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The Arts

Helping out their new neighbors

Classical musicians, and Vermont newcomers, perform benefit shows in Townshend, Athens

Admission to each concert is $15 and may be purchased in advance on line at or at the Village Green Gallery or Weston Marketplace, Village Square Booksellers in Bellows Falls, the Townshend and Newfane town offices, Taft Hill Collection in Townshend, the Townshend Common Farmers’ Market or at the door. For more information about Unity Hills Arts Centers, go to To hear the Amphion String Quartet in concert, visit

TOWNSHEND—Unity Hills Arts Centers, International (U-HAC), a recently formed cultural organization focusing on classical music, is bringing a chamber ensemble of musicians for a series of two informal benefit concerts in Townshend and Athens.

The artists will be the husband-and-wife team of Joseph Swensen and Victoria Eisen, along with Gabriele Castelli and Amalie Elmark Nandfred, performing works by Mozart, Prokofiev, Faure, Chopin, Bach, Milhaud, and Brahms.

The first concert will take place on Thursday June 28, at 7 p.m., in the Townshend Town Hall, to benefit the West Townshend Country Store restoration project. The next concert in the series will be held on Friday, June 29, at 7 p.m., in the Athens Brick Meeting House. The proceeds from this event will assist the Athens Historic Preservation Society’s effort to restore this historic building.

U-HAC was founded by Swensen and Eisen. Swensen is a virtuoso violinist and prominent conductor, currently serving as principal guest conductor of the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris and is conductor emeritus of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Eisen has held the position of principal French hornist with the Stamford Symphony and the Chamber Orchestra of New York. She has recorded with Deutsche Grammophon and Sony Classical.

Elmark Nandfred began playing violin at age 6. She also plays piano and has performed in children’s choir, opera and other musical performances.

Castelli has been studying the piano for five years and has played for two seasons in the Young People String Orchestra at Boston University. He has also given chamber music recitals both as a pianist and violinist in different groups.

Eisen and Swensen recently moved to Vermont, where they have opened their center for music. Unity Hills Arts Centers International is located in a historic, 15-room, circa-1776 farmhouse built on five acres of rolling hills and rushing streams in Townshend.

A new destination for music

Once the Townshend Country Inn, this atmospheric and inspiring setting off Route 30 now provides a meeting, learning, working and living space for artists of all kinds — professionals, amateurs, and students.

“We hope and believe that the U-HAC home base will become a major center for the artistic and cultural life of our southern Vermont community,” Swensen and and Eisen note at their website (

The location will allow them to present a variety of seminars, workshops, festivals, performances, and exhibitions and will offer special residencies for individual artists (or groups of artists) with long term projects.

U-HAC vision is searching for a balance between artistic idealism and social responsibility.

Robert du Grenier, who is help producing these concerts, said that what Swensen and Eisen are doing is a “reaffirmation all the things I am involved with. It is all about a sense of place. It is about why I came to Vermont from New York City in the first place. It certainly was not about making money.”

When Swensen and Eisen moved near du Grenier’s glass blowing studio, he invited his new neighbors to dinner. He explained some of the needs of the community and they were eager to help.

“Two days after the couple purchased the Townshend Country Inn for U-HAC, but before they were able to have an inspection, Irene hit Vermont.”

The couple turned out to be lucky, but it made them appreciate all the hardship that the storm inflicted on Vermonters. Earlier this year, they gave two benefit concerts to benefit those who have suffered damages because of the storm.

It is with that same spirit of social responsibility that these artists are performing in the two upcoming concerts to benefit historic structures in the communities of Townshend and Athens.

Located at the junction of Route 30 and Windham Hill Road, the former West Townshend Country Store functioned for many years as the heart of town, as a café and store. Today, the country store functions as a community kitchen, the site of an online buyers club for local farmers (CSA), and a community thrift shop. Because of a recent donation, the building has been leased for the next 20 years for $5 a month.

The historic Athens Brick Meeting House, built in 1817, was the site for community worship and Town Meetings as well as many militia training sessions, Old Home Day Celebrations, and fairs. The Renovation Fund for the meeting house has been working to secure grant funding to restore this historic landmark.

Du Grenier promises that both of these concerts not only will raise funds for renovation for these important buildings but the music itself will be “absolutely world-class.”

“The playing is out of this world,” he said. “Audiences will be overwhelmed when they hear Swensen’s $5 million Stradivarius violin. These concerts are absolutely world class, and we are lucky to have such a little gem in our community.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #157 (Wednesday, June 20, 2012).

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