A Musical Tour of Brooklyn
JOHN SCHAEFER: Brooklyn has always been a quirky place. And so is its classical music scene. Here, you want proof? Okay. Exhibit A. This string quartet is called Brooklyn Rider and they recorded this piece by Christina Courtin in a factory that manufactured sawdust. The building was left empty by the turn of this century and has now been turned into one of Brooklyn's most reliable spots for live music. When, you know, we have live music. That spot is called National Sawdust. I'm John Shaefer, and this is New York in Concert, your guide to New York's classical music scene, and this time we take you to Brooklyn.
Now, if you thought Exhibit A, National Sawdust, was a good example of the borough's unusual approach to music, wait till you hear Exhibit B. Floating on the East river, under the Brooklyn Bridge is a refurbished barge that has been presenting live chamber music with a spectacular view of lower Manhattan since the late seventies. Like National Sawdust, the venue was so distinctive that it didn't need a fancy new name. It's just called Bargemusic.
In a little while, we'll hear the story behind Bargemusic, because there's really nothing else like it. But let's start with a performance from this floating concert hall in Brooklyn. The piece is by the 20th century Argentine composer and long-time New York resident Astor Piazzolla, the king of the nuevo tango. This piece is called Libertango and it's played by the musicians of Bargemusic.
Libertango - Astor Piazzolla
Mark Peskanov, Violin
Jisoo Ok, Cello
Hector Del Curto, Bandoneon
Pablo Ziegler, Piano
JOHN SCHAEFER: Recorded in the Summer of 2016 floating on the East river, those are some of the musicians from Bargemusic, playing Astor Piazzolla's Libertango. Mark Peskanov played the violin, Jisoo Ok the cello, Pablo Ziegler at the piano, and Hector del Curto playing the bandoneon, which is the instrument that sounded a bit like an accordion.
We're spending this hour of New York in Concert in Brooklyn. Violinist Colin Jacobsen and cellist Eric Jacobsen are brothers and co-founders of the string quartet called Brooklyn Rider and the chamber orchestra called the Knights, so they're really central players on the Brooklyn music scene.
COLIN JACOBSEN: Brooklyn is such a mix of cultures. So, it's a, it's a space for music from all around the world. But I think part of it is just, there's so many incredible spaces, uh, you know, around and, and as musicians, you get excited by the idea of venue or place.
JOHN SCHAEFER: That's Colin Jacobsen. And when he and his brother, Eric, started a string quartet focused on bridging the gap between traditional quartet repertoire and contemporary music, they decided to call it Brooklyn Rider.
COLIN JACOBSEN: So there were a lot of bad names thrown out. But one idea that came to us was the Blue Rider Group. The artistic collective active pre-World War I, consisting of Kandinsky and Schoenberg. And it was an amazing collective that had a very eclectic sense of inspiration, um, in terms of how they wanted art to move forward. And we liked that idea of the, this interdisciplinary collective that we were seeing that kind of work and engaging it in, in Brooklyn at that time.
JOHN SCHAEFER: Let's hear that string quartet. Brooklyn Rider playing a work by Christina Courtin. It has a kind of neo- Baroque flavor to it. This recording was made live in 2012 at what was then called the Original Music Workshop. It's an early version of the now essential Brooklyn music venue called National Sawdust. Here's the piece called Tralala.
Tralala - Christina Courtin
Colin Jacobsen, violin
Johnny Gandelsman, violin
Nicholas Cords, viola
Eric Jacobsen, Cello
JOHN SCHAEFER: That's called Tralala, written by Christina Courtin and recorded live at Original Music Workshop in 2012. The Original Music Workshop reopened in 2015 as National Sawdust in that formerly abandoned sawdust factory in Williamsburg and the performers were the original members of the string quartet, Brooklyn Rider: Colin Jacobsen and Johnny Gandelsman violins, Nicholas Cords, viola and Eric Jacobsen, cello.
We're spending some time in Brooklyn on New York in Concert, and up next, a bit of Brooklyn comes to us. Because we recorded this next performance live in the WQXR studios in lower Manhattan, but the performer is one of the stars of the Brooklyn classical music scene.
Pianist Simone Dinnerstein is a Brooklyn native. Her father is the award-winning painter, Simon Dinnerstein. And yes, she makes time to play with the New York Philharmonic or the London Symphony Orchestra. And yes, she's made 10 records all of which have topped the billboard classical charts. But she remains devoted to her home borough. She started a neighborhood classics series that raises money for local public schools and a music program for kids called Bach packing. Here is Simone Dinnerstein playing music by Mozart. It's the first movement, basically a theme and variations, from Mozart's piano sonata number 11 in A major.
Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major - Mozart
I. Andante Grazioso
JOHN SCHAEFER: That's music by Mozart. First movement of his piano sonata number 11 in A major. Recorded live in our studio by pianist Simone Dinnerstein from Brooklyn.
You're listening to New York in Concert, your guide to New York's classical music scene. I'm John Schafer, proudly showing off some of my home borough's classical music this time around. And we go back to Brooklyn, or actually we'll be floating just offshore, right after this.
JOHN SCHAEFER: There’s nothing in New York quite like Bargemusic. It is literally a barge -- an old, restored coffee barge that’s been turned into a floating concert hall, permanently moored at the Brooklyn end of the Brooklyn Bridge. It was the brainchild of a remarkable violinist named Olga Bloom. She actually mortgaged her house to buy the barge.
OLGA BLOOM: "I went to Jersey and bought one just as casually as one goes to a grocery store. [Laughs]"
JOHN SCHAEFER: That's Olga Bloom, being interviewed on our sister station, WNYC, back in 1982.
OLGA BLOOM: "My narrow concern has been for highly educated musicians..."
INTERVIEWER: "Provide a forum for them?"
OLGA BLOOM: "Exactly. More than that, precisely, a dependable income!"
JOHN SCHAEFER: So in the late 1970s, she turned the barge into a new, intimate venue for chamber music. It can fit over a hundred people, but they limit the audience to 75.
OLGA BLOOM: "I'm a great admirer of arena events because it's the ideal, it's the grandiose spectacle of human behavior."
OLGA BLOOM: "But I feel a great need and I think that accounts for all its success to a great extent, of individuals who want to feel that they are among human beings and sense their individuality in a room."
OLGA BLOOM: "And that's what I tried to do on the Barge. The audience itself, they come and they gather together and have a bit of refreshment at intermission. And they get to -- they feel that it's permissible to talk to one another and to talk to the musicians, and all together, it's a lovely, lovely social event.
JOHN SCHAEFER: Olga Bloom died in 2011. Before she retired in 2005 though, she handed over the duties of running Bargemusic... to one of her favorite performers there.
MARK PESKANOV: My name is Mark Peskanov, I am the Executive and Artistic Director of Bargemusic. And I play violin."
I remember I played on the Barge, I was still a kid. I don't know how, somebody invited me there in the early 80s and I played several times, you know, over those years.
It's a 103 feet long, 30-some feet wide barge in the water. You have to walk on the gangway. You open the door and you go into the Barge.
And what you say there, there is about a 90 feet from you, or 80 feet, you see the stage. You see 9 foot Steinway on the stage.
You have this big window and it's quite beautiful. The ceiling, it's a kind of -- they're about 14 feet tall and then the walls are all wood. And so that's why it has nice acoustic too, because we have all this wood.
And Olga always wanted that to look -- the interior, you know -- like inside of the violin.
When I'm on the stage, the audience members, they can see the movement of the boat because they're looking at this big window behind our backs as we are playing. But we don't see that, you see, so we don't know how it's moving. But the audience can feel it going up and down, a little sideways, so it's different. So as a musician, we are -- we don't see it, we can just only feel it.
JOHN SCHAEFER: That’s Mark Peskanov, violinist and Artistic Director at Bargemusic. Let’s hear him and the cellist Edward Aaron playing the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia recorded live in November of 2019 on the Barge at Bargemusic.
Passacaglia - Johan Halvorsen and George Frideric Handel
Mark Peskanov, Violin
Edward Arron, Cello
JOHN SCHAEFER: The Passacaglia by George Frideric Handel arranged by Johann Halvorsen and played live at Bargemusic by violinist Mark Peskanov and cellist Edward Aaron. We are celebrating Brooklyn this time on New York in Concert. The Knights are one of Brooklyn's resident orchestras, and it was started by the same musicians who founded the string quartet, Brooklyn Rider.
They had some of their first performances on the barge at Bargemusic. But cellist Eric Jacobsen remembers a time when it was just him and his brother, Colin, and a group of friends playing chamber music in their living room.
ERIC JACOBSEN: The Knights is a group of friends that learned how to play music together in an environment that was really conducive to experimentation and being comfortable. And that's where the, the, the roots are of the Knights. It's chamber music readings. It's sitting there together and kind of figuring out this music. And out of those reading parties grew a group of humans, um, which became the Knights. A group of people who said, Oh, this is, this feels right. And for us, it was, you know, it was chamber music and then it ended up being more than that.
JOHN SCHAEFER: From those early Brooklyn reading parties, the Knights became a fixture on the New York music scene on both sides of the East river. The Knights play each summer in Central Park in the Naumburg Concert Series and even a Brooklyn booster like Eric Jacobsen has to admit there is nothing quite like it.
ERIC JACOBSEN: Being in the middle of that great park in the middle of that greatest city in the, like on the edge, in the middle of really the world in a lot of ways, there is something that you feel. Uh, you know, the, the buildings are surrounding you, these walls. These, it's like the biggest living room you've ever played on. And it's just, it's just so breathtaking. And playing outdoors for New Yorkers, it's so much fun.
JOHN SCHAEFER: From the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, here's a 2017 performance by the Knights of the first movement of Mozart's symphony number 40.
Symphony No. 40 in G Minor - Mozart
I. Molto Allegro
JOHN SCHAEFER: The Brooklyn orchestra known as the Knights, playing the first movement of Mozart's symphony number 40. Recorded live in the summer of 2017 at the Naumburg Bandshell, not in Brooklyn, but in Central Park.
We'll conclude this New York in Concert program with one of Brooklyn's long standing residents, the pianist, Margaret Leng Tan. She was actually born in Singapore, but she has been a resident of Brooklyn, of the Park Slope neighborhood, in fact, since the sixties. She was the first woman to ever receive a doctorate from Julliard, and she might be the world's foremost expert on the piano music of John Cage. Now, if you think of Cage's music as chaotic or difficult, I think you'll be surprised by the, the lyrical, almost dreamlike sound of this early piece called “In A Landscape.”
This performance by Margaret Leng Tan took place on John Cage's 79th and last birthday, it was September 5th, 1991.
In a Landscape - John Cage
Margaret Leng Tan, Piano
JOHN SCHAEFER: Margaret Leng Tan at our piano back in 1991, on John Cage's birthday playing Cage's piece In A Landscape. We've been taking you around Brooklyn this time on New York in Concert, but there is one interesting part of Brooklyn that we didn't get to. That's the catacombs under Greenwood cemetery. Yeah, there's classical music there. And we'll bring you some of that as part of a whole program of music made underground in New York on our next show.
New York in Concert is your guide to New York's classical music scene. Our producers include Lauren Purcell-Joiner, Matt Abramovitz, Eileen Delahunty, and Sam Kim. Our sound engineer is Matt Boynton. I'm John Schaefer.
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