Pianist Barbara Nissman to play Ivory Evenings concert Friday at Waldomore

May 13, 2015


Barbara Nissman travels the world performing piano concerts, focusing on her favorite composers, from Chopin and Liszt to Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff, and Alberto Ginastera, who wrote a piece for her just before he died.
And when she returns home, she goes to her farm outside Lewisburg, where she and her poet husband moved in 1989.
“With the countryside and the mountains and the people living here, it’s really a wonderful place for me to be between concerts,” Nissman said during a telephone interview. “It’s always wonderful coming back to West Virginia.”
The location does lead to the occasional joke about playing Carnegie Hall — the one in Lewisburg, not the famous one in New York City, both funded by Andrew Carnegie.
“When we first moved down here, I didn’t know about Carnegie Hall,” Nissman said. “People would say, ‘Have you played Carnegie Hall?’ and I would nod. I finally realized we weren’t talking about the same Carnegie Hall. I was talking about the other one, in New York.”
Of course, eventually, Nissman did add Lewisburg’s Carnegie Hall to the roster of venues she has played, actually making a repeat performance there last fall.
And she will play another West Virginia concert at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Waldomore as part of the Ivory Evening series. The performance is free.
“I always go through Clarksburg on my way to Pittsburgh but I’ve never played there,” she said. “I’ve heard about the wonderful Steinway.”
That would be the Steinway piano selected by opera singer and Clarksburg native Phyllis Curtin, “who, of course, I remember as a student. I always adored her singing.”
During her Ivory Evenings performance, Nissman will be playing seven pieces: Prokofiev’s Sonata no. 1, Op. 1 in F Minor; Rachmaninoff’s Two Preludes, Op. 32, No. 5 in G Major and Op. 32, No. 12 in G# Minor; Beethoven’s Sonata, Op. 53 in C Major (“Waldstein”); Ginastera’s Tres Danzas Argentinas, Op. 2; Chopin’s Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 2 in Db Major as well as his Scherzo No. 2, Op. 31 in Bb Minor; and Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz.
“I give wonderful programs,” she added. “And I’m even going to talk in between and take you through the journey with me. It’s all the composers I love to play. It’s going to be very informal. It should be a really enjoyable evening for everybody.”
Indeed, Nissman has been hailed as “one of the last pianists in the grand Romantic tradition of Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Rubinstein,” and she also is known for her recordings of works by Prokofiev, Ginastera and Bela Bartok. Her works are available at Three Oranges Recordings (http://threeorangesrecordings.com).
“People have branded me the pianist of Prokofiev, Ginastera and Bartok, but actually I’m a 19th century fan,” Nissman said. “Everything came from the 19th century. If you ask me to talk about Liszt — I wish I could have talked to Liszt and met these composers. That was the golden age of piano. Playing the music they produced is extraordinary.”
But Nissman did have the opportunity to talk to one of the composers she admires — Ginastera. She received a call from the Argentine composer early in her career in 1976 inviting her to play at his 60th birthday party concert.
“After that, he said, ‘I’m going to write a concerto for you.’ Then he became ill, and the concerto became a shorter piece, a sonata instead. But it was wonderful he was able to write something for me before he died.”
The piece Ginastera dedicated to Nissman, Sonata No. 3, was published in 1982. He died in 1983.
“He was a composer who loved virtuosity, and it’s a very virtuosic work,” Nissman said. “He mentioned writing for the instrument and a bit for the performer. He loved my playing. I think of it as a wonderful gift from him.”
Nissman’s career has a couple more fairy tale elements to it. Growing up in a row house in Philadelphia, she took piano lessons like all the other kids on her block. Yet, at that point, she was not a standout.
“The piano teacher said to my mother, ‘Mrs. Nissman, I think you are wasting your money. Your little girl is never going to play the piano.’ I was one of these kids, the light bulb did not go on. I did not understand what he was saying.”
But around age 11, that changed, and Nissman knew she wanted to be a pianist. She aspired to attend The Juilliard School in New York, but her father wanted her to pursue a liberal arts education instead, so she attended University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
There, she won a scholarship and went on to do earn her master’s and doctorate after getting her undergraduate degree. She majored in piano performance but also took classes in other liberal arts topics.
“The university was a wonderful place for me,” Nissman added. “It was a place I could grow. I wasn’t just studying music, and I think it really formed me as an artist.”
It also was, ironically, the place where she met Eugene Ormandy, the longtime conductor of her hometown symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra. He visited the university one day when she was finishing her doctorate in 1969.
A professor told Ormandy he should hear Nissman play. She was in a rehearsal hall, in blue jeans, when she got the message.
“I was in a practice room and a secretary got me and said, ‘You better go home and change your clothes. In a half hour, you’re going to play for Eugene Ormandy.’ That’s the way I met him.”
She played Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff for him. “I don’t know how I passed that audition, but he proceeded to write to his European manager and launched my career in Europe. And I made my American debut with him the next year.”
The fact that it was someone whose name she knew from growing up in Philadelphia added to her nervousness and the excitement of the situation.
“It was like a Cinderella story in a way.”
And not only that, but Nissman was awarded a post-doctorate grant to go off and live in Europe.
“That was a lovely gift, an unexpected gift,” she added.
After she returned from Europe, Nissman lived in New York City for a while. But when she met her husband, the late Daniel Haberman, they could not live together in a small space.
“I came with a noisy piano and he was a poet who needed peace and quiet,” Nissman added.
The farm allowed her to have a separate studio where she keeps her two pianos, a 9-foot grand piano and a smaller 7-foot piano.
“Right now I’m on the 7-foot piano because there are too many broken strings on the grand piano and the tuner comes down from Pittsburgh,” Nissman laughed. “I have to wait until he can fit me in the schedule.”
In addition to her performance, Nissman will teach a master class, at 9 a.m. Friday at Waldomore, an event that is open to the public, the pianist said.
Rayme Pullen, a Doddridge County native working on her master’s degree in teaching at Fairmont State University, will be one of the students.
“Barbara Nissman is perhaps the most famous performing artist I will have the opportunity to work with at this point in my life, and I could not be more excited and grateful for the opportunity,” Pullen said.
She especially knows about Nissman’s interest in and recordings of pieces by Prokofiev, Pullen added.
“I am really looking forward to her insights on interpretation and technique. She is a world-class teacher and performer, so I plan to make the most of everything she has to say about my playing.”
For her part, Nissman really enjoys the master classes.
“I don’t teach on a regular basis,” she added. “It’s fun to come in and work with young people and see if you can contribute and make their performances a little better or share ideas.”