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25 Years of Singing

Naples Philharmonic Chorus


Celebrating 25 Years
of the Naples
Philharmonic Chorus

Dmitry Liss, conductor
James Cochran, chorus director
Lilya Zilberstein, piano

Naples Philharmonic
Naples Philharmonic Chorus

April 21 – 22

Like a lot of great choral music, the foundations of the Naples Philharmonic Chorus are in church. In this case, Vanderbilt Presbyterian.

About 26 years ago, a young organist and music leader left upstate New York to take a job at the church. It just so happened that he’d come south without fulfilling one of his goals, to start a great choir.

At the same time, then-Naples Philharmonic Music Director Timothy Russell began thinking about starting a chorus to augment the performances of his young orchestra in its gleaming new performance hall. By happenstance, Russell was a member at Vanderbilt Presbyterian.

“We started talking about how I wanted to start a choral society in Rochester and his hopes for a symphonic chorus here,” says Jim Cochran, the chorus’ director.

But first, Jim had to pass an audition with then-CEO Myra Daniels. The opportunity came near the end of 1990, during a dedication of a new sanctuary at the church. His church chorus, along with a brass and timpani ensemble, performed Rutter’s Gloria. Jim’s parishioners helped him pass his test. The chorus would form for the following season.

Almost a year to the day later, 56 voices came together to perform a nearly complete rendition of Handel’s Messiah with the Naples Philharmonic in Hayes Hall.

“We had really, really rehearsed for that concert,” Jim says. “It was very exciting to have the group on stage in Hayes Hall. And we had such a wonderful reception from the community.”

Twenty-five years from that first concert, the chorus is again preparing to perform a nearly full-length version of Handel’s choral masterpiece.

“It’s a rather long listen,” Jim says of the full version of Messiah. “But we try to do what we call “Mostly” Messiah every year. Still, this is the first time since the first concert that we are doing the full Messiah.”

Michael Schmidt, a founding chorus member, says his fellow singers are excited to be back to the longer version of the work. “I think we will be inspired,” he says. “Everyone is so excited to make it big again.”

Sitting in the risers of Daniels Pavilion, the singers work through parts of the work with Jim conducting from the floor. Assistant Director Brice Gerlach stands at the piano, playing and acting as a demonstrator for the vocal precision Jim is searching for.

“Alright, let’s start off with just some ba-ba-bas,” Jim says, as Brice launches into a new section of the music. The chorus often starts rehearsing by finding the notes and the rhythms before adding in the complexities of the text. Later on this Tuesday evening, Jim will stop the rehearsal to correct a Boston accent that gets a little too prominent when singing the word “God.”

“It’s God, not Gawhd,” he says.

Diction is a crucial component to the chorus. But striving for that perfect-English precision was the cause for one of the most problematic concerts Jim remembers from his tenures as the director. Erich Kunzel, who served as the pops conductor of the orchestra for nearly 15 years, wanted to put on a country music concert complete with chorus members sitting around a campfire singing.

“Country music doesn’t really translate when you use perfect pronunciation,” Jim says, smiling at the memory.

Memories are an important element to the experience of chorus members, a few of whom will be celebrating 25 years as well. As an all-volunteer ensemble, the chemistry of the group and camaraderie between the members is an important driver.

Yes, they all love to sing. And every one of them will rave about the honor it is to perform with world-class musicians in the Naples Philharmonic. But the friendships built through years of Tuesday night rehearsals make the performances even sweeter.

At 24, Johnathan McCann is one of the youngest members of the chorus. He started first with the Naples Philharmonic Youth Chorus when he was 13 and eventually was asked to join the adults. He often sits next to members who are triple his age. Outside of the chorus, they are living vastly different lives than McCann, who teaches middle school choir and drama at Oak Hammock Middle School in Estero.

“But when we are singing, age isn’t an issue,” he says. “The people next to me genuinely care about me.”

Sally Blanchard, who has been singing with the chorus “since the beginning,” warmly remembers chorus members gathering each year to reminisce and sing a few of the parody songs she writes to popular tunes. She’s written new words for each major anniversary.

“I’ve got something written down for the 25th,” she says and then laughs. “I just have to remember where I put it.”

Sania Whitaker started as a violinist with the Naples Philharmonic less than a decade after the chorus was formed. During her 18 years with the orchestra, she has seen so many times when having these dedicated singers has made it possible to expand the organization’s performance horizons.

“We are able to perform a lot of great music, choral music, music with chorus parts because they are here,” she says.

One needs only to look to the April Masterworks concerts, where the chorus will again be celebrated. Those performances will feature Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region, which celebrates the poetry of Walt Whitman. Without a resident chorus, performing a piece like this or Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with a chamber orchestra in October wouldn’t be possible.

The chorus has performed with the orchestra on classical masterpieces, from Carmina Burana to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Each year, it plays a major role in the Holiday Pops concerts.

“We are so grateful that the Naples Philharmonic Chorus is part of the Artis—Naples family,” says David Filner, vice president, artistic operations. “Having our own chorus that performs everything, from Handel’s Messiah to Vaughan Williams to John Williams allows for a great deal of artistic flexibility and creativity in our planning process and strengthens and enhances our multidisciplinary activities.”

Although the membership has been fairly steady for the past decade at a little less than 100 members, Jim says the chorus is always looking for talented singers who read music to join the ranks and share in the joy of performing in the Naples Philharmonic Chorus.

“It’s a really amazing thing to be a part of,” Sally says. “You are only one small voice out of many. But together it’s a powerful thing.”

December 11, 2016

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25 Years
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Lilya Zilberstein

April 21 and 22, 2017

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