Olga Bloom Wasn't Fiddling Around When She Barged onto the Concert Scene with a Floating Carnegie Hall
She is sitting in a huge room that she has built from the wood panels and doors of an old ferry boat, gazing through its plate-glass windows toward lower Manhattan. A ship slides out to sea, its gentle wake causing the skyline to dip. The room, the one that she has built, is on a barge floating in New York harbor.
To this room come musicians from London's Royal Philharmonic, Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, the Belgian National Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. Winners and medalists of the Rostropovich, Piatigorsky, Queen Elisabeth and Tchaikovsky competitions are also among those who come to play at twice-weekly chamber concerts that Bloom, 69, has been presenting here for the past 11 years. To the musicians, it is a concert hall like no other. For its creator, it is the safe haven of a life's journey.
"And how did they know to take me for lessons? My parents, though they lived in considerable poverty, had exquisite taste," says Bloom. "It was they who introduced me to things in nature. They knew where the violets grew."
Bloom's father, a Russian emigré, worked as a labor organizer, and her Austrian-born mother toiled at "many menial tasks," mostly in shoe factories. Olga was born in Boston, and when she was 4, she showed a marked interest in the violin. Her father promptly took her to study with Jacques Hoffman, first violinist with the Boston Symphony.
"We walked through French doors," Bloom remembers. "I recall the feel of the Persian rug under my feet. There was a man sitting in front of a piano with a great stuffed eagle spread out on the top. The sun came in the window and glinted on the glasses of my teacher. I took a few steps in his direction and ran back and clutched my father's knees."
Bloom's love of the violin prevailed. She also studied the viola, first at Boston University and then at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she finagled a scholarship by offering her talents, gratis, to the school orchestra. "That's the way we poor ones worked it," she explains. She became a pupil of the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky at Tangle-wood before heading for New York, where she dreamed of becoming a preeminent soloist.
"Those who made it," she says today, "were paced as a racehorse is paced in preparation for a career as a champion—daily lessons, management, a great instrument. For those of us who couldn't afford that preparation, the odds were against us."
Her first job was with a USO orchestra. She was briefly married and widowed in World War II. She worked for film companies, sitting in recording studios in New York, sight-reading scores to be cut up and used as background music in movie shorts. She met and within a week married violinist Tobias Bloom of Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra. "I've married very handsome men," says Olga Bloom.
The recording work dried up when the film companies found it cheaper to record abroad. Bloom played for three years at Carnegie Hall under Stokowski. When he, too, began to record in England, she quit in protest. "You understand, I have a perverse and rebellious nature," she laughs.
In 1954 the NBC orchestra left the air. Toby took on studio jobs, and Olga moved into Broadway orchestra pits, "the only place where you could earn an income dependably," she says. If her prospects as a classical musician were narrowing, her vision was not.
"Most of the difficulties in life grow out of the environment of your days—how you earn a living, how much beauty there is in your life, how much security," she says. "My values were the water, nature, the musicians coming together, my marriage. It saddens me that people are not aware that one can live in great abundance without money, that your environment has all the wealth in it that you require."
Bloom solved the problem of how to continue living creatively when she heard of a barge for sale. She mortgaged her home to buy it, and after Toby's death in 1975, she rented out her house and moved aboard to begin remodeling. How did she acquire the skills for such work? "You can solve anything if you look at it long enough," says Bloom. On her first night alone in the dark and desolate harbor, the pier boss, Red Noto, and his wife arrived bearing plates of meatballs and pasta. "You should not be afraid," she was told. "You have friends here."
Bloom, in fact, has found friends everywhere. She charmed bankers, businessmen, the Chamber of Commerce, corporations, private donors and the givers of grants to support her dream. "I'm trying to make our music, for heaven's sake, a part of the community," she says vigorously.
She has hired an artistic director, Ik-Hwan Bae (pronounced "Bay"), a Korean violinist who debuted at the age of 12 with the Seoul Philharmonic. Bae, 31, travels the world concertizing and meeting the musicians he will invite to the barge when their tours take them to New York. "We seem to look for the same values in life," Bae says of Olga. "It's more than music. I think friendship is making what's happening here."
Twice a week now, 150 concertgoers step across the gangway, down the steep, green metal stairs to the deck and find a place among rows of wooden folding chairs. A huge brick fireplace is lighted on cold nights, and wine helps warm whatever chills remain. Soon the music, the flames, the easy rolling of the barge blend into one sensation. "I may not be right scientifically," says Bloom, "but it seems to me that under the tons of roiling water on the surface, the bottom of the ocean sits serene. Although I have a great deal of emotional turbulence about our financial survival, my life here is like the bottom of the ocean. All the answers to the agonies of the decades I spent in music have been resolved."
Olga Bloom now lives with her three dogs in a "skinny brick house" that she bought for $6,000 in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn about four miles from her barge. The producer no longer plays professionally. But, she confesses, "lately some friends and I come here in the dark of night and play string quartets."
Like her parents, Olga Bloom knows where the violets grow.