By John Cuthbert
Barbara Nissman is widely recognized as one of the world’s finest concert pianists. Hailed as “one of the last great pianists in the grand Romantic tradition of Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Rubenstein,” she has performed with leading orchestras on almost every continent. Her recordings of Prokofiev, Bartók and Ginastera are considered “definitive,” and she has garnered lavish praise for masterful renditions of the works of Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Brahms and Rachmaninoff. She is also in demand as a writer, lecturer, guest artist and clinician both in the U.S. and abroad.
A West Virginia resident since 1989, Nissman was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 31, 1944, to Albert and Sophia Nissman. She fell in love with the sound of the piano when her older sister started playing. She begged for lessons but soon discovered that she was definitely not a musical prodigy!
“Don’t waste your money,” her first piano teacher told her mother, “your daughter will never play the piano.” Undaunted, Nissman proved to be a radiant “late bloomer.” When the first blossoms appeared at age 11, she knew what she would do for the rest of her life. Nearly seven decades later, she is still in love with the piano and the great music written for the instrument.
Commuting to the Julliard School in New York City for lessons during high school, she was awarded a full scholarship to attend the University of Michigan’s School of Music. She graduated with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in 1966 and won the School’s Stanley Medal honoring the highest achieving student. She completed a doctorate at Michigan three years later, and in 1981 received the University’s Athena Medal for outstanding professional and humanitarian endeavors.
Nissman’s international career was launched by legendary conductor Eugene Ormandy who, after hearing her perform as a doctoral student, arranged her debuts in all major European capitals. She subsequently made her American professional debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra with Ormandy conducting.
Since then, she has performed with the leading orchestras in both Europe and America. She has also worked with some of the major conductors of our time including Ormandy, Riccardo Muti, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and Leonard Slatkin. She was inducted into the inaugural class of Steinway Legends chosen by Steinway from more than a century of Steinway Artists.
From 1970 to 1982, she was based in Amsterdam and London. While in London, she initiated a TV series, “Barbara & Friends,” for BBC Television. Years later, collaborating with the Greenbrier Valley Theatre, she adapted this program for use in public schools throughout West Virginia.
One of the most significant facets of Nissman’s career was her association with Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera who she met while attending the University of Michigan. The famed composer was so impressed by Nissman, that he wrote and dedicated his last work to her. Recognized as a leading authority on Ginastera, Nissman has premiered and recorded his complete works and recently completed a video master class devoted to the composer. Her immersion in his music has led to friendships and collaborations with other Ginastera fans including rock keyboardist Keith Emerson and jazz pianist Chick Corea.
Nissman is also renowned as a leading Prokofiev interpreter. She made history in 1989 by being the first person to perform Prokofiev’s complete piano sonatas in a series of recitals in New York and London.
In the late 1970s, Nissman served a pioneering role as Artist-in-Residence for the John Deere corporation, providing recitals, master classes, and a music lecture series to Deere plant communities in the U.S. and abroad. This was the first time an international corporation had employed a classical artist to serve its world-wide community.
In 1987, Nissman married the love of her life, the esteemed poet Daniel Haberman. The two met at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City when Nissman was performing a memorial concert for Ginastera. Haberman, the Cathedral’s first Poet-in-Residence, was founder of St. John the Divine’s American Poets’ Corner, modeled after the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey.
In search of a home where a poet and a pianist could live together with the peace and quiet to work, they settled on a farm in Greenbrier County, WV, in 1989. Sadly, he passed away just two years later but his spirit continues to inspire Nissman.
From 2002 through 2011, Nissman was involved with the Robert James Frascino AIDS Foundation benefit concert series “A Concerted Effort.” These concerts have raised well over $2 million for AIDS service organizations worldwide. She appeared on stage with Don Henley and Billy Joel in 2007, performing on the “Walden Woods Steinway,” in a gala fundraiser for the Walden Woods Project, held at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
In 2008, Nissman received the Governor’s Distinguished Service to the Arts Award from the State of West Virginia. She was presented with the Governor’s Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award in 2020.
In 2014, at Steinway Hall in New York City, Nissman launched her record label Three Oranges Recordings. Three years later, she established the Three Oranges Foundation with the mission of making classical music accessible and relevant and supporting her assorted educational projects.
Last year, Nissman returned to Amsterdam to commemorate a concert series she helped to found 40 years earlier. She received a hero’s welcome with an audience of 12,000 coming out for the show and an additional 1.2 million viewing via live television broadcast.
At 78, Nissman continues to be an artist who is constantly growing and evolving. Her playing is as dynamic as ever and her performances are all-consuming musical experiences for the audience.
For information and tickets call 304-342-4412 or visit www.wvmhof.com
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