A Music Hall Sways to Its Own Beat
The violinist Maurycy Banaszek on the stage of Bargemusic, where the music is accompanied by views of the Brooklyn Bridge and Lower Manhattan.
By ALLAN KOZINN
Published: May 20, 2010
There is usually a moment early in any concert at Bargemusic when even listeners who have spent many evenings hearing music in this converted coffee barge find themselves wondering why they couldn’t have found something to do on dry land. The barge, moored on the Brooklyn side of the East River — near the River Café and a stone’s throw from the Brooklyn Bridge — is a boat, after all, and it is given to the gentle rocking motion that mariners love and landlubbers can find mildly disconcerting.
Yana Paskova for The New York Times
The Flux Quartet, from left, Tom Chiu, Conrad Harris, Felix Fan and Max Mandel, during a recent concert at Bargemusic.
But part of the magic of Bargemusic is that you quickly forget about the motion. When you take your seat, you face a stage set before a large window that offers a spectacular view: the river, with its varied traffic, and the looming cityscape of Lower Manhattan. The performances, by an expansive roster of regulars, as well as visiting ensembles and soloists, are typically so involving that they eclipse even the view.
Lately the programming has been increasingly inventive, as Mark Peskanov, the violinist who has been Bargemusic’s president and executive and artistic director since 2006, has added a new-music series (Here and Now), an early-music series (There and Then) and jazz concerts to the diet of standard repertory solo and chamber works that has been Bargemusic’s main fare. All told, the barge presents about 220 concerts year round.
The offerings over the next week are fairly typical of Bargemusic’s programming these days. In a Here and Now concert on Friday night, the new-music band Sequitur performs Corey Dargel’s “Pulitzer Prize Acceptance Speech,” Phil Kline’s “Football Season Is Over” (a setting of a text by Hunter S. Thompson) and works by Robert Beaser, Martin Bresnick, Tom Cipullo, Michael Fiday, Lee Hyla, Stefan Weisman and Marc Blitzstein.
The Saturday and Sunday concerts are more traditional. Mr. Peskanov; Carlos Prieto, the cellist; and Doris Stevenson, the pianist, perform works by Haydn, Brahms and Shostakovich. Another Here and Now program on Wednesday, performed by the neoLIT Ensemble, is devoted to works by female composers, and on Thursday the Carlos Cuevas Trio plays jazz.
“The truth is, whatever happens here has to do with my taste and my experience or is something I’m very interested in,” said Mr. Peskanov, a bearlike musician with tousled hair and a Russian accent, in a recent interview at the barge. “I’m very interested in what’s happening with new composition. I have always played it. For my debut with the New York Philharmonic, I played a concerto that was composed for me by Stanley Wolfe, and for my Carnegie Hall debut, I played the John Williams Violin Concerto.
“But I’m also interested in what happened back then, in the time before Bach and Vivaldi. That’s something I don’t know as much about, and I’m very curious. So I think the early-music series, There and Then, will open my ears about some things.
“And jazz, let me tell you what happened. We had a benefit concert here for P.S. 8 with some jazz musicians. And one of them — Jeff Newell, the saxophonist — mentioned to me that he had a composition about 25 minutes long that he felt was too long to play in a club. And I thought: ‘That’s it. There is no reason Bargemusic should not open its door to this.’ For jazz musicians, it’s a different experience. It’s a concert atmosphere, not a club.”
As it turns out, Mr. Peskanov is not finished shaking up Bargemusic’s schedule. Starting on June 7, the jazz concerts will be moved from their Thursday night perch to Mondays, and will have both a new series name, Jazz and More, and a new purview: the “more” takes in borderline indie pop-classical performers like the singer, violinist and songwriter Christina Courtin, who performs on June 14, or the Batteries Duo, a trumpet and electronics ensemble that performs with the pianist Steven Beck on July 5.
June will bring other novelties too. As part of Here and Now, the Flux Quartet is devoting a full weekend (June 4 to 6) to music of Morton Feldman, with the clarinetist Evan Ziporyn joining them the last two days . And Mr. Peskanov is starting a new series of hourlong lunchtime concerts, Music in Motion, every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with free admission for children with an accompanying adult, who pays $10.
“The performers and the programs are not going to be announced,” Mr. Peskanov said. “That will give the performers a certain freedom. And the format will be maybe 45 or 50 minutes of music and 10 or 15 minutes when people can ask the performers questions. I think it will be a lovely thing for the neighborhood, and it shows us as what we are, a kind of Noah’s Ark of music. This is the spirit of the barge. This is the spirit of Olga.”
Mr. Peskanov was referring to Olga Bloom, now 91, who founded Bargemusic in 1977 and ran it until around 2005, when she began turning over its administration to Mr. Peskanov. Mr. Peskanov, the artistic director at the time, had been overseeing the barge’s programming for several years.
Ms. Bloom, a violinist, came up with the idea of presenting concerts on a barge in 1975, but it took a couple of years to get her project under way. Her first problem was finding the right vessel: her first two barges were acoustically and structurally problematic, but the third, a 102-foot coffee barge, built in 1899, proved ideal for concert use and could seat about 175. Ms. Bloom spent a year refurbishing it, had it towed to its current home at the Fulton Ferry Landing and opened for business.
Olga Bloom, 91, the founder of Bargemusic, with its director, Mark Peskanov.
Yana Paskova for The New York Times
The former coffee barge floats at Fulton Ferry Landing.
She began modestly, presenting weekly concerts by students from the city’s conservatories. But in 1984 she signed on the violinist Ik-Hwan Bae as her artistic director, and he persuaded her that hiring professional musicians would yield better performances and draw a more devoted audience. By 1990, the barge was thriving. When Mr. Bae left to join the faculty of Indiana University in 1995, Ms. Bloom brought in a committee of chamber players to do the programming, Mr. Peskanov among them.
The job Ms. Bloom turned over to Mr. Peskanov involves more than running the concerts. The mundane side of it, overseeing the barge’s maintenance, requires constant attention and a significant chunk of the annual $1 million budget.
“The thing about this place, which Olga understood very well,” Mr. Peskanov said, “is that it’s like a hungry monster. There is so much to do. It’s 24/7, but it feels more like 48/7. And the fund-raising, I feel like every time I talk to anyone, every phone call or every note I write is about raising money. But it’s good work. It’s about getting interest in the place and about collaborating with people to keep it going. Fund-raising is about collaborating in the same way playing chamber music is.”
Still, it is the musical side of running the barge that most engages Mr. Peskanov. He said he was constantly listening to young musicians — some of whom audition for Bargemusic by giving free performances on Saturday afternoons — and finding new additions to his roster of regulars. Sometimes he gets lucky: in 2005 he presented Marie-Elisabeth Hecker, an unknown 18-year old German cellist, in her American recital debut. A month later she won first prize (and two special prizes) at the International Rostropovich Cello Competition in Paris.
“I think that performing at Bargemusic has been an important first step for literally dozens of young musicians,” said Johnny Gandelsman, a violinist in Brooklyn Rider, the mostly new-music string quartet, and the Knights, a chamber orchestra. “Both groups I play in have performed at the barge many, many times. In a way, we started building our audience at the barge.
“What’s great about Mark is his trust in the younger generation. If someone suggests a musician or a program to Mark, his attitude toward booking new people or programming and commissioning new music is always, ‘Why not?’ ”
One reason that openness seems to come so easily to Mr. Peskanov is that few proposals crossing his desk are likely to outpace his own vision of what Bargemusic can be.
“In a perfect world,” he mused, “I would like to put on a concert lasting three, four, five hours, with everything in it: chamber music, jazz, pop, new music — a big menu. It would be like a feast. I would love to have musicians come in and say: ‘Hey, let’s do this. Let’s do that.’ Spontaneous programming. Can you imagine the excitement, to do this maybe one day a month?”
“O.K., I’m just dreaming out loud,” he said, catching himself momentarily. “But things are happening, too.”
Bargemusic is at Fulton Ferry Landing, Brooklyn, next to the Brooklyn Bridge. Concerts are at 8 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Sundays. Regular tickets are $15 to $35; concerts by large ensembles $20 to $40. Jazz and More programs are $20; $10 for students. The Music in Motion series, starting June 1, on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 1 p.m., costs $10, but is free for children up to 16 accompanied by an adult; (718) 624-2083, bargemusic.org.