The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts March 3, 2006

Pianist Barbara Nissman Performs for AIDS Cause

In Franza Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor, pianist Barbara Nissman took my very soul out of my chest and played it back to me.

She performed beautifully onstage at Warner Concert Hall last Sunday as a part of the AIDS Quilt Project with several colorful, but rather daunting, 12”x12” sections of the AIDS Memorial Quilt hanging behind her.

The concert opened with a short introduction by Robert Frascino, OC ’74 HIV-positive College Trustee. The panels behind him enhanced immensely the horrific statistics about the victims of AIDS. Frascino emphasized the importance of the awareness, remembrance and compassion toward those with AIDS.

Then he gave the stage to the music, and what amazing music it was.

Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat Major was mesmerizing, magical, subtle and enchanting, full of shadows, colors and emotions. Nissman possessed extraordinary pianism, which allowed her to craft her interpretation to the highest level of perfection. Her hands freely floated above the keyboard and transformed mere hammers hitting strings into a transcendental experience.

Nissman touched the keys lightly and tenderly, with much elegance and grace. Though the music had a transparent texture, it was satiated with so much meaning. Such bright, crystal melody lines, such naturally placed breaths, such adorable beauty are rarely heard. Her musical taste, which perfectly followed the song’s style, was a pure delight.

In her introduction to the second piece, Chopin’s Polonaise in B minor, Nissman explained that it was written in a very dark period of the composer’s life when he was physically ill and horribly depressed. The mood was set.

All printed music carries a problem regarding the spontaneity of performance — it is hard to bring cold text to life, but not for Nissman.

From the beginning she played freely, as if she were improvising. She grabbed the audience’s attention and guided them through every note. Diverse and fresh, each new phrase started without giving the listener time to take a breath.

The determined, heroic passages in forte lacked the usual battering quality that Chopin often receives from performers. The virtuosic runs lost the cold showiness usually associated with the term “virtuosic” — light and charmingly fluttering, they sparkled through Warner like pearls.

The Polonaise’s many contrasts were achieved with almost fearsome ease. Nissman switched from one exuberant state to another without tiring; it was an absolute splendor.

Liszt’s Sonata in B minor followed. “This piece is about the spiritual journey between life and death,” said Nissman.

The dark beginning, with its lonely, profound bases, was breathtaking. All the virtuosic effects — octaves, trills, parallel thirds — were powerful and triumphant without being aggressive. There was supreme beauty even in the simplest scale. As the music accelerated, I was afraid it would be too much, but the artist effortlessly remained in control.

Liszt’s lyrical melodies are so easy to lose in a hoard of chords, arpeggios and other fireworks, but Nissman did not allow — there were layers upon layers creating an emotionally exhausting experience.

After the intermission, Nissman played Alberto Ginastera’s Sonata no. 3, his last masterpiece, which was dedicated to her. She related to the audience that the composer originally intended to write a triple concerto for piano, percussion and orchestra. However, he was hospitalized at the time and so physically frail that he was unable to finish the work. The piece became a short piano sonata, but a stunning one at that.

“I’m playing this for all the pianists in this hall in hopes that they will like it and would like to perform it,” Nissman said.

Octaves and glissandos marked another powerful beginning, as Nissman bravely jumped at dangerous chords. With offbeat sharp accents, the music increased and decreased in energy in a matter of seconds.

The last piece was Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6, one of the so-called “war” sonatas. “Prokofiev took off where Liszt ended,” said Nissman. “He is considered the Russian Liszt and actually, the Russians are calling him ‘the football composer.’ Still, I consider him a Romantic composer.”

Exact, strict chords dominated the texture, as Prokofiev loves to do. There were hand crossings and enormous contrasts flawlessly delivered. Even tenderness and lightheartedness found their way through — something that is not typical for Prokofiev, usually cold and ironically humorous. Various characters were brought to life, amusingly different from one another. Nissman called the first and the last movements the two pillars that carried the composition.

The jazzy third movement spoke to the connection between Prokofiev and Gershwin, who had recently become acquainted around that time. Rapidly changing harmonies were dreamy, sometimes serious, sometimes tipsy.

“I played with all of my heart and this evening’s performance here, in Oberlin, was very special to me,” Nissman said.

The evening ended with an encore of a Liszt Consolation. Beautiful, natural, living and breathing, it was crafted like a porcelain statue. Listening to such an amazing pianist made the night a special experience for the audience as well.


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