Remembering Bargemusic – A Love Story

I wrote this piece in 1996, in the early years of Bargemusic, before its full flourishing and when it was still possible to get a good seat at the last minute.
Olga’s barge used to carry sacks of coffee beans around New York Harbor. As you walked down from the subway in Brooklyn Heights, it resembled a large house boat. The barge’s interior paneling came from a scrapped Staten Island ferry, “The American Legion.” Twenty years ago Olga matched barge and paneling and made a space for chamber music. Bargemusic now seats around 150, just the right size.
Olga Bloom – a great-souled, ever-so-slightly lame woman in her late 70’s – is Bargemusic’s founder, president, manager, fund-raiser, and greeter. Having studied at the New England Conservatory and at Tanglewood, Olga played the violin in a USO orchestra during World War II. Her first husband did, too, but then he insisted on becoming a pilot and was shot down in the Pacific. After the war, she settled into regular appearances in New York theater orchestras and in various ensembles – mainly on the viola because, according to Olga, there was more work for a woman on the viola. Her second husband, now deceased, played for Toscanini.  Olga and he met playing string quartets.
Olga’s enthusiasm, humor, and gratitude animate “the Barge,” the great work of her life. She has a merry, matter-of-fact way about her, but in repose her face has old world depth. Her eyes come to the surface when she laughs. They say that nothing human will ever surprise her. The first time we met, almost nine years ago, Olga had a mop in her hand. An early arrival for the concert had dropped a wine glass in anthe effort to put cheese on a cracker.
Bargemusic’s normal schedule is two concerts every week, all year long, come what may (no closing for blizzards!), with a Thursday evening program repeated on Sunday. On Thursdays, when the crowd is younger and more casual, the performances are fresher for having less rehearsal time. Summer brings additional, Friday concerts – one year they were all string quartets. At Christmas-New Year’s, Olga presents Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.
The artists who appear at the Barge are all well-known ensemble, orchestral, and solo musicians: men and women (about evenly divided) mostly in their 20’s and 30’s. Asians and Russians are in abundance. Program bios refer to recordings, solo appearances with major orchestras, study with celebrity teachers, and international prizes. Olga has a taste for families. They bring both talent and loyalty. Once CarmitZori, a violinist, was so pregnant that she designed a program for herself that allowed her to stand the whole time. We regularly get three Peskanovs, three Hoffmanns, and three sisters McDermott (they all look like Lillian Gish, says Olga).
There are no tickets as such for Bargemusic. You call for a reservation and when you arrive, a volunteer tells you where you will sit. Each red-padded folding chair has a slip of paper with a name written in magic marker. Like the hostess she is, Olga seats people according to some mysterious logic known only to herself. One principle surely is friendship, and Olga indulges her regulars, no matter when they call for reservations. Some of us like to sit right up front, entranced as we are by the physical work of music-making – the sweat, the page-turning, the nods and glances between musicians as they take or trade the lead, the occasional missed notes that elicit smiles from the others.
The Barge is moored permanently under the Brooklyn Bridge, next to the old ferry landing. (Nearby a plaque marks where General Washington and his troops narrowly escaped to Manhattan from the Battle of Long Island in 1776.) The Barge lists slightly to port, in part from the weight of its modern plumbing. From your seat inside, the rocking tells you when a ship passes by in the East River. Across the low stage and behind the Steinway concert grand, large windows frame the lower Manhattan skyline. In cold weather, a wood fire burns in the fireplace that Olga added to her barge and that in turn contributes to the barge’s list to port. Recently, long yellow banners have appeared on a couple of flagpoles outside, as if proclaiming the start of a medieval tournament. Alongside the barge, a new public promenade reaches out into the river, its railing showing a pattern of fans that mimic the fan-like effect of the bridge’s cables. In its own way, the neighborhood is trying to catch up with Olga.
* * *
The idea for Bargemusic evolved from Olga’s interest in barges. Originally she wanted her new-born niece (who these days has a child of her own) to grow up on a barge. “Everything is so regimented; things look the same,” Olga laments. “I wanted it to be different for her.” The barge in her plan would also include room for a studio for herself and her musician friends.
Today’s barge is Olga’s third. The first one she found abandoned – “somewhere beyond the Statue of Liberty, lying next door to an old destroyer,”, she recalls. She bought it for a few hundred dollars only to learn that she couldn’t get insurance for it. So she kept looking. The second turned out to have unacceptable acoustics. For the third, located by placing an ad, Olga mortgaged her seaside house on Long Island.
Her niece was meanwhile growing up happily in a land-locked house, and anyway Olga found she had no place to berth her barge. The problem was that her barge was no longer self-propelled. “No one knew what rules to impose on me,” she remembers. Finally, prompted by her many friends in high places, the regulators decided that Olga’s barge was a “floating structure” – still the city’s only one. Her landlord is the Department of Economic Development, and the Barge perseveres month to month as a tenant-at-will.
Olga got permission to live on the barge for a while, provided she listed herself as “custodian.” Then, because the city was afraid other people would want to live on “floating structures,” Olga was forced to find another place to stay when she wasn’t on Long Island. She rented a Civil War era brick house in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn (where again she soon became a gentrifying pioneer).
Before Olga was ready to open the barge to the public (in 1977), she and a pianist friend used to get together to play Beethoven sonatas. One day a group of neighborhood Hispanic kids came to the door. Of course Olga invited them in. “They took their seats like birds in a row and never moved a muscle. Afterwards, as they filed out, each one kissed our hands.”
In those years, Olga remembers, with the piers nearby and Brooklyn’s port still busy, “this was a very virile neighborhood.” One of her many admirers from the docks was an elderly longshoreman in failing health who visited regularly whenever she and her friend played. He always walked more upright afterwards, Olga recalls. “He had discovered something essential to him.”
This spirit survives. Bargemusic, for all its artistic excellence, sparks good democratic manners. Volunteers do more than take reservations and put out the wine and cheese. One young woman takes charge of the seat cushions, washing and mending them as needed. A young man checks the bolts and hinges of every folding chair after every concert. The proprietor of a local hardware store shows up weekly to replace lightbulbs. Others contribute unbidden, like the African American gentleman who, after concerts, gladly accepts tips for “hailing” arriving cabs and opening their doors. The cabbies have learned when to turn up in an otherwise cab-free area. Bargemusic enlivens the neighborhood. Police on the beat use the Barge’s facilities, rare these days on the waterfront.
Other New York institutions besides cruising cabs have been known to make adjustments for the Barge. Cellist Fred Sherry remembers his jury duty. Fred alerted the judge at the start that he had an engagement that would be threatened by a lengthy trial, and that there could be no substitute. Sure enough, the jury was set to retire for deliberations on the day of the concert. Fred became frantic. He held up his cello for the judge to see and pointed to his watch. At the last possible moment, two bailiffs were dispatched in a police van to get Fred to Brooklyn on time. One bailiff sat through the concert in the front near Fred. Back they went to court immediately after. The judge asked how things had gone. “You wouldn’t believe what they do over there,” replied the excited concert-going officer.
* * *
It has not always been easy for Olga to keep Bargemusic going, and she is still troubled by how little she can pay. Ticket prices have been held down – currently $23, $20 for seniors, $15 for students – in order to attract and retain a loving and distinctive audience. Small grants come from public sources, but Olga depends on family foundations and individual patrons. On off days, Olga rents the barge out for weddings, receptions, retirement parties and the like. Recently, MTV filmed a music video at the barge. There was even a helicopter. “My God,” Olga reported, “they spent more in an afternoon than my entire annual budget! What’s happening in this country?” Olga is often indignant about the culture’s evident priorities.
Several years ago, Olga and her young artistic director, Ik-Wan Bae, parted company after more than a dozen years. Together they had put Bargemusic on the local musical map. But Ik-Wan was devoting more and more of his time to a school of music in Seoul, and Bargemusic’s programs had become predictable and inbred.
At about the same time, Bargemusic’s entire (advisory) board departed. It seems they insisted on hiring a well-paid business manager, while continuing to pay the artists far less than the rate elsewhere. The Barge needed marketing, the board thought, professional fund raising, and a more business-like approach. Olga dug in her heels and let the board and their business manager go in peace. (She had a wealthy patron or two privately on her side.) As the daughter of a radical labor organizer, Olga delights in recalling that this unpleasantness took place in the Dow Jones board room on May Day.
Since then Bargemusic has taken off. Some foundation support did disappear with the old board, but attendance is up (it was never down). Thanks to a Brooklyn Heights patron, the Steinway was paid off. There is, says Olga proudly, money in the bank. Regular Times reviews have been helpful. An admiring article in Smithsonian gave Bargemusic national cachet. With the old “board” out of the way, and with the departure of Ik-Wan, Olga handed artistic direction to a seven person “Resident Artists Committee” composed of Toby Hoffman, Anne-Marie McDermott, Paul Neubauer, Mark Peskanov, Fred Sherry, Ronald Thomas, and CarmitZori. Responsibility for sets of programs now rotates among them. With a glance to the future, Olga also transferred ownership of the Barge to the committee.
Bargemusic has thus become a kind of musicians’ cooperative. A new board continues to support the Barge financially, lends a hand in fund-raising, and advises Olga on fiscal matters. But the musicians’ control of the programs reinforces the intimacy of the place, putting audiences and performers in direct contact. This connection recalls Olga’s initial idea. Fred Sherry like his colleagues relishes the close quarters. “You hear what the musicians hear, and we can see your faces.”
Creating the Resident Artists Committee invigorated everything. Programs have become more venturesome and challenging, as seven great musicians pool their musical tastes and professional contacts. Woodwinds have appeared more frequently than before, along with harp, horn, and even vocalists. We hear Bartok, 20th century Russians composers, sometimes contemporary music.
For the artists the change has meant an unusual creative experience and a sense of ownership. The freedom to create programs and choose the players, says Mark Peskanov, brings more excitement and greater joy than performance alone. But the performances themselves are often surprising, he says, just because of the special bond that the Barge has forged among the players. Another distinguished Resident Artist observes: “Now when I play someplace else I have something to talk about besides my career or a particular piece of music. I feel a part of something important in the world.”
The Committee’s artistic control has also subtly changed Bargemusic’s economics. Olga has always felt that the Barge was “subsidized by all the people who work here.” They should be paid more. In the early days, an ambitious young musician without an established reputation would have to think twice about accepting a Bargemusic date, lest the low fee depresses his or her going rate. No longer. Creative freedom keeps the Committee fresh and active; their luster makes Bargemusic an enormously attractive gig. The Committee’s members are, alongside Olga, the Barge’s equity and its renewable future. This turn of events has only strengthened Olga’s dogged resolve to find performing artists the money they deserve.
* * *
Chamber music performance can be sensual, even erotic: intimate, but at the same time impersonal. Emma Bovary would have been safe at Olga’s. The playing makes the audience into a little ephemeral society of equals. When the music stops, real life resumes.
At intermission time, the musicians chat with each other, trading gossip; they talk to leading patrons about what they are doing; they joke with Olga; they sit quietly by themselves, perhaps thinking about the rest of the program, or about the rest of the evening. Mark Peskanov, always, exuberant, likes to work the crowd. He keeps the violin tucked under his chin, playing short runs as he talks. Joseph Villa, known best for his recordings of Liszt and Scriabin, sat quietly, I remember, with the friends who accompanied him. In his last months of AIDS, his performances at Bargmusic were a grace.
One time, a very young Chinese cellist Jian Wang, a student then studying at Yale, was part of a performance of the Tchaikovsky piano trio. It was well known that Isaac Stern, on his China tour, had “discovered” Jian Wang and encouraged his coming to America. My idiomatic friend Sam Hudson was visiting from his beloved Texas, and we were seated in the front row. At intermission, Sam had only a short step forward to thank the cellist. “That Tchaikovsky was a dog’s breakfast wasn’t it?” said Sam.
A year or so ago, Olga herself appeared on the Barge stage performing a Mozart string quartet. It had taken her musician friends months to persuade her. For Olga the evening was perhaps a way to join her early idea of her barge with Bargemusic as she had nurtured it for almost 20 years. At intermission, she was surrounded by admirers. Finally there was a chance to chat alone. She gave me a long look. “These are the best there are,” she said,. “What a treat to play with them.” Groping for something to say, I blurted out, “Olga, that was the bravest thing I ever saw. You know how it is supposed to sound.” Tears came to her eyes “You bet,” she said when her voice returned, “and it scared the shit out of me.”
A while back Bargemusic offered Schubert’s quintet for piano and strings in A major, the “Trout” – a familiar piece whose fourth string is a bass instead of the more usual second violin. Like Olga, it has both merriment and depth. The performers were especially distinguished, even by Bargemusic standards, with Mark Peskanov on violin, with his brother Alexander at the piano. The violist was Stephen Clapp, at the time dean of the Juillard School.
As the piece unfolded you could tell from their exchanges that something special was happening among the musicians. They were certainly savoring the moment, enjoying their music-making at least as much as the audience, but with a delight not available to mere listeners. When they finished the applause was an explosive roar, bravos all over the house. We called them back eight times. The Barge almost never has encores, but they played one movement again, eagerly. At the door, Olga was in a daze, glowing. As we embraced, she whispered, “Tonight, the universe changed its course!”
Olga died on Thanksgiving in 2011: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/26/arts/music/olga-bloom-violinist-and-violist-who-created-bargemusic-dies-at-92.html

Stephen Thomas

Steve Thomas is a retired teacher now living in Cherry Valley, New York. In addition to his writing, his interests include music and woodworking.