The music of Bach and Beethoven is heard all over the world, often in elegant and historical buildings. But in New York, classical music fans can listen in an unconventional music venue on the East River. Bargemusic is a former coffee barge converted into a floating concert hall that has attracted high caliber classical musicians for almost 30 years.
Since it was founded in 1977 by professional violinist Olga Bloom, Bargemusic has enjoyed an international reputation for showcasing world-class musicians on the Brooklyn waterfront.
Bloom, now in her eighties, attends every concert and welcomes guests to the barge, encouraging them to enjoy complimentary wine, crackers and cheese before taking their seats.
In a warmly lit cherry wood paneled room, a string quartet recently played for the audience. The room seats about 125 people, creating an intimate experience. The musicians play against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.
Musician Eric Jacobsen has performed at Bargemusic for several years and says there is a close connection with the audience that he has never felt on other stages. "For me, Barge sort of incorporates the living room and concert performance setting all in one. You do have a stage, but the audience is right here, on your lap pretty much and they have a great view, so they are not only listening, they are watching, they are seeing and to invite someone into your living room, in a small beautiful setting that is really what chamber music is all about," he says.
Although more prominent venues in New York such as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center are magnets for many wanting to take in a classical performance, Bloom says those big concerts halls are impersonal. Bargemusic, she says, is about enjoying a shared musical experience with fellow concertgoers. "I think the architecture is terribly important. When I go to a large arena event, I feel very lonely in a crowd and I usually look for a place along the wall so I can lean on something. But in the barge, it's small but you are aware of the individuals who are around you, so it becomes more of a human relationship. You know each other as individuals, it is not a big mob," she says.
Attending an event at Bargemusic is not a typical concert-going experience. Visitors will find personal touches from Bloom and her staff such as handwritten name cards to easily locate their seats in the rows of identical red velvet chairs. During intermission, people mingle with artists or retreat to the roof of the barge to soak in views of the Manhattan cityscape and Brooklyn Bridge.
As other boats cruise by on the East River, the 31 meter barge sways back and forth sometimes in tempo with the music, sometimes not.
Musician Nick Cords says Bargemusic is an unparalleled experience and the unique setting compliments the classical music played there. "There is something about this place. This is a floating barge; this is not a dry docked barge. We're in the water here. It is floating and literally the ground is not beneath your feet. And actually this is the feeling you want I think in music. You do not want to be grounded, you want to be flying somehow and this barge actually feels like it's flying," he says.
Bargemusic attracts a diverse crowd of concert goers. Bloom says ticket prices for concerts have been kept reasonably low to attract seniors, students and people who might be put off by the steep prices often charged at larger music venues.
Bloom also extends her passion for the arts to children by encouraging them to visit the barge Thursdays when guest artists perform. Bloom says visiting Bargemusic gives children new perspectives about their world and makes music something familiar. "We experimented with this and it was wildly successful. I told them [adult guardians] don't tell the children what to do, let's watch and see what they do. And indeed, they came in and they ran to the windows and outer decks and squirmed all over the place, under the piano, they were everywhere. But the minute the musicians came on stage, they assembled themselves and sat in the first row with their chins out and they were listening. You don't have to stand there with a pointy finger saying, 'This is good for you. Listen to this.' No. Just let it happen around them and they will absorb it," he says.
Bargemusic presents concerts year round. With its extensive schedule, the not-for-profit Bargemusic is a premiere presenter of chamber music.