Stephen Spinelli, director of the Cornell Chorale and Chamber Choir, top right, and faculty member Lucy Fitz Gibbon listening to the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Poulenc’s “Gloria” on April 19 during a choral group listening session.

Choral groups join in virtual listening sessions

The more than 200 members of Cornell’s choral groups may not be able to sing together each week, but they are still spending time listening and sharing their love of music virtually, with a host of guest visitors this semester.

Stephen Spinelli, director of the Cornell Chorale and Chamber Choir and acting director of the Cornell Chorus and Glee Club, thought up the twice-weekly listening sessions, which have attracted more than 100 listeners each time. Most of them are current choral students, but alumni and visitors also listen in on the Zoom calls.

The sessions, scheduled for Wednesdays and Sundays through May 13, are in addition to regular class assignments and guided video lessons.

“I join the music listening sessions whenever I can because it is a chance for me to get back to that point in time when there was no COVID-19,” said Marcos Duran ’20. “I see all of my friends’ faces, get to reconnect with Steve, [teaching assistant] Michael Plagerman and [this semester’s choral director] Kristin Zaryski and just forget about the world as I listen to the music.”

In the early days of the pandemic, Spinelli fielded lots of requests to get the choral groups together for virtual choirs, but “in truth, it’s 1,000% impossible to run an ensemble in the virtual space” because of timing delays and sound limitations, Spinelli said.

Online recordings of dozens or hundreds of people singing together in perfect harmony during a Zoom call are actually complicated, he said: People send in their individual recordings, a sound engineer works magic to combine them, then that recording is played back while everyone lip syncs at the same time.

In each listening session, a guest speaker talks about a choral work that’s been meaningful to them, then the group listens together and stays online for a Q&A session.

“I join the music listening sessions whenever I can because it is a chance for me to get back to that point in time when there was no COVID-19.”

Marcos Duran ’20

“In addition to making music, I enjoy learning about the lives of poets and composers, the impetuses for their work, and how musicians have interpreted those pieces throughout history,” said Brigid Lucey ’18, one of Spinelli’s former students who is pursuing a master’s degree in voice and opera studies at McGill University in Montreal. “These listening sessions have kept community-based music in my life at a time when it's very easy to feel isolated. The discussions introduced by Dr. Spinelli's guests have sparked my curiosity, and I look forward to learning something new at each session.”

In an April 19 session, Cornell faculty member Lucy Fitz Gibbon spoke about Francis Poulenc’s “Gloria,” which she had been scheduled to perform that day in Bailey Hall with the Chorus, Glee Club and Cornell Symphony Orchestra. Another session featured Kayla Werlin, Spinelli’s high school choral director, discussing Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms.”

The April 22 session featured Eriks Esenvalds’ “Sun Dogs” and the Baltic Choral Tradition, with Chris Walsh, singer with the Latvian State Choir.

Spinelli hopes the listening sessions will continue, even after students and faculty return to campus. “I’m excited by the creative energy I’m feeling through this project,” he said.

Upcoming listening sessions, all of which start at 5 p.m. (EDT), include:

  • April 26: The Verdi “Requiem” with Tamara Acosta, Cornell voice faculty member;
  • April 29: Händel’s “Messiah” with Patrick Chamberlain ’13, artistic planning director for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra;
  • May 3: Contemporary Commissioning for Treble Choir, with Megan Lemley ’03, COO of Brooklyn Young Chorus;
  • May 6: Julia Wolfe’s “Fire in My Mouth,” with two-time Grammy winner Donald Nally, conductor of Philadelphia-based chamber choir The Crossing;
  • May 10: A Nod to Mother’s Day – Benjamin Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb” with Carol Spinelli, M.M. in sacred music from Westminster Choir College; and
  • May 13: Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” with Alan Fletcher, composer, president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival.

To join one of the listening sessions, email Stephen Spinelli at for a Zoom link.

Read the full version of this story on the Arts and Sciences website.

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences

Media Contact

Abby Butler