When you think of the Greenbrier Valley, you probably don’t think of it as a “thriving music town”. And that’s understandable. It’s easy to get thrown off by the rolling hills and laid-back lifestyle. But don’t let the down-home country living fool you. Once you peel back a few layers, what you’ll find are some of the coolest performance venues in the country, and some of the most talented musicians in the world.
Take Carnegie Hall for example. You’re probably familiar with the New York City location. But what about the Carnegie Hall that calls the City of Lewisburg home in West Virginia?
Built in 1902, and on the strength of a $26,750 contribution from Andrew Carnegie, the hall was originally used as educational space for the Lewisburg Female Institute (later known as the Greenbrier College for Women). Rechristened as “Carnegie Hall” in 1983, the facility now features a world-class performance venue and gallery space, as well as offering educational programs in different areas of the arts.
Beyond the concerts and stage plays, the facility is also a guardian of history. Carnegie Hall is home to one of five exhibits of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.
As explained on carnegiehallwv.org, “This ongoing exhibit will feature a rotating selection of memorabilia, artwork, photographs, show posters, stage clothes, instruments and recordings from artists who have made their mark on the musical landscape of West Virginia. Past Inductees into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame include Kathy Mattea, Bill Withers, Hazel Dickens and Tim O’Brien.”
Perhaps the most celebrated and talented performer to ever grace the stage at Carnegie Hall is pianist Barbara Nissman.
Originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Nissman, along with her husband, poet Daniel Haberman, planted their tree in Greenbrier County in 1989. Sadly, Haberman passed away in 1991. His final book of poems, “The Lug of Days to Come,” was released in February of 1996.
I had the opportunity to speak with Barbara Nissman several times last December.
“My husband was a poet,” Nissman told me, with a laugh. “The secret to our happy marriage was a sound-tight music studio.”
My favorite of Haberman’s poems is a simple stanza…
“Though mild is the wind of day,
The year in its flowering burst,
A bird sang alone, denying;
I can’t begin, but continue…”
You can imagine my joy when Nissman shared with me how that particular poem is one of her favorites, as well.
“The last line is framed right by my piano for inspiration.”
But Nissman is herself, a source of inspiration to millions the world over. Her name appears on every legitimate list of the 20 best pianists to have ever lived, and she is certainly one of, if not the best pianist alive today.
As reported on December 31, 2020, by the West Virginia Daily News, “Her rendition of Alberto Ginastera’s ‘Sonata Number Two, Opus 53’ is rife with emotion, and perfectly encapsulates the chaotic design of the human condition.
Ginastera was so enamored with Nissman’s artistry that the Argentinian composer dedicated his ‘Sonata Number Three, Opus 54’ to her in 1982.
‘I love Ginastera because it fits so well under the fingers,’ Nissman said, in a 1984 interview with her alma mater, the University of Michigan.
Nissman graduated college in 1966 with a bachelor of music degree. From there, her career took off; first in Europe, and then in the United States. Nissman has performed with the London, Rotterdam, Munich and New York Philharmonics, the Pittsburgh and St. Louis Symphonies and the National Symphony Orchestra. And in 1989, Nissman became the first concert pianist to perform the complete sonatas of Sergei Prokofiev.
Nissman is a 2008 recipient of the West Virginia Governor’s Arts Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts, a 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, and a 2020 recipient of the W.Va. Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award in the Arts.”
Towards the end of 2020, Nissman created “Behind the Notes”, as a fundraiser for Carnegie Hall. The 12-episode online series, which featured Nissman’s thoughts and interpretations of some of the most significant and beloved composers the world has ever known, finished its run on April 30.
As pandemic-required restrictions begin to be lifted and life slowly regains some small semblance of normalcy, one can only hope that Barbara Nissman will once more grace the stage of Carnegie Hall.
As Nisman told me on a cold December day, “Now more than ever, we need music to lift us up and nurture our souls.”
Truer words have never been spoken. Except, perhaps, those spoken by her husband…
“I can’t begin, but continue…”