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Writers, Listen Up!

A few weeks back, I was visiting New York City, and while I was stocking up on books, I also dropped in on one of my favorite NYC institutions — Bargemusic, the tiny floating concert hall on the Brooklyn side of the East River. Now I’m no music critic and this is a book blog, so you won’t be reading comments on the refinements of violin and piano technique — not my strong suit. But as a writer, I learned something at this particular concert that was too important to keep to myself. So here goes.

For those of you who don’t know the place, Bargemusic has been operating since 1977 on a converted coffee-barge moored under the Brooklyn Bridge, featuring emerging and established chamber-music groups, jazz musicians and more. Founded by violinist Olga Bloom, it’s now run by the equally dynamic violinist Mark Peskanov. While I’ve never done a head-count, I’d guess the Barge’s wooden folding chairs seat about one hundred. Every seat is a great seat. Gaze beyond the musicians, and you can see the skyline of Lower Manhattan, the passing cruise-ships lit up and gliding along the river, and the ropes of light that mark the Brooklyn Bridge. You’re never allowed to forget the river that underpins the musical rhythms with rhythmic swells of its own.  I imagine a conversation here between the intentions of the composer, the interpretations of the players and the river itself, as if all three had conspired to create the music. It’s a beguiling place, connecting music to the natural world.

This month, Bargemusic began a summer program of afternoon concerts, three days a week at 1pm. One hour long, kids free. What a treat, I thought. Having always come to evening performances, I assumed that the lunchtime audience would be packed. It wasn’t. There were only eight of us, along with two performers — the violinist Mark Peskanov and Steven Beck, pianist. They were two musicians whose work I’d often enjoyed, but I wasn’t sure I was ready for this experience, a “private” hour of chamber music with two of the city’s best in the field. Why would they do it, for such a tiny audience ?

Then the duo plunged into Mozart with passion, serenity and complete attentiveness. They seemed to embody a love for the spirit of the music and the same passion for communication that a writer experiences when the work is going well. The spontaneous generosity of the musicians overrode all that petty stuff about numbers. I remembered all the authors’ readings I’d attended (and given) with audiences of five or six; all the small presses and literary journals in which I (and many others) publish their work for handfuls of readers. Sometimes we’re not sure why we do these things, but in the arts, we just keep doing them. It’s a mystery, that we’re in love with something and we want to share it — and that passion is at the heart of our creative lives. As a writer, it was good for me to experience that passion through another art form altogether, and to remember the intrinsic worth of any such gift that is given to us. It was equally wonderful to chat with my fellow-listeners afterwards, and to share their excitement with this intimate and very special experience. Fabulous music, made for us! We could hardly believe it.

I hope to continue my writing in that same generous spirit.

When you’re in New York City, go visit  Bargemusic! Especially at lunchtime.

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