I’ll admit it: I’m a concert geek. I love reading the program notes right before a performance. But in Smedes Parlor, at Saint Mary’s School, I found something infinitely better than a few sentences on a piece of paper. Pianist Brenda Bruce and the Raleigh Symphony Quartet delivered a unique experience similar to what Chopin’s listeners must have heard in the 1800s.

The parlor itself, said series coordinator Terry Thompson, was constructed in the 1840s, just a few years before Chopin’s death in 1849. As the pianist later told us, Chopin did not favor concert halls because he felt they were too impersonal. He composed his pieces for more intimate settings, like the parlor in which we sat. We had the privilege to listen to Chopin’s music in the kind of environment he desired most.

The program itself, all Chopin, was a special delight. Chopin composed every piece before he turned twenty. Bruce performed her largest solo piece, the Grand Polonaise Brillante, Op. 22, without the introductory Andante Spianato, which usually precedes it, because Chopin composed the Grand Polonaise Brillante before he left Poland, but he wrote the Andante Spianato later, after he left Poland. Bruce’s scales and octaves in the right hand were impressive at times, but the chords seemed harder for her.

She first played two Mazurkas — Op. 7, Nos. 1 and 4. She had a pleasant touch, although occasional memory slips were present through her performance. But the thing that fascinated me most was her hands. After watching her next two pieces — two Waltzes, Op. 69/2, and Op. 70/3 — I seriously wondered how she would execute the F Major Étude from Op. 10 with such petite hands, but she surprised me and pulled it off. Along with that étude, she performed the following from Op. 10: E Major, F minor, and the famous “Revolutionary” étude. She projected beautiful, deep lyricism in the beginning and end of the E Major étude, although the middle chord section was a bit more laborious for her before she returned to the gorgeous opening theme. The “Revolutionary” Étude surprised me in two ways: her right hand was remarkably agile and rhythmic, carrying the piece along with its octave melody, but the opening of the piece felt a little too nice and carefree to be deemed “Revolutionary.”

The highlight of the evening was a performance with the Raleigh Symphony Quartet as Izabela Spiewak and Anne Leyland, violins, Yang Xi, viola, and Nathan Leyland, cello, joined Bruce in performing the rarely-heard Fantasia on Polish Airs, Op. 13. Bruce told us Chopin played both the Grand Polonaise Brillante and the Fantasia on Polish Airs in his farewell concert before he left Poland, never to return home again.

The quartet performed in complete harmony, all the members breathing together and each listening for the blend of sound from the other instruments. The balance was lovely, and here Bruce gave her most solid performance. The Fantasia was worth the whole concert. I left in wonder at the sonorous sound that had filled the parlor. It was thoroughly enjoyable, and I realized later how much I had learned about Chopin, his life, and the way he intended his music to be played. I learned far more by this experience than just reading information in a program. It was a fascinating evening.

*We are pleased to welcome Meredith student Elisabeth Lynne Bjork to the pages of CVNC. With this review, she joins us as one of our 2009-10 interns.