Meredith College’s Music Department is staffed by some of the most astonishingly self-sufficient and resilient souls in central North Carolina, to be sure. They’ve weathered years of budget and academic cuts but — like Timex watches of old — they keep on tickin’. The latest example of this takes the form of a week-long celebration of Chopin’s 200th birthday, launched on what some scholars believe was the actual date — February 22 — although in fairness there are perhaps even more scholars who take March 1 as the master’s natal anniversary. Far be it from us to cast water, baptismal or otherwise, on Meredith’s great parade.

The first program featured four distinguished faculty artists in some of the composer’s most special music. First up was the Rondo in C, Op. 73, an early work (1828), published late (in 1855, six years after his death). It happens to be his only work for two pianos. Indeed, there’s only one surviving work for piano four hands, so the Rondo is unusual on several counts, not least of which is the potential it contains for volume. That Kent Lyman and James Fogle, outstanding artists and keyboard virtuosi, permitted the Rondo to sing consistently only increased its appeal; the performance was engaging throughout, and it received a warm round of applause.

So, too, did a performance of the second and third movements (Scherzo: Allegro con brio and Largo) of Chopin’s Cello Sonata, Op. 65 (1845-6), one of only four pieces of chamber music left to us. Chopin clearly liked the cello, for there are two other pieces for cello and piano (an Introduction and Polonaise and a Grand Duo), and some would say that the cello is the most important voice in the Piano Trio, too. In this Carswell Concert Hall reading, the players were Virginia Hudson, cello, and Kent Lyman, piano. The performance was outstanding, the music seeming to glow from within, surely making some members of the substantial audience regret that the entire work wasn’t given.

The cleanup hitter (and fourth artist of the evening) was pianist Karen Allred, who essayed the famous and famously dramatic “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 53 (1842). This brilliant and flashy piece is one of Chopin’s most popular piano works, and it’s one of Allred’s signature pieces, too. She plays it brilliantly, with great sweep and power — more power, perhaps, than Chopin himself might have been capable of giving it.

The place erupted with applause that lasted many minutes, till Music Department Chair Fran Page rose to speak. She was however loudly interrupted by Lyman, entering from the back of the hall, a “manuscript” in hand. He claimed it had turned up mysteriously in his mailbox, and he rushed to play it. Chopinesque it was at first, but then a vaguely familiar tune emerged from the somewhat mournful harmony — ’twas “Happy Birthday,” and the audience proceeded to sing it, prior to feasting on a multi-tiered cake in the lobby, A good time was clearly had by all at this truly festive program, one that celebrated Chopin, long-time teacher James Clyburn, and Meredith’s Music Department, which has funded this festival entirely on its own. It is regrettable that this major event received no support from Meredith’s outgoing President who, instead, has picked away at the arts, urbanized the campus, built a sports complex on the southeast quadrant, and annoyed citizens and neighbors by limiting access to the greenway and by placing some 160 floodlights* on poles near Faircloth Street….

The concert began with welcoming remarks and acknowledgments by Page and a very special tribute to pianist and teacher James Clyburn, now retired, who’d joined the faculty as head of the piano section in 1958. In his honor many of his former students and colleagues and friends have funded cash prizes for the competition that is being held on the afternoon of February 23. That event and the rest of the concerts planned for this remarkable week — recitals by Ann Schein, Walter Hautzig, and Richard Reid, a big program involving students (during which some of Chopin’s songs will be heard), and lectures, conversations, master classes, and Polish dancing lessons will enrich the campus and the extended community. For details, see our calendar.

*Edited/corrected 2/26/10: There are not 160 floodlights on poles — there are only 120, arrayed 6 to a row, 5 rows high, on each of 4 poles. The loom of these lights extends several blocks east of Faircloth Street, all the way to the crest of the ridge on the Ruffin Street hill — and the lights may be seen, variously, at all hours of the night and early in the morning