Barbara Nissman’s performance is ‘a fantasy of the wilder heart’

By Matthew Young, RealWV

Oh, Barbara –

She of the age with beauty I adore. She who is but one rose, glassed on stage before me.

A blonde-haired hurricane in a flowing red dress, dancing across the Steinway like a ruby set on fire. 

You’ve come a long way from Philly, kid…

I’ve had the honor of writing about Barbara Nissman several times over the last few years. But until this past Thursday, I’d never had the privilege of watching her perform. And to quote a writer far better than myself – a writer with whom Barbara shared too short a life – her performance was nothing less than a fantasy of the wilder heart. 

Thursday’s show was the first of three Nissman will perform at the West Virginia Culture Center in Charleston, with her next show scheduled for March 16. 

Barbara Nissman on stage at the West Virginia Culture Center Theatre on Feb. 9. Photo by Matthew Young.

Now, I am wholly unqualified to offer any type of review of her performance. My words lack both the weight and the substance to convey the emotion of her music. However, I’ll do my best to share my experience.

But before I do, I’d first like to tell you a little bit about Barbara…

Born in the City of Brotherly Love, Barbara was a New Year’s baby. She graduated with a Doctor of Music degree from the University of Michigan in 1969. After college, her talent blossomed in front of a worldwide audience, and included performances with the London, Munich, and New York Philharmonics, and the National Symphony Orchestra. 

In 2008, Barbara received the W.Va. Governor’s Arts Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts. She was the 2016 recipient of the Order of the Arts and Historical Letters and Excellence in Support of the Arts award from the W.Va Division of Culture and History. In 2020, Barbara received the Lifetime Achievement Award in the Arts from Gov. Jim Justice. 

Along with her husband, Daniel Haberman, Barbara relocated to the Greenbrier Valley in 1989. Sadly, Daniel passed away in 1991. 

“He’s the reason I’m here,” Barbara told me of her husband. “He brought me here so we could live together, really. I mean, when you put a poet and a pianist together, you need a lot of space. So we finally found a home where we could both work.”

On Saturday, June 3, Barbara will be honored yet again, as she becomes the newest inductee to the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. 

“I’m an adopted West Virginian, so the induction really means a lot to me,” Barbara said. “I wasn’t born here. But now it’s my home, and I love it here. I really feel blessed – living where I do is kind of a miracle.”

A blessed miracle, indeed. Barbara Nissman, the New Year’s baby from Philadelphia – the preeminent pianist of this century – traveled the world to find her home in the hills and hollers of West Virginia. 

Now on to Thursday…

I didn’t think it would be possible for a piece of music I’ve heard countless times to surprise me. But when Barbara reached the third movement of the Moonlight Sonata, I felt my skin tingle. And when I realized how wet my eyes had become, that’s when I knew. For as many times as I have heard the Moonlight Sonata, I have never felt it the way I did Thursday night. 

My mind was on fire.

A fantasy of the wilder heart…

My thoughts were all over the place. I started remembering this terrible line I tried using once on a really pretty girl. Now, I’m not ashamed of that, because I think we’ve all been there. She was the kind of girl who I knew was way out of my league, so I needed to borrow someone else’s talent to try to impress her. Anyway, I sent her a recording of Tom Bukovac playing the guitar, and I said, “When I write, I want my words to sound like his music.”

Of course the line didn’t work. Thinking back, I’m sure it came across as cheesy and insincere. And that’s probably fair. But I can honestly say now that when I write, I want my readers to feel the way that Barbara made me feel Thursday night. The emotion, the passion, the vulnerability, and the contentment she so clearly feels when doing what she was put on this Earth to do is intoxicating. And that’s not a line, that’s an aspiration. That’s the fantasy of the wilder heart. And really, what else is there?

“I think, last night, you got to see the reason I do this,” Barbara told me on Friday. “It really is to share the joy, that’s what it’s about. And I think people got it in the audience – I hope they did.”

That’s what music is supposed to do – it’s supposed to make us feel. I know that I got it, and I couldn’t be more thankful for it. And as I chase my own aspirations – my own fantasy of the wilder heart – I will keep with me the words that Daniel wrote…

Oh, Barbara – 

I can’t begin, but continue…


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