Floating on waves of melody
February 5, 2010
For local musicians Russell and Leslie Harlow, playing large concert halls is just not their cup of tea anymore. They prefer small, intimate venues, and last week, they rediscovered one of their favorite haunts.
The clarinetist/violist couple, who are co-directors of the Park City International Music Festival, joined pianist Doris Stevenson and violinist Monte Belknap for a concert performance at Bargemusic, New York City’s floating concert hall.
Bargemusic was converted into a chamber music venue from an old coffee barge more than 30 years ago. Situated on the shore of the East River near the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, it provides a stunning vantage of the lower Manhattan skyline.
"It’s a fantastic atmosphere," says Leslie. "It’s unique because it’s a very small venue."
The interior of the barge is rectangular with wood-paneled walls, making it a perfect space for chamber music. With wood, Leslie explains, the sounds bounce off instead of getting absorbed and stifled. This enables musicians to play softly without having to worry about what the audience might or might not hear.
The Harlows have played venues and festivals across the world and agree that the location plays a pivotal role. "What makes [the instruments] sound the best is when the building is an instrument in itself," Russell says.
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It takes a lot of knowledge and a little bit of luck to create an ideal atmosphere for chamber music, Leslie says. "The barge wasn’t designed as a concert hall, so they just got lucky."
Its design isn’t the only thing that makes Bargemusic a coveted venue for many chamber musicians. The atmosphere is warm, lively and intimate.
"The audience is just right in your lap, which we love," Leslie explains. "You have this feeling that you’re playing for real people, and that’s the fun of chamber music for us."
On Friday, Jan. 29, the Harlows and their collaborators played a program of works by Mozart, Khachaturian, Bruch, and Brahms to a full house on the barge.
Leslie and Russell describe the audience as an eclectic mix of friends and collaborators, tourists, Bargemusic regulars, chamber-music aficionados with scores in hand, and musicians ranging from students to professionals. "It really fit the kind of concert setting we like to play," Leslie says.
The Harlows have played Bargemusic once before. They performed as part of a quartet with Stevenson two summers ago. This year, they invited Belknap to join the group.
Stevenson lives in New York City and Belknap is a violin professor at Brigham Young University in Provo. Both musicians are veteran performers at the Park City International Music Festival.
Belknap says he would return to play on the barge every week if he could. "Chamber music was written for living rooms and intimate settings [like that]," he says. "The audience has a chance to feel the music more to hear us breathing, to see the cues up close you don’t need binoculars to be part of the music."
Performing a two-hour concert in a floating room did present some challenges, though. The barge gently bobs in the water and sways with the waves. During her duet with Belknap, Leslie was afraid that wearing high heels was an unfortunate choice.
"When the tide came in, it was moving the whole time," Belknap said. "That was really quite something."
Despite the ripples, the concert went off without a hitch, and the same could be said for the trip as a whole. The Harlows spent time with many of their friends from the East Coast and also made time to visit Leslie’s alma mater, The Julliard School, and to explore the city’s rich history.
Now that they have recovered from jet lag, the couple is focusing on upcoming projects including a spring music festival with faculty and students at Utah Valley University, the Park City Film Music Festival in May, and the International Music Festival starting in July.
They’re also working on designing a mouthpiece for the clarinet, recording new material, and sifting through recordings and footage of past concerts to create live festival collections. Another project on the horizon is implementing a program to promote music education in local schools.
But for now, the Harlows can sit back, relax, and pretend that they’re back on the barge, floating to the rhythm of the music that moves their souls.