Virtuoso to perform on historic organ at Vergennes Congregational Church

VERGENNES — Jenny Bower started playing piano around 4 years old, in a free-for-all class for preschoolers. She kept with it and in her third year at Oberlin College she realized that she was more interested in historical instruments.
She was drawn to the organ because her church had recently lost its organist, and then she had a string of inspiring organ teachers, including James David Christie, one of the founding fathers of the modern historical performance movement in the United States.
Now the Essex resident, who has played close to a hundred historic organs around the world, will be in Vergennes this Sunday for a performance on the historic 1879 Hook & Hastings tracker organ at the Vergennes Congregational Church. This recital, set for 4 p.m., will fill the sanctuary with Baroque interpretations of Bach, Buxtehude, Froberger and more for more than an hour.
The church is urging all music lovers and lovers history — not just church members — to attend this concert. The church, located at 30 South Water St., seats 250.
While at Oberlin, Bower took advantage of the several tracker organs on campus — one still had to be pumped by hand during a concert. She also traveled to Germany for a month and sharpened her expertise on instruments from the 17th and 18th centuries. After graduating in 2013, she stayed on an extra year to get a Master of Music in Historical Performance.
“I am especially interested in historic mechanical-action organs, because they have a lot of personality as instruments,” she told an interviewer for “Connections” last year. “Because of the way the pipes ‘speak’ under my fingers, I can better control the sounds I get out of the instrument. I’m also attracted to unique sounds. I’ve heard reed stops that sound like ducks and flute stops that sound like melted butter.
The beautiful pipe organ at the Congregational Church was made by the Hook and Hastings Company.  The company was located in Boston and built more than 2,000 organs between 1827 and 1935. According to the Organ Historical Society database, 44 Hook and Hastings organs were installed in Vermont and 12 are still in use. Only five of these organs, including the one in Vergennes, are in their original state.  Organs are given an opus number based on when they were built. The Vergennes organ is opus 944 and was installed in 1879.
The instrument on which Bower will play uses its original “tracker” action, which refers to a direct link from the key to the valve that allows air to flow into the pipes.  Many organs have been converted to electronic action.  Originally this organ had a manual bellows that provided air into the organ, now that job is done by an electric pump. 
The Vergennes organ has two manuals (sets of keys, or keyboards), 16 stops (controls that allow different combinations of pipes and give the voice to the keys being played), nine ranks (sets of pipes) and a pedalboard (played with the feet).  Of course, all of this marvelous machinery is quiet without the talent of the musician sitting on the bench.
Bower said that Sunday’s concert will be loosely focused on ascending themes, like “do, re, mi, fa, sol,” showing how different composers are able to tackle this simple theme in completely different ways. Other themes are explored through the context of differences in national style (Schildt’s Pavana lachrymae is quintessentially German, whereas Cabezón’s Diferencias are from the Spanish tradition, and Sweelinck’s Onder een linde groen lies within the Dutch-German tradition, but is inspired by a French country song).
Further, this concert will also highlight musical influences between composers (for example, it is thought that Kerll may have met and studied with Froberger, and there is actually a passage in Kerll’s toccata that is almost note-for-note the same as a passage in Froberger’s Fantasia).
Following the one-hour recital there will be a reception downstairs in the church.
The concert is free but a free-will offering will be received with all proceeds going to create a scholarship program that will help provide local band students obtain instruments.  Checks can be made out to VCC with “Band Scholarship” on the memo line.
Editor’s note: Thanks to Jeanne Peters and Joe Klopfenstein for their contributions to this story.

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