Arts & Leisure

Jenny Bower: Fixed on Baroque music

VERGENNES — When you think of a church organist, it’s probably nothing like Jenny Bower. She’s 26, holds two Masters degrees — one in Organ and Harpsichord performance and the other in Geology and Earth Science. She likes Baroque, experimental classical music and is known to rock purple lipstick. And while, she plays the organ for the Vergennes Congregational Church every Sunday, she also plays in Burlington, Montpelier and pretty much any place else that will let her practice on their keys.
Bower’s career as an organist began sometime in high school. “The organist at my mom’s church died, and I got pushed into playing organ,” explained the St. Louis, Mo., native. “The organ was electric and full of dust, but it was the best place to learn music. People clapped a lot.
“I already self identified as a weirdo,” Bower added, excusing her love of the organ. “But if you start playing organ as a kid, you can’t get out.”
But Bower didn’t want out. “We were socialized to be timid and hold our opinions delicately,” she said of her upbringing in Missouri. “So there was nothing cooler than finding the power in handling 5,000 pipes!”
After high school, she auditioned for James David Christie, the organ professor at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio. She played the “one organ song everyone knows” — you know, the Dracula song (Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor) — but it worked and she was accepted. Bower was also accepted on piano.
During her undergrad years, she also fell in love with geology and earth science. One of her mentors in the Geology department connected Bower with Nico Perdrial, a research assistant professor at the University of Vermont leading a soil project, which brought Bower to Vermont in August 2014. This month, Bower defended her research on the project and said she did “well enough to graduate.”
Maybe it’s her organ skills, but Bower is one multi-tasking master. Since coming to study soil at UVM, she’s also been playing organ and harpsichord for the Vergennes congregation, joined a friend’s Baroque band to tour in Bejing, China, participated in a Bach marathon in Montpelier, spent a month playing organs in Germany, got a job last spring at the Vermont Center for Geographic Information as a technician; oh, and she found time to find a husband — they’re getting married in May.
“There’s freedom in doing two things — I don’t have to take every gig or teach lessons if I don’t want to. It’s so nice to be in a community that appreciates my playing,” she said. “The times I feel the most successful are not when people are gasping over the impressiveness of the organ, but rather knowing that when I play a hymn, 100 people are coming together. I search to connect with a part of their lives — I let the organ fill the space and create an atmosphere so people can create a communion with their god.”
Organs originate back to Roman times when they were powered by water, Bower explained. They were considered divine and invoked a sense of godliness. Bower prefers organ music from a bit later, during the Baroque period (1600 to 1750). “I connect to Baroque music because it has a spirit of improvisation. We don’t know how anyone played it, so you can take the bones of the music and spin something new out of it.”
But Bower’s not quite ready to call herself a “friend of jazz.” She’s happy now experimenting with Baroque interpretations: pulling stops, pressing foot peddles and tickling the ivories until the boxelder bugs come flying out of the pipes — no joke, apparently organ pipes are a good hiding spot for the little black and red bugs.
Most of us probably won’t catch Bower’s next performance in Shanghai, China, but she’s planning on sticking around north-central Vermont for the near future and will continue to play for the Vergennes Congregational Church where you can hear her perform most Sundays.

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