In church, organists play music for hymns and weddings.
It’s beautiful music, surely, but not music that’s meant as a personal performance by the organist. Instead, theirs is “praiseful playing,” intended to direct parishioners’ thoughts towards the heavens, explains Jim Cochran, director of music at Vanderbilt Presbyterian Church and the church organist.
But at 3 p.m. on Sunday, a special concert at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts will show audiences what happens when organists put a little swagger in their game.
“Everybody for this concert dusts off their big party piece,” Cochran says. “It’s fireworks.”
The annual organ festival unites 12 professional organists from around Southwest Florida, most from local churches. This year’s roster includes organists from Moorings Presbyterian Church, Emmanuel Lutheran Church and Trinity-by-the-Cove Episcopal Church among the dozen performers.
“It’s nice because every one of the players has their groupies and they come,” Cochran says. “It’s such a happy afternoon.”
The organists will be playing on the Phil’s Casavant organ, which is modeled on a 19th-century symphonic organ; the 19th century French organ school represents the biggest period of organ building and the Casavant produces a big, colorful sound, Cochran says.
“It’s like having a full symphony orchestra playing for you,” says Cochran, who is also the Phil’s director of chorales and resident organist. “But it’s pipes.”
Playing the Casavant is a bit like being in the cockpit of a 747, he adds.
It’s twice the size of Vanderbilt Presbyterian’s organ, with over 3,600 pipes ranging in size from a person’s little finger to 16 feet long. There are four keyboards, one pedal board and 66 stop knobs at the right and left of the console — not to mention all the possible musical configurations the organist can create.
“You then have to artistically combine all the sounds that are available to you based on historic performance practices and what will be pleasing to the audience,” Cochran says.
If anyone is qualified to play such an instrument, it’s a musician such as Cochran. He has been with both Vanderbilt Presbyterian and the Phil for 20 years, a milestone in his career.
In honor of his work, Vanderbilt Presbyterian has created a scholarship in Cochran’s name at the Eastman School of Music. The scholarship fund now has $35,000 in it and it is still accepting donations.
“That’s just an incredible gift,” Cochran says. “I was so humbled by that.”
He started playing the piano when he was 4 years old. His mother and grandmother played the piano, but Cochran dreamed of playing the organ.
“I always wanted to play the organ,” he says, “(It was) just the awesome sound. I was always drawn to it.”
His parents supported this dream, Cochran explains.
His father, a doctor, had been encouraged by a musical friend to require Cochran reach to the level of playing Beethoven sonatas on the piano before he let his son tackle the organ because of the instrument’s complexity. Cochran passed that milestone in the 10th grade, and his parents arranged for him to begin taking organ lessons with a professor at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania.
The school was 230 miles away from the family home in DuBois, PA, but every two weeks, the Cochrans brought their son there for lessons. Ultimately, Cochran attended the school for his undergraduate work and was able to continue studying with the same professor for a total of seven years. Later, Cochran earned his masters and doctorate degrees at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester.
He has performed organ recitals throughout the world, including England, Wales, Germany, Mexico and Canada.
As the Phil’s director of chorales, Cochran works with the Phil’s 80-member adult chorale to put together seven different shows each season. He also works with the Phil’s 100-member youth chorale for two shows each season. Then there’s Vanderbilt Presbyterian’s choir: They sing every Sunday, and also perform two concerts each year. Even with all of Cochran’s experience, there are still challenges for the musician. Once, he performed a recital in London and only had six hours to rehearse. For an organist, that can be difficult, he says.
“Organists have to have enough time to get to know the organ, what the room is like, what the acoustics are like,” Cochran says.
But there’s at least one organ that he knows perfectly well.
As an undergraduate, Cochran’s father bought him an organ to practice on. Cochran still has it and keeps it in the music room at Vanderbilt Presbyterian. The gift is even more special since the giver has passed on.
“I love to play it everyday,” Cochran says.
If you go
Annual Organ Festival, featuring music from 12 local professional organists
Where: Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts, 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd., Naples
When: 3 p.m. on Sunday
Admission and information: $20, 597-1900 or www.thephil.org