Piano Connections with Barbara

RAISING THE BAR March 20, 2019 

That’s what artists are supposed to do— with every performance, with every new challenge they try to raise the bar. Perhaps that is why true artists are never completely satisfied with their work—it could always be better! And they keep striving and working for the next time so they can get a little closer to the ideal. 

Who sets the standard? It is the artists themselves who set their own standard of excellence. The written words of a critic should not be necessary to tell the performing artist whether he has played well or not. Critics offer their educated opinion, but the real artist knows deep down in their gut if they are in “the zone” or off center. He is the one who has to answer to a higher master to judge whether he managed to come a little closer to the composer’s intentions. Ultimately, the artist competes with himself and wrestles with the level of his own talent with every performance and every recording. 

What is important to remember is that there is more than one pathway to interpreting a piece of music.  I am not talking about the quest for perfection here; note-perfect, correct performances can be saved for competitions. We are seeking a personal relationship with the music. Isn’t that why we keep going to concerts to hear the same repertoire performed many times by different pianists and listen to recordings of great artists from the past— all were individuals who brought a unique character to their interpretations.  What we are searching for is the magic and the power inherent within the music.  Our responsibility as performers is to bring out that sensibility so the music can soar and directly reach deep inside the souls of listeners. 

The older I get, the more I am amazed by this exciting process: digging under the notes to go as deeply as possible into the music, keeping our focus and getting rid of all outside interference, and allowing the music to come to you. Ultimately, we are raising the bar every time. It comes down to the unwritten agreement that the artist makes with the composer—the pact to get as close as possible to what their conception might have been at that very moment of creation.  That’s the ideal, and it is the responsibility of the performer to try and communicate this to the listener. 

What a joy to watch something grow and take shape and flower!  I have been preparing works for a series of recitals and recordings that I studied as a young student, but never truly performed in concert. The process has been a revelation. It gives me a good idea of where I had been so many years ago and how much I knew and didn’t know.  I am not talking only about technical mastery here—I am talking more about the search for musical meaning. That process of extracting what is meaningful and then making it your own— owning it in order to convincingly convey its meaning to others. 

And that is the real addiction. The artist is never satisfied so he keeps going, keeps working with an unreachable goal in mind. What a joy and a blessing to have this purpose and mission in life and also to embrace the responsibility that comes with it! 

My favorite quote from one of my favorite composers says it all.                        

“Music is enough for a lifetime but a lifetime is not enough for music.” 
Wise words from Sergei Rachmaninoff. 

And so we go forward!


At the reception after a recent concert, I was asked a very interesting and thought–provoking question. “What are you thinking about when you are performing music?“ I had just been playing music by Rachmaninoff and Liszt. “Is there a specific story that you are trying to tell?”  

As I attempted to answer, I realized that it never is about a story line; that would be far too specific and rather limiting in scope. It’s much more abstract than a concrete plot. Unconsciously we’re communicating emotion- feelings emerging from the sounds created. An English psychiatrist brilliantly explained the process as “the need to make symbols.” For the poet, it’s with words; for the musician, it’s with notes and how these come together.  For me, it is the most direct language with which to communicate and to touch souls.  

As I tried to explain what goes through my head as I am performing, I realized that most of the preparation work has been done beforehand. The analysis, the understanding of the form and structure, mastering the technical problems, shaping the work, coloring and pacing the climaxes— an awareness of how all the musical elements then combine to form a whole— something so complete that it feels inevitable as it unfolds.  

The performer tries to enter into the spiritual world of the composer to understand his intentions when the music was initially conceived. How is the work put together- how did the composer use all the elements available and how do they relate to each other? Ultimately, the performer tries to discover the composer’s secret: the magic that makes it a masterpiece.  

I remember a conversation that I once had with a piano professor who taught at the University where I had been a student. We were discussing how to learn a new piece of music. He proclaimed to me that he would always start with the details and then eventually the piece would come together. For me, it is just the opposite.  I believe that you must start with the big picture: tackle the form, see how all the pieces fit, and then once you have the shape of the work, the details will eventually follow. The mold must solidly be in place before uncovering the surprises revealed within. 

For me, playing the music of Rachmaninoff involves another problem— the issue of control and freedom— how to create that perfect balance between the two. Rachmaninoff pulls us into his deep Russian soul and the performer must enter his world to experience and convey the emotions that he must have been feeling when he wrote this music. Yet how far can we go inside his darkness without losing ourselves completely? The performer must walk an emotional tightrope. How easy to get swept away—never finding the pathway out of the darkness into the light! How much freedom can we have without losing complete control; how much control is necessary without sacrificing freedom of expression? That is the constant struggle in the quest for harmony and balance. 

So to return to that initial question: if we were only telling one specific story, how much easier that would be than boldly venturing out into the unknown with every performance.  However, it would not be as rich or as fulfilling an experience— emotionally, musically or spiritually for either the performer or the listener! 

And so we keep trying to get a little closer every time!! 

As Rachmaninoff so often said: “Music is enough for a lifetime but a lifetime is not enough for music.”

MUSIC FOR EVERYMAN! March 10, 2018 

There is so much talk these days about the death of classical music. People lament waning and aging audiences, and question the relevance of hearing serious music played well. Presenters always look at the economic equation- the bottom line and ask: can we sell it to our public? The question that should be asked is: how can we make this music relevant to people’s lives and build an audience for music that should be heard and experienced first-hand—music that nurtures the human soul. Within the complex world in which we find ourselves, music helps the human condition, and its message goes directly to the hearts of the listeners. 

It is a great pleasure to report that last Sunday, March 4, 2018 a recital of “Old & New Favorites” was presented to a packed house and a cheering audience at our little Carnegie Hall in my hometown of Lewisburg, West Virginia. Granted, the first half consisted of lots of “old chestnuts”- popular tunes that we all love to hear. However, the music was not watered down, and in the second part of the concert a “new favorite” was introduced— the uncut version of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Sonata— a work not frequently performed. 

I believe that the secret of this successful concert was in sharing my passion for these compositions with the people who were there—chatting with them and helping them to feel comfortable responding to the beauties of music that I love.  The music was made accessible and relevant by humanizing the composers, and providing the keys to open the door to understanding. 

Anyone with a set of ears and an open heart can respond to classical music. I experienced this early in my career when I was asked to be the first Artist-in Residence for the farm equipment company, John Deere. Hired for eight weeks spread out over the year, I was asked to develop a lunchtime series for the workers. The Steinway was wheeled into the lunchroom; the machines were turned off, and for 40 minutes, the men, while eating their brown bag lunches, listened to me talk about my good “friends”, Liszt, Chopin, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff. As I walked in to my very first concert, one of the guys yelled out to me-“ Hey Blondie, how about a little Clair-de-Loonie!!” Luckily I had that in my fingers that day. The ice was broken and I played and chatted and shared with them the music that I was so passionate about. Then I invited all of them to come to my evening concert—that was also part of my deal with John Deere— to develop a lecture series for the general public— and I was lecturing that evening on the Liszt Sonata. And the good news is that so many of these men dressed up to come to my lecture with their families that evening; afterwards, they started asking me questions about my composer “friends.” So the experiment worked and we built up to a “standing- room only” audience for this lecture series! 

I have experienced the joy of sharing classical music with new listeners, and am excited to report that we have established the Three Oranges Foundation to continue our educational work through concerts, lectures, recordings, master-classes, symphonic appearances, and a new educational DVD series. Our purpose is to take classical music to the people and to make a difference in people’s lives— touching souls— giving them a sense of hope—inspiring them to reach for the impossible! And that is what it is all about. So thankful for this unique opportunity!


Chopin was such a complex man—an elusive personality with so many layers veiling his deep dark soul. Few knew the real man because he never revealed himself— never completely. Of course he could be charming, elegant, a man of fine taste and sophistication, extremely comfortable in Parisian society. Yet essentially Chopin remained a man in conflict within himself, and we hear this in his music. 

We have just released two new recordings of Chopin’s music that show such different sides to his complex personality. Chopin! – with the B minor Sonata, the Berceuse and the 4 Scherzi reveals the man who would have liked to have been a virtuoso but never had the strength or the personal inclination to follow the Lisztian pathway. The other recording is much more intimate—much more exposed—much more autobiographical. In the complete Nocturnes, Chopin comes closest to writing his autobiography. 

The Nocturnes are personal, honest, full of pain and melancholy; they are dramatic and passionate and also overflowing with nostalgia for the family and the home-land that he would never see again. With each nocturne, Chopin embarks on another spiritual journey. He bares his soul and allows us to listen to his heart. 

I’ve played these pieces for most of my performing life. With these recordings, I felt encouraged by the spirit of the composer to take a closer look at the man himself. There has always existed a stereotype of the weak, frail and sickly composer, and somehow this has informed the way so many pianists approach his music— especially his Nocturnes. It is time to shatter this false image of the man. 

Just because Chopin didn’t possess the strength or virtuosity of his good friend Liszt, does not imply that he did not understand virtuosity at the keyboard. And the four Scherzi are bold declamations of bravura mixed with tenderness and compassion. The B minor Sonata is Chopin working within a larger framework than usual and coming to grips with the structural problems of sonata form— it is Chopin venturing out of his comfort zone and doing it “his own way.” He makes us aware of the problems of holding this large structure together. Yet at the same time, his emotional range is extraordinary. 

Perhaps this accounts for the real difficulty of interpreting his music. Chopin keeps surprising us with his emotional mood swings. He is definitely not a weakling— he possessed boldness and power. And he is definitely not only a virtuoso— his natural poetry and depth of humanity always shine through. 

With his genius, Chopin manages to hit a nerve by pinpointing the emotions of everyman— the ups and downs, the highs and the lows that we all experience. We are blessed to be able to accompany him on his turbulent voyage.

THE POWER OF MUSIC! January, 2017 

As we begin a new year, I realize how grateful I am for so many things that are in my life.  I’m not speaking of material things but thinking about the joy of love, friendship and the power of music— that is what defines my life. And the sharing of it— now that is a privilege that we musicians are given— the joy of making music! 

And then our added bonus as performers is being able to experience the magic and see it grab hold of our audience. Sometimes we experience the joy on their faces, hear it in their words and occasionally witness their tears. Essentially, our mission is not only to bring the composer to life but to ideally share the creation of music at the very moment of its conception. That was Stravinsky’s definition of the perfect performance—“the moment that it was conceived!” 
Our job as performing musicians is to share the music’s magic!! And that experience just might make a profound difference on someone who might be listening. We are meant to touch souls!! I always define this when it happens as “divine intervention”— “getting help from above.”  Why do some performances just take hold and soar and others remain good, competent, well-played but totally earthbound. Perhaps, it is the “divine” component that creates the difference between just a good concert and an unforgettable, life-changing experience. 
That was the effect Franz Liszt had on his audiences. He was able to transport them to another world. I love the quote from one of Liszt’s contemporaries who had heard Liszt and also another virtuoso of his time, the pianist, composer and teacher Henselt, and he summed up the experience very well: “If you have heard Henselt once, you have heard him at all times, but Liszt you have never heard because he is always different.” Now I do believe that Liszt, being the devout Catholic that he was would have acknowledged “help from above” as the reason that his performances were able to touch the hearts of his listeners so deeply. And they could not get enough of the magic— it truly fed their souls and they always returned for more! 

Some artists can do that— others cannot. It is not a matter of technique or virtuosity— perhaps it just boils down to a different mindset about serving the music. The purpose is not to show off the speed of your octaves— as Liszt said “who cares how fast or loud you can play your octaves!!”— but to dig deeply under the notes for the musical and spiritual message — to get yourself out of the way so that the composer’s intentions can come through directly to reach and touch the audience. 
This past summer, my home state of West Virginia experienced horrible flooding— it was nicknamed the “thousand year flood” because nobody could remember when the State had been so hard-hit. The next town experienced terrible devastation— loss of life and loss of property. Where I live, we endured the heavy rains but were more fortunate— at least the Steinways in my studio were not floating down the river the way some people’s possessions were. Our electricity was out but we could cope with that for a couple of weeks — many of the roads were washed away so we were mainly confined to our homes.
 A terrible depression set in and most of us felt it. There was nothing to do but deal with it. I gravitated to my studio thankful that I could still sit down for a few hours at the piano and make some music. What surprised me was the composer that I most wanted to hear. I just wanted to play those beautiful heart-wrenching melodies of Rachmaninoff. My soul was hurting and I wanted to go to those dark places with him. The interesting thing about Rachmaninoff is that he does take you on a journey deep inside his soul but always manages to bring you back out into the sunshine, leaving you with hope in your heart.   

And that is the power of music— taking us from the earthbound world in which we live to a higher, almost magical place where we can briefly touch the essence of existence. Music provides a spiritual journey to the soul and the deeper we travel— the clearer becomes our vision of the world—a place where we do not feel completely alone or isolated with our pain.  It is a place of divine order where our lives do make sense for that brief period of time. 
How blessed we are!!!!

LIVING WITH FRANZ LISZT September 6, 2016 

Perhaps we did know each other in a former life. How I would love to think so!! Or perhaps in a previous incarnation, I was one of his adoring piano students, a member of his musical family who gravitated around the master in Weimar!! After reading his many letters, plus every flattering and non-flattering biography written about him, and immersing myself in his piano music, I am happy to report that the spirit of Franz Liszt is alive and well. Even today his words and his music remain timely and relevant. 

Many years ago when I was doing a music spot on a popular daytime television show in England- BBC’s Pebble Mill at One – and was speaking every week about another one of my composer “friends” as if I had known them personally, I received a note from a viewer asking me if I would like to meet Rosemary Brown. She was the lady who “communicated” with dead composers—Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Liszt were dictating to her their musical works from “beyond.” By chance, a friend had given me her biography to read, and it had turned me into a believer. The English pianist John Lill and the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein also counted themselves among her supporters. This lady even managed to impress the people at the BBC when they put her through rigorous testing to determine how she managed to accomplish what she was doing with limited musical training. There seemed to be no logical explanation how a woman, basically uneducated in music, was able to write down these compositions if she weren’t getting help from “above.” She seemed to be the chosen “conduit” through which the spirits of these great composers could communicate.  And so with delight and excitement, I accepted an invitation to have tea with Rosemary Brown at her Wimbledon flat. And that marked the beginning of our friendship—a friendship that lasted until her death.

I’ll never forget the first words that she said to me when we met: “Oh, Liszt has told me all about you!” According to Rosemary, Liszt was the most sociable of the entire group of her composer friends; he communicated often with her and assumed the role of Rosemary’s chief protector.  It just so happened that I was in the middle of performing several concerts with Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. During tea, Rosemary informed me that Rachmaninoff had told her to give me a message about the second movement. “I wasn’t paying enough attention to a voice that he wanted me to bring out in the 12th measure of the solo piano part.”  Now I was truly astounded at this bit of technical information, and sure enough, when I went home and checked the score, Rosemary or should I say “Rachmaninoff” was absolutely right!! That hidden voice did need to be brought out more!! 
But back to our friend Liszt— for the past several years I have been living with this composer, putting together a DVD portrait of this extraordinary man while focusing on his masterwork for the piano, the Sonata in B minor. After reading Liszt’s letters, I decided to tell his story using only his words and the words of his contemporaries. Liszt suffered so much within his lifetime, and I believe that even today, he remains a man misunderstood—not only musically but also personally. To truly understand his Sonata in B minor, his confessional that he wrote for his favorite instrument, we need to peel away all the layers to arrive at the soul of the man. Only then can we begin our journey to understand his masterwork. 
Franz Liszt: Portrait of the Man & his Masterwork – The Sonata in B minor, is a two DVD set, the equivalent of a multi-media textbook, that will be released next month.  The first DVD contains a biographical portrait, scripted using only Liszt’s words and those of his contemporaries. Michael York is the voice of the grand old man looking back at his extraordinary life, and the voices of his friends are read by Billy Joel as Chopin, Don Henley as Brahms, Harry Connick, Jr. as Carl Czerny, Rebecca De Mornay as Clara Schumann and Anna Liszt, Peter Schickele as Berlioz and the critic Hanslick, David Dubal as Heine, Manfred Honeck as Beethoven and Goethe, Leonard  Slatkin as Robert Schumann, Rosemary Harris as Princess Carolyne, John Schuck as Wagner and GB Shaw, Barbara Feldon as George Sand, Bill McGlaughlin as Grieg and Richard Strauss, Stuart Margolin as Liszt’s pupil Carl Lachmund, Miles Chapin as Hans von Bulow. Kermit Medsker as Siegfried Wagner, Jon Cavendish as Felix Weingardner, Anna Singer as Amy Fay and other voices, Dennis Rooney as the critic and Count Apponyi and Pete Ballard as Adam Liszt, King George and other voices. 
On the second DVD an in-depth master class about the Sonata is followed by a concert performance of the complete work. The master class includes a discussion of form and structure, thematic transformation, technical problems, memory issues, and how the performer can dramatically shape the work, pace the climaxes and prepare the piece for performance.  What a joy to share my personal insights about one of the great masterworks of the piano literature. 
I must confess that I feel as if my old friend Rosemary Brown, along with many of her composer friends, has helped to guide me on this journey to tell Liszt’s story.  Everyone who was asked to participate in this project immediately agreed and generously contributed their talents to bring Liszt’s extraordinary spirit to life. And I believe that we have told his story the way he would have liked it told— honestly, and in his own words- with warts and all- as a human being struggling to get through life as best he could. A portrait of the complete man emerges. We see Franz Liszt as a vulnerable human being with all his conflicts and foibles exposed, as well as his genius and extraordinary humanity revealed. 
How blessed we are to experience the man and his music, and how relevant his journey can be for all of us! Thank you Maestro Liszt! 


This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera and I have been joyfully celebrating the man and his magical music. How blessed I was to have met this extraordinary composer when I was just finishing up my doctoral studies at the University of Michigan. Actually we met after a rehearsal of his First Piano Concerto and that’s when our friendship began. I remember how excited all the students were at the prospect of meeting such a prominent composer from Latin America and having him attend our rehearsals and concert. And I remember all of us remarking that he surely didn’t look the way we had imagined— remember this was 1970 and we couldn’t google him beforehand on the internet.  Judging from the passionate and evocative music we heard, we didn’t expect to meet a man who could pass for a rich South American banker! But no matter— appearances are never what they seem. This was a man who wrote music that seemed to bypass the brain to go straight to the heart and was felt in the pit of the stomach- gut music! His music made us feel- it touched a nerve and titillated the senses. It was passionate- it was magical!! It was music that could only be written by a “man of Latin America” as he liked to call himself! 

It was after that performance that Ginastera promised to write me a piano concerto!! Wow! What a gift that would be! We didn’t meet again until 1976 when I was living in the Netherlands and received a call from him. “He would be celebrating his 60th birthday in April and could I come and play his Piano Concerto as part of his birthday concert in Geneva with the Suisse Romande Orchestra?” And what a joyous celebration that was! Ginastera accompanied me to the first rehearsal that the conductor scheduled with only piano, harp and percussion. Nobody wrote for percussion the way Ginastera did! What was extraordinary about that first reading was that the concerto had morphed into a completely new and self-contained composition. And Ginastera was quite excited when he heard it and said after the rehearsal,  “The concerto I will write for you will be a concerto for piano and percussion- for one piano!! (We both laughed because we had just been discussing Bartok’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion.) Over the years, whenever we would meet, we would talk about “our” Concerto – the piano concerto that Ginastera intended to write.  
Unfortunately life intervened, and Ginastera became ill with a terminal illness. Sadly, time was running out for him. I was preparing to return to the States to make my professional debut at Alice Tully Hall, and Ginastera offered to write me a solo Sonata instead of a full-scale concerto. This short one movement sonata became his final work, the Third Piano Sonata. He had intended to add an Adagio introduction but there was just no time. He wrote this sonata from his hospital bed in Geneva. Perhaps he knew that this would be his last composition when he wrote the words, Deo gratias over its final measure. 

Deo gratias for our friendship Alberto and for all those wonderful musical discussions we were able to have. I treasure our friendship and feel blessed to have known you and your wife Aurora. Your music is so full of life and joy and passion. It inspires us to follow our hearts and pursue our dreams. What a gift you have contributed to the world and all we have to do is listen to feel its magic!!  
 (Ginastera Festival at Spectrum, NYC on April 14, 2016)

Click here to read the recent article "Remembering Alberto Ginastera- a centenary tribute" in Musical Opinion (UK) 

PIANISM- ANYTHING ELSE?? September 21, 2015 

Even someone like the virtuoso performer Vladimir Horowitz, (were he alive today) might be impressed with the pianistic level of the pianists, regularly appearing on the competition circuit. There seem to be no technical problems or unsolved hurdles in evidence. Pianism has been mastered. However, the question remains- is that all there is!! Is it enough??
Franz Liszt was known to have told the students who frequented his master classes in Weimar, “I don’t care for the piano-bashers. I don’t care how fast or loud you can play your octaves.” Never having encountered any technical problem at the keyboard himself, Liszt did not have to analyze his natural technique and rarely focused on the teaching of technique. A limited student was advised, “I do not wash dirty linen here; go back to conservatory.”  In other words, after you have solved all the technical problems, then you can come back and participate in Liszt’s master classes, and gain inspiration from the Master. Liszt’s virtuosity gave him the freedom to make musical magic! And he preached to all who came to play for him: “Go and create memories!” Share your musical inspiration!
As spectators, we have been overwhelmed by the “sport” of playing the piano. After a while, we have come to expect this level of technique and dazzling pianism. We sit in awe as if we were watching a professional tennis match or a championship fight. What is missing from all this is our heart’s complete involvement in what is going on—the emotional connection. Can the pianist help us to forget the technical component of what he is doing and just focus on the musical message- the story being told by the composer? Is the pianist capable of going to that next level to concentrate on the making of music- pure music using technique and virtuosity as a means and not an end?  More importantly, is the performer capable of making the listener feel something more than just technical admiration for a job well done. Is he or she inspired by the music and can they transport us to another world- a musical world of magic! Does the performance connect with our hearts and make us feel?   Not very often!
Where is the musical inspiration- where is the joy of recreation! And where is the originality- the imagination- that sense of fantasy??
Recently, I caught an old film clip of Philippe Petit, the French high-wire acrobat, making his illegal walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center (pre-9/11/2001) Quite an amazing feat that was! Watching him, there was no doubt about his focus, his expertise, his intensity of concentration and his own belief in what he was doing. But it also went beyond that- Here was a man who was truly inspired and aided by something beyond just his own self. This was an artist who could connect to all of us – watching him do what he did so well conveyed a sense of hope— a renewal of spirit and a belief that someone could actually achieve the impossible!! And for a moment this man on the high wire made us forget our own limitations and helped us to believe in miracles.
When I walk out on stage, it’s as if I am walking that high wire without any safety net in place. I need to trust and have faith in something much higher than just myself and my own technical skills so that I can communicate the musical message and bring to life the spirit of the composer.  It is an opportunity that has been given to  “create memories”- to inspire the listener with music that I believe in and am passionate about - to share in a magical experience. That is the ideal- to touch the souls of all who listen!



This is exciting news indeed! The Prokofiev Archive that was begun by Lina Prokofiev, the first wife of Sergei Prokofiev and was originally housed at Goldsmith College at the University of London, is now moving to this side of the ocean. The Archive has been acquired by Columbia University and the Dedication will take place on Friday, April 24th  in New York City with many of the remaining Prokofiev family members present. I feel very honored and so pleased that I have been asked to play at the dedication ceremony.  It should be a very special evening. And what a gift for all Prokofiev scholars to have this archive now located in America.
The program opens with Prokofiev’s youthful First Sonata, his Opus 1, the first work he felt was good enough for an opus number (performed by Russian pianist Sergei Dreznin) and then proceeds to the Ugly Duckling (performed by Dreznin and Erica Baikoff, soprano) that was written for Prokofiev’s first wife Lina to sing. Lina and Serge frequently gave concerts together, but Lina was never able to pursue a truly serious career as a singer because of many unfortunate circumstances that seemed to align themselves against that ever happening.
I regret that I never had the chance to meet Lina personally- I did meet her younger son Oleg when I came to London in 1989 to present the three-concert series of the complete Prokofiev sonatas and I treasure the words he shared with me after those concerts- “I’m so sorry that my mother couldn’t hear you play my father’s music- she would have loved what you are doing and loved how you bring his music to life.”
I will be performing the Old Grandmother’s Tales- the first pieces that Prokofiev wrote on American soil in 1918.  As soon as Steinway delivered a piano to his hotel-room, Prokofiev sat down to write these. He wrote them quickly and also stated in his Diaries that he thought No. 4 was the best of the set. Personally, I would vote for No. 2 but all four are wonderful character pieces.  Prokofiev certainly is a master storyteller- he makes us see and hear the old Russian grandmother, waddling from side to side as she recounts her ghostly tales to her young listener. And the inscription that he leaves at the top of the first piece is bittersweet. “Some of her memories are long-forgotten; others are as fresh as if they happened yesterday!”
The program concludes with what I believe to be Prokofiev’s masterpiece for the piano, the Sixth Sonata. It’s a symphony for the instrument. The most monumental of the Sonatas, the Sixth is the first of his three “War Sonatas” that he started to write in 1939 after he had officially returned with his family to the Soviet Union.  He started writing these three works simultaneously during the War Years - if he got stymied working one sonata, he could immediately shift gears and go to another one. The Sixth is my favorite mainly because it truly has everything- there is so much to challenge the performer- extraordinary pianism, a wide emotional palette that ranges from the most intimate expression to the most brutal cries from the gut and everything in between. We witness his extraordinary craftsmanship with form as he links the first movement and the finale together, using that opening motive and working it to its conclusion to unify the work. And listen to the way he can build layers of texture and sound in the development section of the first movement  He seemed to have learned his motivic technique from the master Beethoven. We also hear Prokofiev the comedian occasionally jabbing us in the ribs in the second movement and encounter a romantic lover in the third movement’s nostalgic waltz. I jokingly refer to this movement as Prokofiev’s answer to Gershwin’s “The man I love.” Not so far-fetched an idea either!  Prokofiev and Gershwin did meet in Paris in the 20’s and sat down and played for each other!
Why do I keep returning to the music of Prokofiev?  For me, he continues to be new and modern. His pianism gives him an extraordinary freedom of expression. When all the pianistic layers are peeled away, what remains are the traditional elements of harmony and melody but transformed into a very personal language- a language that goes deep into the soul, filled with joy, passion, humor and the love of the spirit that it conveys. How fortunate we are that he has left us with such a legacy of great music!! 

YOUTH & MATURITY! March 18, 2015 

I am having great fun preparing a recital program to perform this weekend. The theme that unites all of these compositions is that of youth and maturity. This selection of works has made me realize how extremely subjective these two words are to define.  A work written by a composer at 15 or 19 is a work of his youth but sometimes also reflects the maturity of his youth. A later work might underscore the artist’s growth while reevaluating the freshness and spontaneity of his youth filtered through more mature and experienced ears! Ah, the maturity of youth and the youthfulness of maturity!! And let’s not forget that important and essential component of genius that always enters into this discussion. 

The program opens with Prokofiev’s young First Sonata, the very first piece that he felt was good enough to give an opus number, although Prokofiev later admitted that even though it seemed a mature opus to him when he was fifteen, it certainly paled when compared to his later compositions. When I close the program with his masterpiece of all his nine sonatas, the Sixth Sonata, it is certainly not difficult to agree with his assessment. The form is so much more sophisticated- as is the harmonic language, and the thematic material more complex and perhaps even more inspired.
However, I confess to loving Prokofiev’s Opus 1 and find it hard to believe that a young man of 15 actually did conceive it pianistically. I adore its directness and honesty, its heart on the sleeve emotion, its youthful passion. It’s as if a young and full of himself Serge Prokofiev is beating his fists on his chest and shouting in full voice “here I am.” Yes, of course, it’s derivative and sounds more like Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, or Tschaikovsky with bits of Brahms and Schumann making their appearance as well, but this young man certainly has something to say, and he grabs our attention.
Then I proceed to Brahms' monster of a sonata, his Third – the F minor and it truly is hard to process that a nineteen year old fellow could have conceived this monumental work, especially its second movement, and probed the deeper darker regions of the soul to make such a poignant statement.      

But I am forgetting that we are not discussing every nineteen- year old music student but a man of genius and already a master at his craft. Brahms always acknowledged the “divine” in whatever he produced and we certainly hear an unearthly presence in this second-movement Andante. Similar to the early Prokofiev work, we might criticize its sectional nature but youth and maturity are not all that far apart here. Of course in Brahms later character pieces, the focus would become sharper, the editing much more rigorous as Brahms delivers a more concise and economical statement. However, youthful passion and exuberance are in abundance in this early work, and its emotional impact is unmistakable.

 How’s that for a youthful and spirited first half! After the interval we hear music from a nineteen- year student at the Conservatory in Buenos Aires- a very young Alberto Ginastera. His Op. 2 Argentine Dances contain all the seeds included in his later works, written for piano- those wonderful driving Latin dance rhythms, the melancholy lyricism and his love of the guitar’s strumming and its open strings. Its joy and passion are contagious and grab the listener. Even at such a young age, Ginastera knew how to create magic.
That fine line between youth and maturity is not so clearly defined, is it! As mature adults, we try not to lose the spontaneity that we remember from our younger days- we want to share the joy, the passion of our youth but now with the added wisdom of our maturity. We want to bring back the innocence of that first time experience – the child-like awe – the freshness - the newness to everything we perform- as if it were just freshly written and just waiting to be discovered.  This is the responsibility of the mature artist!  And so with every live performance, we keep trying to recreate the magic of that special moment when the composer conceived his work!!


I just did a series of master classes with some young college students. These are always fun for me – the give and take, the exchange of ideas and always their concern for finding the right way to play the piano. Actually there is no “right” way- whatever works for your particular mechanism without causing harm is usually the best way to proceed.
When I say “without causing harm” I mean without any sign of tension or forcing. At the first sign of tiredness, that is the signal for us to stop- that means that clearly something is not working properly and we might be doing something wrong and risk doing serious damage to our muscles. That’s when the alarm bells should sound off. Then we need to look at our hands and observe exactly what is in tension and then ask ourselves, how can we alleviate that tension?
Each of us is built differently and this is why we each have to find what works best for our particular body. A tall pianist like Van Cliburn needed a different way of approaching the instrument than Artur Rubinstein who was very short and compact.  For Horowitz, it meant playing with flat fingers- that was his personal way of coloring and controlling the sound. For Liszt, the string breaker, the piano was attacked from on high truly making the most use of the force of gravity. For others, control is only attained by staying close to the keys. But the goal should always be the same -to play easily and comfortably and without tension.                                      

When I was a high school student in Philadelphia, my high school music teacher sent me to play for one of the most prominent piano teachers in the city – of course, she had to be good because all of her students won the Philadelphia Orchestra auditions and had the chance to solo with the orchestra at the children’s concerts.  I must confess that at that time in my life, I knew nothing about piano technique- I naively thought that when one practiced, one would make progress and keep playing better and better, and I was enjoying studying the piano and discovering all this marvelous music written for the instrument. Our first lessons together were anything but enjoyable. I was told that I was doing everything wrong at the keyboard and it was necessary to start all over again with her “method” of playing the piano. So I dutifully took home the book of Pischna exercises that were assigned to me but had no understanding why these would make a difference in how to play the piano. Looking back, what I was doing as a young student was approaching the piano naturally, in a way that suited my physical build- I was fortunate that I had acquired some facility. The last thing I wanted to do was to start at square 1 all over again. My mother, seeing how upset these lessons made me decided wisely that this was not the right teacher for me.  And so I moved on and found another teacher who did not want to tear down but wanted to add to the foundation that was already in place and make it better.
That is the attitude I have when I do guest master-class teaching. Whatever technical problem is visible can be solved with certain general principles- the most important one being to play everything without unnecessary tension. When the principles are known, students can adapt these to their own personal mechanism and create their personal approach to piano technique and build the foundation for good piano playing.
I was fortunate that when I was a college student, I found a teacher who could explain the principles of technique and add to what I was doing with only my fingers. This meant incorporating the wrist, the forearm, the upper arm, even using the back muscles to make use of the force of gravity. All these factors contribute to the pianist's individual sound- his personal “branding.” A wonderful example is Vladimir Horowitz- no one sounded like him when playing the Steinway. I remember trying his personal Steinway - to me, it was like a runaway piano but for Horowitz’s technique it was the perfect instrument to achieve the color and excitement he wanted as well as extraordinary fleeting passage work.
Playing the piano is not rocket science- sometimes, all we need to remember is good common sense. “No pain- no gain” does not apply to piano playing or to playing any instrument. What we need to find is a natural approach – a coordination of the whole body so it will be in harmony with the instrument. And after all the technical problems have been solved, then we can get down to the serious business of making music. That’s when the fun really begins!

THE JOY OF MUSIC! October 27, 2014 

I was recently in Indiana giving concerts and master classes at DePauw University followed by a master class at Indiana University in Bloomington. It was a tough program - not an easy one for the performer or the listener. Bartok- Out of doors, Liszt Sonata in B minor and after the interval some Ginastera- his earliest work for solo piano as well as his latest one, ending with the Sixth Sonata of Prokofiev. This was music I believed in and loved passionately. Truth be told, I never program any music that I don’t feel passionate about!

It was a joyful concert and my job as the performer was to just get out of the way so that the music could stand on its own and be appreciated by the wonderful audience who came to hear my recital at the Green Center.

Much to my pleasure, the message was received loud and clear - a good time was had by all. The complexity of the music in no way diminished the listener’s experience.  Let me share with you the blog that the Dean of the School of Music wrote about the concert. http://dmarkmccoy.wordpress.com/2014/09/26/the-joy-of-barbara-nissman/   

I don’t believe that I could have described the evening any better than Dean Marc McCoy did! He brought to everyone’s attention how essential joy is to music-making. If the performer isn’t enjoying himself, how can he expect the listener to have a joyful experience.

I do believe that when we walk on the stage we have a unique opportunity to inspire our audience. They come to concerts and expect to feel the magic of the moment. I’m not saying that it happens every night as a routine occurrence but when the magic happens, it sure is glorious and joyful. It is those moments that we work towards! And when they occur, we can feel the joy and smiles radiating from the composer perched on high- we do have a responsibility to clarify his music and bring it to life for the listener.

And that’s one reason why we keep chipping away at it- trying to get a little closer with every performance that we give. And what a joy and a privilege that is!!



Is it just my perception or is time moving faster than ever these days?
It makes me think of a quote from my favorite writer Balzac:
Time is the sole capital for people whose future depends on their talent.”
How true but look how much Balzac accomplished in his relatively short lifetime or think of Schubert or Mozart or Chopin- how much all of them were able to achieve with the relatively small amount of time allotted to them.

This summer was spent with my old friend Alberto Ginastera and his music, preparing a DVD that will be a master class on the composer with a special focus on his piano music. It is an exciting project and Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake & Palmer) is already onboard to film an interview about his meeting with Ginastera when he first proposed the transcription of the Toccata finale from the First Piano concerto to the composer and Ginastera’s unexpected reaction. (The transcription appeared on ELP’s album Brain Salad Surgery back in the 70’s.) That recording made Ginastera into a sort of “pop” star – at least it helped introduce his exciting music to a wider audience.

And that is exactly the intention of our DVD about this prominent Argentine composer. His music is special. With its rich color palette and those driving Latin rhythms, it’s easily accessible to a wider audience. Yet it’s extremely well crafted- this man knew what he wanted and how to achieve it. It’s music that makes us feel good when we hear it. It grabs our attention and we can’t help but listen. It provokes an immediate reaction, bypassing the brain to go straight to the heart. We usually end up feeling his music physically in the pit of our stomachs- that’s why I call it “gut” music. We are planning to release this film in time for the 100th anniversary celebration of Ginastera’s birth in 2016.
A Liszt DVD is in the works for a 2015 release- a reappraisal of a man much misunderstood not only as a composer but also as a human being. The DVD includes a fresh in-depth look at his greatest work, his B minor sonata. The British actor, Michael York is the voice of Liszt and sounds just as I would imagine the grand old man to sound (if he had an English accent!) Other well known musicians and actors also contribute to the voiceovers of Liszt’s friends- all speaking in their own words.

So the seeds have been sown and the new season should produce the fruit of these labors. Patiently, we cultivate our garden.
Looking forward and wishing you all a wonderful growing season.

INDEPENDENCE! July 4, 2014 

We celebrate independence today- the independence to be an individual – to be your own person- a prerequisite for any artist- the freedom to be bold, courageous, and the strength to follow one’s nose wherever it might lead. That is independence! To stand tall and be convinced about what you are doing- that is the goal but getting there takes a lot of work. The foundation must be in place and the groundwork firmly established - only then can we begin to take off and soar.
Why do we spend so many hours practicing and preparing for a performance?
Perhaps we need to be sure that when the moment arrives, we know the foundation has been solidly built- brick by brick. Only then can we trust and have faith that the magic might just happen if we let go and get out of the way. We give up control to gain freedom. That is the ideal but finding the proper balance is the real issue.
On June 19th at Steinway Hall, the new independent record label, Three Oranges Recordings was officially launched and celebrated with its first two releases: Out of Doors and Fireworks! I wish that all of you could have been there to experience our joy and excitement. We are happy to announce that there will be many more releases to celebrate very soon- 4 more CD recordings are scheduled for upcoming release and 2 DVD’s currently in production. Lots to celebrate this Independence Day
What did Rachmaninoff say about life and music?  “Music is enough for a lifetime but a lifetime is not enough for music.” As we continue to work with seriousness and purpose, that is the realization most of us come to eventually. The journey can be filled with lots of surprises and at each step we are given another opportunity for growth and expansion- another reason to be thankful for our independence this Independence Day! 

Have fun wherever you are and whatever you are doing!! 
Our new release Fireworks! seems perfect for celebration!

REBIRTH! June, 2014 

It’s been a magnificent weekend here in the mountains of West Virginia, providing proof to those words “it’s almost heaven.” Everything is in full bloom and rebirthing and I share that feeling as well.  I feel blessed to be here- the ideal place to work and just “to be.” That makes me think of that wonderful quote of Franz Liszt,
                      “In life, one must decide whether to conjugate the verb to have or the verb to be.”
And West Virginia is the ideal place just “to be.” Similar to the independent nature of the mountain people who settled this state, it’s a good place to just follow your nose to wherever it might lead. I must say at times, that does demand a bit of courage and lots of faith as well!
That’s what I seem to be doing this weekend. I am in the preparation stage – the “gestation” period of putting together a DVD about the music of Alberto Ginastera that will hopefully be ready for his 100th anniversary celebration in 2016. I was fortunate to have first met him way back in 1970 at the University of Michigan when he was the invited guest for their first Contemporary Music Festival. That’s when our friendship first developed, and I feel an enormous responsibility to honor his legacy and to share what I have learned.
Of course, that means going back and relearning so much of the repertoire that I recorded way back in the ‘80’s. This man does not write easy piano music- it’s physically demanding and also requires much more than a rote memory to understand his craft and have some inkling as to how he creates that “magic.”

And my job is to chip away at the many layers and share how I have ventured on this journey. So my weekend has been full of the joy of discovery. Amazing how much more we can see when we have put something to rest for so many years! That is the rediscovery process- that is the following your nose business- but of course, a firm foundation has to be in place to do that.

 Speaking of building a foundation, it is quite exciting to build step by step our new record label, Three Oranges Recordings. This has been a rebirthing process for me- gathering together my old recordings and my new ones and repackaging everything so it suits our new label. We have five new releases waiting in the wings and a DVD on Liszt in progress, and I started listening this weekend to the takes of the last three Beethoven Sonatas that we recorded a few summers ago. That’s the bad news about recordings- of course, today or tomorrow we would approach it differently but there it is- frozen at that particular moment in time. And that is the joy of hearing an artist many times- in concert- to see how they are growing and developing.
How blessed we musicians are- never enough time to spend with these great 
pieces of music but the constant joy and the passion that we are privileged to share!

And let me share a beautiful photo from our WV weekend in the country-  our covered bridge (1879) where the “locals” still fish for trout!!
This looks like the cover of my new release, Out of Doors.

This looks like the cover of my new release, Out of Doors.

It's "wild 'n wonderful" West Virginia in the January snow!

It's "wild 'n wonderful" West Virginia in the January snow!

All Rights Reserved: Three Oranges Recordings 2014