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Our History

Judy Rankin and Leslie Gensburg
Judy Rankin and Leslie Gensburg

In 1989, Judith Rankin and Leslie Gensburg founded the Northeast Kingdom Classical Series when they became aware of a real interest in classical music among a considerable segment of the community.

There was a welcome response to the project, attracting donations and good-sized audiences right from the start. The very first concert was a solo recital by pianist Michael Arnowitt of Montpelier. Other early performers included the baroque musicians of the Benefit Street Chamber Players, the Craftsbury Chamber Players, and a very young Ignat Solzhenitsyn, pianist.

Starting out with the two women working under the umbrella of Catamount Arts in its early years, the Classical Series became an independent nonprofit in 2000. It continues to be an all-volunteer-run organization. Leslie continues to be a very active volunteer, along with committee members David Askren, Linda Bishop, Leslie Fredette and Amy Wheeler. Until her retirement, Lucy Haworth was an invaluable part of the organization. Others who have served are Jenny Green, Carew Magnus, Kaija Percy, and Lynn Wurzburg.

Classical Series co-founder Judy Rankin is retiring after 32 years. We are exceedingly grateful for her invaluable enthusiasm, dedication, and work on behalf of the Classical Series from day one. We would also like to formally welcome Andrea Otto to the committee, with her love of fine music and youthful energy.

At first, the concerts were held in various venues, but the South Congregational Church in St. Johnsbury became the permanent home, the sanctuary having very good acoustics and being just the right size for chamber music. As the Classical Series began to present nationally and internationally acclaimed artists, it became obvious that a very fine piano was needed. Two generous donations kicked off the Piano Fund drive, and in 2007, the Series became the proud owners of a new Steinway Model B grand piano.

Through surveys, the Classical Series has tried to identify audience preferences; not unexpectedly, the results come in all over the place! The favored ensemble, however, is the string quartet, which is featured each season in addition to a piano trio (violin, cello, and piano) and a solo pianist or piano duo. From year to year, other ensembles may include piano quartets, wind quintets, Baroque ensembles, and various other duos and trios with strings and winds.

Piano Story

Steinway Piano

As the Northeast Kingdom Classical Series began to showcase notable national and international artists, the musicians often expressed the need for a fine piano, one that would enhance the quality of their performances. Pianists suggested buying a used Steinway Model B, a grand piano somewhat smaller than a concert grand. The Model B, they all agreed, would be just the right size for the space where the concerts are held, the South Congregational Church in St. Johnsbury.

The Series began to look into purchasing a piano in 2005. However, as the Series got into this, it found the price of even a used one prohibitive — about $45,000. But in 2006, something happened to make the dream start to look possible. A pair of long-time Series supporters, Cheong-hwan and Doreen Kim from Danville, VT, donated a piece of property to the Series. The Series sold this land in January 2007 and this became the beginning of a piano fund. Following the land sale, the Arpad Elo Jr. Classical Music Trust made a sizable donation to the fund. This brought the goal close enough for the committee to call Frederick Johnson Pianos in White River Junction, Vermont's Steinway dealer, to inquire about a used Steinway B.

Steinway Piano

To their dismay, the Series was told that these almost never came on the market. To further complicate the situation, the upcoming February concert featured the great pianist Jean-Claude Pennetier with the Paris Piano Trio. M. Pennetier had played for the series before and had begged to have a good instrument for his next appearance. Now the Series was looking at a very expensive piano rental to fulfill their promise to him — a real budget breaker!

Amazingly, about three weeks before the concert, Johnson Pianos called and made the Series a very generous offer on a brand new Steinway B — the Series was saved! The piano was delivered in time for the Paris Trio Concert!

Steinway Piano

Throughout 2007, the Series carried out a fund-raising effort in order to complete the purchase of the piano. Pianist Bernard Rose gave a benefit concert from which all proceeds went to the piano fund. Many, many donations of all sizes came from individuals and local businesses. The fund-raising effort successfully concluded in January 2008 and the Series was the proud owner of their Steinway.

Since the acquisition of the piano, the Series has given groups, like First Night St. Johnsbury, and individuals permission to use this beautiful instrument. The Series allows the St. Johnsbury Academy use of the piano for school functions in exchange for housing it in the sanctuary. And audiences have been enjoying and commenting on the difference in the quality of the concerts since its arrival in 2007.

Steinway Piano Donor Plaque