Where Walden meets West Virginia

Barbara Nissman and her best friend from childhood.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I was fortunate to witness Barbara Nissman’s performance of Franz Liszt’s treacherously difficult “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” when she was inducted June 3 of this year into the W.Va. Music Hall of Fame (View it below). I was not the only one of the 400 or so of us in attendance who leaned forward, enthralled by her gorgeous, robust playing, perhaps wondering at the backstory of such world-class skill and artistry. Below, the globetrotting musician explains how she landed in these West Virginia hills. Born in Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve in 1944, she knew at an early age the piano was her mission in life. She has since earned acclaim in concert halls across the world, earning accolades as “one of the last pianists in the grand Romantic tradition of Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Rubenstein.” Don’t miss her several performances in the week ahead described below, including your own chance to lean forward as she performs Liszt, Beethoven and other favorites. Explore her rich discography at threeorangesrecordings.com ~ Douglas John Imbrogno

By Barbara Nissman | WestVirginiaVille.com | october14.2023

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours … As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness …If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
~ Henry David Thoreau

The seed of where the pianist’s route to West Virginia began: the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in York. | 2011 photo by Bobby Bradley/Flickr

I was not born in West Virginia. The natives call me a “West Virginian by choice,” and they have embraced me and warmly welcomed me to their beautiful state. Frankly, I never imagined myself living on a farm in the mountains of “Wild and Wonderful” West Virginia. I didn’t even know where West Virginia was on the map and constantly confused it with the Commonwealth of Virginia before I moved here. (West Virginia separated from Virginia and achieved statehood in June 1863.) I was a city gal, born and raised in Philadelphia, who went off to the Midwest for my college education and then traveled to Europe to pursue a concert career. The excitement of city life was always my comfort zone. But life frequently throws us curveballs — events so unexpected that all we can do to survive is to hold on tightly and see where the wild ride takes us.

Meeting the poet Daniel Haberman was an unexpected miracle. I had recently moved back to the States, and we met at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. My friend, the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, had recently passed away, and his widow and I were invited to do a joint recital at the Cathedral to celebrate his memory. That very same day, Daniel Haberman was asked by the Dean of the Cathedral to become their first Poet-in-Residence and create America’s Poets’ Corner — America’s answer to Westminster Abby, but without the bones. And it was here that the love story began.

We married in 1987, shortly after my debut with the New York Philharmonic. But we still had to solve the problem of how a poet who needs the peace and quiet to work could live in the same house with a very noisy piano player. So we moved to the Adirondack Mountains — a temporary solution. It was a great place to be in the summertime but definitely not in the winter, although good preparation for what awaited two city kids moving to the country.

After much time and effort, we finally found the perfect dream home where we could live together but still enjoy the freedom to pursue our own work — an old 1879 farmhouse with enough land for me to build a separate sound-tight music studio so nobody would ever bang on my walls again and tell me to stop practicing and a separate library/studio for Daniel. We were moving to the mountains of West Virginia where we planned to live peacefully (and more frugally than in New York City!) in order to pursue with seriousness, the highest level of our individual talents. We thought we had it all — love and work — what else did we need!

However, sometimes the gods look down and just giggle and then proceed to rewrite the perfect script without any warning. Shortly after our arrival to West Virginia, Daniel became seriously ill. I cancelled all my concerts, stopped all touring, and we fought his illness together. Sadly, in August 1991, we lost the battle. He passed away and life was forever changed. I became a widow at 46, living alone on a farm in West Virginia. The only person I knew in the community was the sweet real-estate lady who had sold us our farm. I had stopped playing concerts. Fortunately, my recordings of Prokofiev and Ginastera still remained available, so I wasn’t completely dead and buried professionally. But I was truly alone, left by Daniel to survive in this beautiful place.

I’ve heard people say that one never forgets how to ride a bicycle or ride a horse; once you’ve mastered the skill, it always returns. I’m not sure if that applies to playing the piano. It was not easy for me to get back on that horse — nothing was the way it used to be. Grieving is never easy, and healing takes time — usually much longer than we envision. I wept until I ran out of tears. I did play a few concerts, but frankly I was not at my best. That sense of focus and concentration was difficult for me to find again. It’s as if I had lost my center and missed the joy of making music.

“Bartok and the Piano” by Barbara Nissman “was the book I was looking to read to help me understand his piano music.”

When my then-record label suggested I record all of Bartok’s piano music, I embraced the project thinking it would help bring me back into the “zone.” It was during this period that I started to write a book on Bartok, mainly because it was the book I was looking to read to help me understand his piano music. The good news is that all those nights coping with insomnia were put to excellent use. However, even after the book was published, I was still struggling and still in pain. It seemed as if my going forward was always followed by my taking several steps backwards.

I will always be grateful for the dear friendship of my piano technician David Barr. He extended his hand to help pull me out of the quicksand into which I was fast sinking. He was responsible for getting me back into the recording studio. I remember him asking me why I wanted to play the piano. Nobody had ever asked me that because that’s what I did. It was part of my identity. It defined who I was. I recalled the words of my late husband who talked about “the responsibility of the artist to their God-given talent and the obligation to share it with others.”

So once again, I started over. I relearned how to work at the piano and very gradually the joy started to return. I remember that when I finally had the courage to record Rachmaninoff’s Preludes, I realized that there was nothing more in life for me to fear. Having experienced the horrors of life and death, I was no longer afraid to go deeper into Rachmaninoff’s dark soul. I knew that he would not leave me alone in that dark abyss, and his music would help me reemerge with hope back into the sunshine. It was remarkable to me that now I was finally capable of sharing these deep feelings with others — taking them to that special place so that they could feel and be part of the emotional journey. Music can touch souls. It can be life-changing!

Barbara Nissman, channeling Garbo.

It was here on my farm in West Virginia that I could begin to heal. The mountains made me feel that I was in a safe place and well protected. It was here that I found a sense of peace and was able to rediscover my own soul. The land is magical — it embraces and hugs us with a mixture of ruggedness and sheer beauty. What a blessing to be somewhere the locals refer to as “God’s country.”

My studio looks out to the mountains and provides me with a place of refuge. It’s where I can reside with my composer “friends” — those dead guys with whom I spend so much time. Pictures of Beethoven, Liszt, Brahms, Chopin, Prokofiev, Bartok, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Scriabin and Schubert decorate the walls, and I truly feel their spirit guiding my work and keeping me firmly on their pathway. I never feel alone here, and I do believe that even Beethoven would have approved and loved my “dream studio.”

“I recalled the words of my late husband who talked about ‘the responsibility of the artist to their God-given talent and the obligation to share it with others.’

West Virginians are true mountain people — fiercely independent individuals, kind and hard-working, proud of who they are and where they’ve come from, and always there to offer help when needed. They value their freedom but can also respect another’s privacy. I remember my first meeting with the farmer up the road, a man fiercely proud of his family’s legacy and their long history as major landowners in the county. To him I was the “outsider”—just another lady from the big city who was intruding upon his space and who didn’t have a clue about country living. Actually, he was right on target about that!

What initiated our long and very dear friendship was the day I invited him into my music studio. He immediately grasped that this was a serious workspace, and I wasn’t just some dilettante who dabbled at the piano very occasionally. We forged a bond of mutual respect knowing that both of us worked hard and seriously at what we did. I learned from him how to live in this “foreign” land that I now call home. In turn I shared with him all my new recordings, and whenever I gave a concert locally, he would put on his Sunday suit and be right there in the audience.

Barbara Nissman in her home studio. | august2023 | Douglas John Imbrogno photo

“I never feel alone here, and I do believe that even Beethoven would have approved and loved my ‘dream studio.'”

I also discovered that our little town in West Virginia had its own Carnegie Hall that Andrew Carnegie had built several years after the big hall on 57th Street in New York City was constructed. When Daniel and I arrived in town to scout out several properties, it seemed a bit strange that every “local” I met who found out I was a pianist would ask me the same question: “Have you played Carnegie Hall?” I would nod and then they would give me a puzzled look and say, “Well we haven’t heard you!”

I finally learned about our little Carnegie Hall; it had been part of a Women’s College and was later saved from demolition by some devoted citizens years before I arrived here to live. It now provides a meeting place to explore the arts and culture in the region. I am proud to say that I picked out their new Steinway concert grand, and just this year initiated a three-part concert series to build an audience for classical music. It’s been a huge success and we will continue the series next season, also taking it to the stater Capitol in Charleston and other venues throughout the state. It’s such a different feeling for me to walk on the stage of our Carnegie Hall and play for family and good friends. It is hard not to feel the love and the joy that fills the hall. And how satisfying it has been for me to share what I do with my own community.

CLICK TO VIEW: See Barbara Nissman perform “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” on June 3, 2023, as she was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in the state Capitol Complex in Charleston, W.Va.

SEE THE FULL WPBY RECORDING of the 2023 W.Va. Music Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at this link | VIDEO EXCERPT courtesy of West Virginia Music Hall of Fame and WPBY

Since I was a child, I have loved the piano, and the piano has always been my secret best friend. It took me to magical faraway places, blocking out the problems of the real world. I could talk to it, and it always seemed to understand where I was. Our relationship hasn’t changed all that much. It’s still my best friend and an anchor for my stability. Just like an infant in need of a bottle, I have the need to sit down and play the piano every day. Frankly, I wouldn’t be able to survive without having it in my life. Perhaps now I can better understand its messages, mainly because I am able to truly listen and communicate much more directly.

The English psychiatrist Winnicott talks about “the need of the artist to make symbols.” I think of music as my language without the necessity of words, which are so frequently misunderstood. My goal is to keep striving to get closer to the spirit and the intentions of the composers who were divinely inspired by the hand of God with their creations. For me this represents the most meaningful challenge for my lifetime. Rachmaninoff was so right when he said, “Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music”

“It’s always about trying to go deeper — digging behind the notes — searching for more meaning than what is tangible on the printed page.”

Living alone on my farm in the mountains of West Virginia gives me peace and tranquility and provides the perfect setting to explore the spirituality of music. My quest as an artist/performer does not stop once all the notes are learned and memorized. It’s always about trying to go deeper — digging behind the notes — searching for more meaning than what is tangible on the printed page. It is through the gift of making music that I can touch souls. Only when I am free enough to soar above the notes, can the “magic” be allowed to happen.

I call it tapping into something much higher than ourselves — not being earthbound — letting go of the fear and the caution and instead, constantly searching for the love and the joy of creation. I am speaking about reaching for that spark of the divine in everything we do. I jokingly refer to my piano playing as my performing without a safety net. That means taking risks to fly through the air and rise above the standard, the accepted, the mundane.

I frequently program the Sonata in B minor by Franz Liszt in my concerts. Not only is it one of the masterpieces in the entire piano repertoire, but Liszt is able to take us on a spiritual journey from birth through life, through death, while also providing glimpses of what might lie beyond. He exposes his soul and shares his confessional with us, and he explores such a wide gamut of emotions within this work. By the end of the 30-minute composition, within its final chords, the composer has taken us to a very special place, making us feel the spirit ascending towards heaven.

Every time I perform this work, it becomes a spiritual journey not only for myself but for the entire audience as well. And what a joy it is to share this glorious composition with others. I have experienced people reduced to tears because the music of Liszt has touched their heart and taken them on their own spiritual journey. That’s what it’s all about — feeling and experiencing that divine joy of creation!

I feel truly blessed to have found my Walden here in West Virginia. But I still receive comments from fellow professionals back in the big city: “Are you still living in that god-forsaken place?” Of course they would ask that, because they have never visited me here on my farm in West Virginia. Here I feel as if I have the entire world at my fingertips — the freedom to just follow my nose and to go wherever the music might lead me. I haven’t given up a thing by leaving the big city. Actually, I am still traveling for concerts all over the world. But no matter where my travels take me, I still get homesick and long to return to my home. Here on my farm in West Virginia, I have gained the peace and quiet to work, to create and to reside happily in my own special world.

Recently I recorded some more piano sonatas by Beethoven, all of which were written after he had discovered his hearing loss. I realize that this loss, as debilitating as it was, also gave him an incredible freedom. He was freed from all outside distractions, any other influences; he could forge his own new path with an original voice. With his creations, Beethoven influenced the future of music-making. What an inspiration Beethoven is for any artist — the strength and the commitment to follow one’s own drummer — the courage to be one’s own person, no matter where it might lead you.

FOR MORE ON BARBARA NISSMAN’s international music career — Amsterdam and the Dutch have a serious crush on her — see this June 2023 Greg Johnson profile in the Greenbrier Valley Quarterly.

Rediscovering the joys of making music and sharing it with others is the gift that I am receiving from living on my farm in West Virginia. It provides me with a home, a solid foundation, surrounded by a lovely community. This place has given me the courage to start my own record label. Three Oranges Recordings now has a discography of 32 recordings with many more on the way. West Virginia also served as the impetus to establish the Three Oranges Foundation in 2017, whose mission is to spread the joys of classical music and make it available to a wider and more diverse audience.

This state has given my life structure and meaning. It is a place where I can do the serious work necessary to build my own body of work, so I will have a legacy to leave behind when I depart this earth. It has been an unexpected but exciting journey so far, and now I can honestly say how grateful I am for the gifts that I have been given.

Barbara Nissman, Lewisburg, West Virginia | April, 2023

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  • Anonymous

    One of the things that make Barbara Nissman an exciting pianist (aside from her vituoso chops and musical intelligence) is her willingness to take risks, especially when she’s live. She seems like a jazz musician in that she never seems to do a piece the same way twice.

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