It’s 3:55 p.m. and Elena Mullins, a Baroque dancer, is twirling in the center of a living room of a home surrounded by overhung trees in the Northwest DC neighborhood of Barnaby Woods. A group of guests form a circle around her as she holds out her arms in a noble stance.
“In Baroque dance, you want to be able to freeze frame,” or pose, in effect, for the audience, the dancer says, demonstrating a frozen gesture with her hands up. She cues a Jordi Savall recording of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.”
“UP step step. UP step step,” she instructs.
Next, the guests are given a packet of dance notation. Hairline strokes briskly twist to form an umbrella on a large piece of paper.
“I call this one the mushroom dance,” one woman whispers, pointing to the Feuillet choreography for the “Bourée d’Achille.” She introduces herself as Carol Marsh, a noted dance historian and musicologist, who in her retirement moved to Washington, D.C. after teaching music history, viola da gamba, and early music notation in North Carolina.
This Friday, Marsh is one of the nine guests at a Baroque dance lesson that is part of Aberfoyle Baroque, a living room series started by two DC women that has drawn artists and guests from all over the globe for concerts and other programs featuring music of the courts, churches and opera houses of 17th and 18th-century Europe..
Carolyn Winter spent 23 years in international development at the World Bank before joining forces last year with her musician neighbor Jessica Honigberg, to create the series, which stemmed from a love affair with the harpsichord. Both women simultaneously fell for the instrument after long-standing relationships with the piano. Now, with their non-profit L.L.C., they seek to promote the harpsichord, and other Baroque music, through performance and education in the greater D.C. area.
“If you had told me while I was at the World Bank that I was going to be running a Baroque harpsichord concert series, I would have burst out laughing,” said Ms. Winter, 59.
But that hasn’t stopped Grammy award-nominated harpsichordist Jory Vinikour, French lute prodigy Thomas Dunford, and several others of note from staying and playing at the homes of the Aberfoyle directors, located on the street of the same name. Here, the ladies alternate their two living rooms to host evenings of wine pairings and homemade dinners that match the themes of the music.
When the series launched in September of 2015 with “Concertos for Two Harpsichords by J.S. Bach and his Circle,” featuring the acclaimed keyboard couple Gwendolyn Toth and Dongsok Shin, Ms. Winter—who learned to cook only after retirement—made caviar on new potatoes with sour cream and diced scallion, German-style gazpacho, chicken in Riesling with German egg noodles and green peas, and roasted parsnip salad with beer vinaigrette.The women charge just over $100 for concerts to pay for the travel and fees of their musicians, but the dinners, they say, are complimentary and served in the homes of either of the women.
Jessica Honigberg’s home is particularly fit for the occasions. She has a19th-century German violin resting atop an Indonesian armoire and painted portrait of her great, great-grandmother in a golden Louis-style frame as the center piece of her very Baroque living room. Other soirées have included dessert tastings and wine pairings curated by Ms. Winter’s husband who also retired from the World Bank to run a wine magazine.
The goal is not to make money, Ms. Winter explained. “If we could break even, we are happy.”
Ms. Winter grew up in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia. She is a fourth generation Zimbabwean on her mother’s side. Her father was a mechanical engineer in a tobacco processing plant. When western countries imposed sanctions on Rhodesia following the civil war, her father moved the family to Malawi but sent the young Ms. Winter back to Zimbabwe for boarding school. It was there, at age 8, that she first studied piano.
“My grandmother was an excellent pianist and had plans to be a concert pianist when she was very young, but had to give up this idea when the Spanish flu broke out in South Africa where she was going to go to further her studies,” Ms. Winter said. It never occurred to Ms. Winter herself, however, to pursue the piano professionally. “In Zimbabwe this didn’t seem to be an option at that time. Most women ended up marrying young and having children,” she said.
Toward the end of her stay at the World Bank, Ms. Winter picked up the piano again. When traveling for work, she tried to stay in hotels that allowed her to practice. “In Ghana one morning I was playing at 5 A.M. when a solitary Westerner happened to walk past,” she recalled. “He slapped a $10 bill down on the piano as he passed and said how great it was to hear the piano. I was speechless as he walked off. Did he think the hotel hired me to play piano for guests at five in the morning? It is the only time I have ever been paid to play the piano.”
When Ms. Winter thought of retiring from the World Bank about six years later, she wanted to try a new instrument. “Shifting from a very challenging but gratifying and exceptionally busy, career to the blank slate of retirement is very, very daunting,” she said. “It also requires that one slough off a sense of self and purpose that has been developed over many years. Suddenly, one must rethink one’s identify and make oneself anew.”
Winter thought briefly about the cello. But decided on the harpsichord. She mentioned this to her next door neighbor, Ms. Honigberg, who happened to have also developed an eye for harpsichords. (Besides taking some early music courses at Yale, Ms. Honigberg had grown up in a home with a Zuckermann single-manual “Z-box” harpsichord built from a kit by her father on a dare.) Both women thought the harpsichord seemed like a natural progression from the piano.
They were wrong. Unlike the piano, there are no dynamics, only ornamental accommodations. To achieve any illusion of texture, the player can’t just use a pedal, but must interpret the music with embellishments.
“When you play the harpsichord you are literally plucking a string,” said Ms. Honigberg, who has been playing piano for 42 of her 49 years. “When you hit a key on a piano you are hurling an object through space up towards a string. It’s a percussion instrument. So it’s a very different mechanism,” she said.
While Ms. Winter found a harpsichord commissioned by John Lewis at the Harpsichord Clearing House in Rhode Island, Ms. Honigberg’s comes from the husband and wife team of keyboard instrument makers, Thomas and Barbara Wolf. Ms. Honigberg was just in the process of learning about all the wet, dry, and nasal sounds of the upper keyboards on German, Flemish, and French harpsichords when she noticed an instrument covered in canvas that was not for sale. It was a green William Dowd harpsichord from 1976 that the Wolfs lent out for museum concert series on behalf of James Weaver, founder of the the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society. It was not for sale. But Ms. Honigberg was smitten. “Now that I know this exists,” she thought, “I can’t live without it.”
A while later, she met the owner at a concert at the Library of Congress. “He said, ‘I understand you really like my harpsichord.’” She later bought it from him. “All of the sudden he was my fairy godmother,” she said.
While Ms. Honigberg says she is seriously pursuing the the study of her harpsichord, Ms. Winter found she is less of a player and more of a host for virtuosos.
“I felt really bad that I had this beautiful instrument!” said Ms. Winter. “Then I thought, ‘We need really good people to play it.’”
This was the starting point of Aberfoyle Baroque: “Having these virtuosos and master artists of the instruments is incredibly inspiring as we both in our different ways pursue studying the instrument,” said Ms. Honigberg.
The two women draw on each of their separate expertise to keep the series afloat. “Carolyn is uniquely suited to run an organization and she has these years of experience running huge enormous multi-million dollar projects for the World Bank,” said Ms. Honigberg, who is also a painter. “For somebody who has those kinds of skills and can apply them to an arts organization in retirement, it is an incredible boon to the promotion of the arts in our city,” she said.
Their program of Baroque dance lessons is just the latest addition. Now a lute suite is playing. The instructor asks everyone to plié. “Sink as you rise,” she says. The room is full of smiles.
Gary O’Connor, who works as an assistant attorney general, has no trouble keeping up. “I’m a big fan of Aberfoyle Baroque,” he said. “I joke with them that my goal is to be Aberfoyle Baroque’s number one fan or A.B.N.O.F. for short.”
Ms. Honigberg and Ms. Winter try to keep the guest list small. Audiences don’t surpass 30 or 32. But that’s the way it should be, says Ms. Honigberg.
“When you listen to the music that was composed in that time on the instruments of the time or reproductions of them, as in our case, you are getting not just the music, but you are getting the space around the music–the silence around the music–that existed at the time it was composed. And to me that just feels like a luxury in our era, to be in the presence of that kind of silence and space.”
Rena Silverman is a cultural reporter and aspiring lute player. She is the author of “Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment.” You can visit her on Twitter here.
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