Olga Bloom, a violinist and violist who founded Bargemusic – and turned a sinister spot on the Brooklyn waterfront into one of New York’s most intimate and prolific chamber-music venues -- died on Thanksgiving. She was 92. Her death was confirmed by Mark Peskanov, Bargemusic’s president and director.
Likely the world’s only year-round floating concert hall, Bargemusic is moored at Fulton Ferry Landing in Brooklyn where it offers a steady diet of concerts 52 weeks a year. Bloom founded the series in 1977, two years after she discovered a 100-foot steel barge that had been used for delivering coffee for the Erie Lakawanna Railroad. She bought the vessel for $10,000 and had it towed from New Jersey to a marina in the Rockaways, and, almost single-handedly undertook the enormous task of refurbishing the interior.
“The moment I saw the barge I knew it was perfect acoustically,” Bloom recalled in a 2009 interview on WNYC Radio. She found cherry wood from a discarded Staten Island ferry, which she stripped and sanded to use for paneling. Other amenities were added including a restroom, seating for about 130, and four large windows that revealed a spectacular view of Lower Manhattan -- a view that bobs up and down as the barge itself rises and falls with the waves.
Bloom recalled her arrival on the Brooklyn waterfront, then known for its rotting piers and rampant crime. She feared the suspicion of the longshoremen. “I’ll never forget my arrival,” she told WNYC. “To my astonishment, when we pulled in, under the bridge, all the longshoremen came running across the fields to help and they poured onto the barge and started to teach me how to sand this way and fix that."
When Bloom began giving concerts on the barge in the late '70s, she ran the series on a shoestring budget, raising money partly by renting it out for weddings and similar events, and partly through private donations. During those years, the nightly lineups consisted of many students from New York's conservatories. Yet as its budget grew, the artist roster was increasingly professionalized. Meanwhile, Bloom, who had lived on the barge for the first few years to save money, moved into a home in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Bloom was born in Boston to Eastern European immigrant parents and studied violin with Jacques Hoffmann, the associate concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She worked as a violinist in New York for years, playing under Leopold Stokowski in the American Symphony Orchestra. When Bloom decided that a professional career as a violinist was not in her future, she still felt a need to give something back to music.
''There's a great integrity about the playing here,'' Bloom once told the New York Times. ''When the musicians are out of the combat zone, they relax and enjoy themselves - and you can hear it.''
While Bloom withdrew from her administrative duties in 2005 and retired in 2008, she remained a fixture at the Barge until recently, even performing at her own 90th birthday celebration in 2009. She died at Hearthstone Alzheimer Care, a nursing home in Manhattan.
Olga Bloom on Bargemusic's early days (WNYC interview, 2009):