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Pauline Lerner

Afternoon Tea at the Mansion

February 9, 2006 at 10:42 AM

I heard an unusual concert today. It wasn’t even called a concert; it was called Afternoon Tea. The name sounds to me like a BBC epic melodrama about the British upper class.

To understand this properly, one needs to know some history. The middle class neighborhood where I live now was once very upper class. Over a century ago, Captain James Frederick Oyster and his wife purchased a large tract of land near the location of my current, humble condo and hired an architect to build a nine-bedroom summer home. At that time, this area was a cool, rural outpost miles from the bustling city of Washington DC. Summers in this metropolitan area are hot and humid. In fact, in colonial times, British soldiers stationed here received hardship pay, as they did in India, because of the extreme summer weather. The area near the Capitol building in DC was, for years, a swamp. (Some people believe that it still is.) The summer home was designed with such architectural excesses as a formal portico, a 30 foot wide hall that ran the entire breadth of the house, enormous rooms, and very high ceilings to mitigate the heat. In 1908, the Oysters sold their home to the Corbys, who had made their fortune in a bakery business which, years later, marketed Wonder Bread. The Corbys had modifications and additions made to the summer home, which became their permanent residence. Ever faithful to the spirit of extravagance of their mansion, they purchased 2560 acres of land around their home and created a dairy farm with 22 barns, stables, and outbuildings, as well as a huge greenhouse complex and a private golf course. Years later, an order of nuns bought the estate and converted the house into a convent and school. Subsequent owners used the estate as headquarters for a professional society, and, in 1979, the land and buildings were bought by their current owner, the county government which established a center for the arts there. The newest building on the site is a combined concert hall and music school.

Today one of my friends took me to Tea at the Mansion. The Mansion is still a Mansion, large, elegant, and very well kept up. One of its rooms is now a gift shop with beautiful watercolors, prints, scarves, jewelry, and other baubles at upper class prices. Other rooms contain contemporary art exhibits, and one room is for Tea and music. Once there, we were seated at a small, round table and served small portions of very good scones, quiche, baked goods, fresh fruit, and desserts. Sometimes I feel out of place in that kind of environment, like a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks who wandered into the ritzy section of town by mistake. Today I felt very relaxed. I enjoyed talking with my friend while listening to good, live music. The performers were two young, professional women who played piano-four-hands works by Mozart, Schubert, and Grieg. My friend and I spoke to the performers after they finished playing. My friend asked what the score looked like, and they showed us. When the book was opened, the part for one player was on the left and the other, on the right. This layout was convenient because both players needed a page turn at the same time. I asked whether the works they played were originally written for piano-four-hands or for other groups and then rearranged. They said that all of the Mozart works on the program were written for piano-four-hands, and Mozart played them with his sister. The Schubert piece was written for piano-four-hands, but the Grieg was not. An advantage of attending a concert in this setting was being able to talk to the performers.

Many people believe that human society does not evolve, but I disagree. A private home for the wealthy has been replaced by a center for the arts. That is real progress.

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