By John B. Manbeck
For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The saddest news from 2011 was the Thanksgiving Day death of Olga Bloom, the inspired voice behind Brooklyn’s Bargemusic. Her vision — to convert a 19th-century coffee barge into a floating concert hall — remains a tribute to her memory. I’ll always remember attending a New Year’s Eve chamber music concert in 1999 as the millennium closed while the outside cold was warded off by the musical warmth and camaraderie inside.Even the wake of passing boats contributed to the musical tempos on board for both musicians and the audience. Often, when Olga was in good health, she would be encouraged to play a selection on her violin or viola. The wood-paneled concert hall with mahogany details and cherry wood benches that she installed 33 years ago created an ambiance that reflected the musical solace from the stage.
When it was founded in 1977, Bargemusic provided a haven for struggling musicians, but then it developed into a Brooklyn cultural icon respected in all New York. Now it offers 220 concerts a year — four days a week, 52 weeks a year — and acts as a venue for special rentals and events. The annual budget for Bargemusic reaches over $1 million today but free concerts are offered every month. Jazz programming in a concert setting is also on the musical menu.
Bloom, born Olga Bayrack in Boston, studied to become a professional violinist and violist, playing both for Leopold Stokowski and on Broadway. Her first husband, a violinist, too, died in World War II. Her second husband, Tobias Bloom, also played violin but for the NBC Symphony Orchestra, back when radio stations kept musicians on their payroll. When he died in the 1970s, Olga Bloom embarked on a mission to search for a barge that was acoustically sound.
After several disappointments, she found success. It was the 100-foot EL 375 steel barge, formerly property of the Erie Lackawanna Railroad, and it cost $10,000, as is. Refurbishing was the hard part but with contributions of material and labor, Olga painted it white and converted a working barge to a 140-seat concert hall.
Located next to the historic Fulton Ferry Landing, Bargemusic floats in the epicenter of Brooklyn’s waterfront attractions with the Brooklyn Bridge above and River Café and Dumbo steps from her pilings. In recent years, the Brooklyn Ice Cream factory has moved into the former Maritime Museum (once a firehouse), the active Brooklyn Bridge Park lies on the other shore and now Jane’s Carousel supplies competition for the younger set. Year round, the landing is a port for the East River Ferry and the Water Taxi.
In 2005, Olga turned the operation over to violinist Mark Peskanov, who was named president and artistic director. There is still music in the air of Brooklyn because Olga Bloom had the vision and persistence to assure that Bach would remain part of our lives after she was gone.
Plans are being prepared for a memorial concert in tribute to Bargemusic’s founder, Olga Bloom.