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)

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick