members of the New York Philharmonic, all the greatest performers have been here,” explains Olga Bloom, the 87-year-old founder of the classical music venue aptly called Bargemusic. Bloom considers Bargemusic one of the city’s best-kept secrets.

“This is about expression through music,” Bloom says, sitting inside the cherry wood-lined walls of the barge, her blue eyes conveying her excitement. “You’ve got to express yourself or you’ll be sick. It’s like all of the body’s other functions; you’ve just got to do it.”

A professional violinist who lives in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, Bloom began studying classical music at age 4 with her father, who was also a violinist. “Familiarity is an essential ingredient for culture,” says Bloom. “If my father didn’t play the violin I wouldn’t have reached for it, and embraced it, like I did.”

Growing up Bloom later studied with Jacques Hoffman, a longtime violinist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She continued on with Hoffman until she was in her 20s, when she became a musician on Broadway.

After many years playing music in the entertainment industry, Bloom retired in the early 1970s. Not long after, she purchased a Chris-Craft open Sea Skiff on which she cruised the waters around the Big Apple.

“I ran the boat around Reynolds Channel and to Jones Inlet, all the while listening to Mozart,” Bloom recalls with a laugh. “I escaped from life on that boat. I found as much solace in nature, on the water, as I do with music.”

Bloom was so taken with being on the water, she says, that when her brother and his wife were looking for a new home she suggested they purchase a houseboat. It was while looking for a houseboat that Bloom came across a barge for sale. “We weren’t having much luck locating a suitable houseboat, but I found a barge,” she explains. “I don’t know exactly what it was. I stood on the shore, looked at the thing and bought it for $800.”

Owning the barge helped inspire Bloom to create a space for aspiring musicians, she says, where they can play for an audience and earn some money, too.

“As a musician in studios I encountered the greatest performers of the times,” Bloom says. “I felt I had to do something for them. I had, in some way, to better incorporate the arts into the community, to make it more accessible to everyone. The idea was just bursting inside of me.”

Looking for the “perfect” yet “alternative” space, Bloom sold the barge, bought another, sold that one and purchased a third. After some renovations she turned it into what today is Bargemusic.

“Just because someone comes in second at an international competition that doesn’t mean they aren’t wildly talented,” Bloom says. “The first-place winner gets one, two, maybe three major performances. Second place does not. Here, at Bargemusic, those incredible musicians can find a shelter for their music; a place where their music can be heard and appreciated by people from all over.”

Bargemusic presented its first recital in 1975. Since then the tiny venue has continued to attract attention from the world’s top classical musicians, who come to New York to perform at places like Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center. It’s also been home to many lesser-known acts.

“We’ve gone from presenting a couple of concerts per week to hundreds per year,” says Mark Peskanov, Bargemusic president and executive director. Peskanov, who is in his 40s and lives in Manhattan, played his first concert at Bargemusic 17 years ago and has been organizing concerts there for the last 10. “What we have here is unique,” he says. “It’s a floating concert hall. There’s no place like this in the world.

“We are committed to making this venue open for so many artists, and to make this music accessible to people, many who might not go to a place like Carnegie Hall,” he continues. “It’s a part of our culture. It’s been an excellent evolution over the years.”

Seated at her desk inside Bargemusic, Bloom says she is “mad with optimism” that someday she’ll open similar floating concert halls around the country. “Ideally, I’d like to have a little armada of venues like this to accommodate the public and all of the talented artists,” she says. “If the idea has worked here why can’t we expand it, and expand it and expand it some more?”

Bargemusic is in Brooklyn at the corner of Old Fulton and Furman streets. Tickets range from $20 to $40 and reservations are recommended. Free parking for concert-goers is available. For information call (718) 624-2083 or go to www.bargemusic.org .