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The legendary Barbara Nissman prepares for induction into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame

By Matt Young

World renowned pianist and Lewisburg resident Barbara Nissman will be inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame on June 3. Nissman’s career is one which has spanned five decades and multiple continents, and her induction into the Hall of Fame is the exclamation point to a remarkable legacy. 

Now, with just days remaining until Nissman takes her rightful place among West Virginia’s musical-elite, HashtagWV looks back at the career which has led to an honor well earned, and the events which have culminated in a life well lived.

Born in Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve, 1944, Nissman attended the University of Michigan before setting off to conquer the world of music. Nissman performed all across Europe – including shows with the London, Royal, and Munich philharmonics, as well as the BBC Symphony – before returning home to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

As Nissman’s talent grew, so did her reputation. Composer Alberto Ginastera dedicated his “Piano Sonata No. 3” to her in 1982. In a 1984 interview with her alma mater, the University of Michigan, Nissman said, “I love Ginastera because it fits so well under the fingers.”

In 1989, Nissman gained further acclaim when she became the first classical pianist to perform the complete piano sonatas of Sergei Prokofiev. Her love for, and mastery of, Prokofiev’s music would eventually lead to her teaching master classes at St. Petersburg Conservatory in Russia. 

Another significant life event occurred in 1989, when Nissman, along with her husband, poet Daniel Haberman, selected the Greenbrier Valley as their forever home. 

“He’s the reason I’m here,” Nissman said 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.”

Born in New York City in 1933, Habrman is the poet behind such classics as “Would You Linger to Suppose,” “Now Time Drifts and Worlds Whine,” and “Primitive, in my Perpetual Dawn.” Sadly, Haberman passed away in 1991. 

“The secret to our happy marriage was a sound-tight music studio,” Nissman jokingly recalled. 

Nissman appeared at the Kennedy Center’s 25th Anniversary Gala concert in 1996, alongside Alicia Witt and David Hyde Pierce. In 2007, Nissman performed the “Walden Woods Steinway” with Billy Joel and Don Henley at Jazz at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. 

In 2008, Nissman 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, Nissman received the Lifetime Achievement Award in the Arts from Gov. Jim Justice. 

Most recently, Nissman concluded a spring concert series which saw her perform three shows at Lewisburg’s Carnegie Hall, and three shows at the West Virginia Culture Center Theatre in Charleston. 

While speaking with The RealWV after a February show in Charleston, Nissman said, “I think, last night, you got to see the reason I do this. 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.”

Now, Nissman looks ahead to her performance and induction into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. 

“I’m an adopted West Virginian, so the induction really means a lot to me,” Nissman 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.”

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Matthew Young has been a resident of Lewisburg, WV since December 2019. Prior to arriving in West Virginia, Matthew resided in the Philadelphia area, where his reporting, commentary, and editorials have been featured in numerous local and regional publications. Previously, he has served as a scriptwriter and consultant for television, radio, and various other short-form digital-media platforms, both within the United States and internationally. Since moving to the Mountain State, Matthew spent eighteen months as senior writer/managing editor for the West Virginia Daily News and is currently an active journalist with the West Virginia Press Association.