BargeMusic: A venue to die for

One of New York's finest concert halls floats on the East River. Nicola Christie finds out why everyone wants to perform at BargeMusic

Classical music doesn't generally float. Even if the notes are delivered as the composer intended, the music rarely leaves one feeling seasick. But there's a venue in New York where all of the music floats, even the bad notes. It sits moored on the East River of Lower Manhattan, neatly tucked under the Brooklyn Bridge (the neighbouring pier to Michael O'Keeffe's renowned River Café), and it has been attracting the world's leading musicians to its stage for almost 30 years.

It's not a great stage. The sightlines aren't brilliant; the lighting not the best; the acoustics, while good, not Carnegie Hall. And yet, when BargeMusic presented its first recital in 1975, The New York Times dedicated an entire page to its review, and vowed to include this unlikely venue in its listings every week for the rest of the newspaper's life.

Thirty years on, and this floating concert hall is attracting even more interest than when it first opened its doors. Prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center make New York City a magnet for the world's leading conductors and soloists. And yet, in an age when concert-hall acoustics have never been better, artistic directors from top international venues, including London's Wigmore Hall, are being sent to the waterfront at Brooklyn to check out the most primitive of performance spaces in order to understand what makes it so beguiling.

The view is a good place to start. As the audience take their seats for the evening's performance, and the musicians - the Trio Amelia in this instance (they have come direct from the Wigmore Hall) - prepare to introduce their programme, the light falls on Manhattan and, as if by magic, the lights of the Chrysler Building, the Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building, are switched on. The audience doesn't quite know where to look. It is difficult to take one's eyes off the performers, close and immediate as they are, and yet it is impossible not to let one's eyes wander to the views being offered through the windows that frame the performance.

One need not struggle. The whole purpose of this venue, its setting, is to place the arts, chamber music in this instance, into the world that surrounds it; to offer art not as some remote and grand form at which to marvel from a distance but as an evolving and immediate experience that is an extension, an expression of the wider world.

"All my life, I had been wondering about what would be a proper environment in which to present classical music," its founder, Olga Bloom, now in her eighties, explains. Bloom still attends every concert, welcoming the audience, kissing them goodbye. Sometimes, she gets up to play an encore - a professional violinist, she was one of the first females to play in a New York symphony orchestra, having won a scholarship to study at New York's Juilliard School. "To put it simply, starkly, I think that a shelter should be provided, in all the parklands, for the arts. If you can have monkeys in the zoo, why the hell can't you have a place for people to become familiar with what the arts have to offer? And what about the young? How much inspiration do you find in concrete schoolyards?"

It was while helping her brother and his wife find a suitable place in which to bring up their children, somewhere that could encourage "initiative, originality and spontaneity", that she hit upon the idea of a houseboat. The boat she found didn't work for a home (nor did it work as a concert hall; it took until boat number three to find one that could be successfully converted into a performance space), but it was the start of her desperate quest for a new way to present classical music.

She wanted a place that would provide a regular stage for musicians who might have graduated from Juilliard or the Royal Academy of Music, but, because they came second and not first at some international competition, would find themselves with very little employment. Bloom wanted to offer a way out of this oblivion, while at the same time offering a way in for audiences who had not experienced classical music before. "I wanted to bring people in who might be put off by the 'strangeness' of classical music," she explains.

The world of classical music can seem strange. It can seem inaccessible and difficult. It can also seem unwelcoming, at least for a young person. Go into any concert hall in any city in the world, and you will find that most of the audience are over 50, and that youngsters are either music students or the grumpy children of concert-going parents.

Why did Olga Bloom want to change that? She says it is because classical music is more capable than any other art form of transforming people's lives. It is not like watching a play or a movie, where director and cast are consciously taking the viewer by the hand to experience a particular emotion. The music of, say, Beethoven, Janacek, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky is far less definable than that. It casts a spell that, by its very ambiguity, allows a listener to be transported to another place, to find their own spiritual world rather than be told where to find it.

It seems obvious that classical music, and the peace and nourishment that can be gained from it, should be actively encouraged in society. Keeping music in the concert hall, she argues, is not going to do that. (In London, initiatives such as the London Symphony Orchestra's Discovery programme have bravely started the journey, but such efforts to open the ears of children and other people in the community to the possibilities of classical music need to be adopted on a wider scale.)

It is on Olga Bloom's barge that one understands why. Audiences leave altered after a concert. And it's not just the view; it is the feeling that the performers, who travel from all over the world to play here and are the best of the best, are truly sharing the gift they have. The experience is so intimate - at the furthest, the musicians are 10 rows away - and so lovingly delivered that it is impossible to leave without that particular piece of music remaining with you for some time, if not for ever.

And thus, as the boat gently rocks and Manhattan slumbers around it, BargeMusic has, once again, worked its particular magic.

BargeMusic (00 1 718 624 4061; www.bargemusic.org)

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