Choral groups join in virtual listening sessions

By: Kathy Hovis,  A&S Communications
Tue, 04/21/2020

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 are in addition to regular class assignments and guided video lessons.

 Marcos Duran
Marcos Duran

“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, Michael Plagerman (our TA) and Kristin Zaryski (our director for this Spring semester), 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 percent impossible to run an ensemble in the virtual space,” Spinelli said, because of timing delays and sound limitations.

The recordings we see online of dozens or hundreds of people singing together in perfect harmony during a Zoom call are actually complicated — 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, Spinelli said.

Although he is working on a way for the groups to make some recordings of Cornell songs, Spinelli started the listening sessions to bring students together. In each 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 after.

 Brigid Lucey
Brigid Lucey
(Photo by Tyler Brewer)

“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 now 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 would have performed that day in Bailey Hall with the Chorus, Glee Club and Cornell Symphony Orchestra had Cornell not needed to move to virtual instruction. Another session featured Kayla Werlin, Spinelli’s high school choral director, discussing Leonard Bernstein's “Chichester Psalms.”

Spinelli sends students the scores and notes on the piece in advance so that during the sessions they can follow along and be prepared to discuss certain sections.

 Steve Spinelli
Stephen Spinelli

“Turning to people who make their lives in music and asking them to share their favorite music, there’s something powerful in there for the guest and for the students,” Spinelli said. “They see what the music has done for them or brought them through and it gives the students a sense of the longevity of music, reminding them that there will be an end to the present crisis.”

During Werlin’s session, she shared that, as a 16-year-old high schooler, the Bernstein piece was one of the first she had encountered that was sung in Hebrew.

“That piece became mine in a way that other music had not yet been,” she told students. “It brought together two important parts of my world.”

Werlin and Spinelli dissected parts of the piece, showing students how Bernstein was influenced by Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony No. 6, the musical “West Side Story” and even the theme song to “The Flintstones” TV show.

Bernstein’s final message in the piece is one of love and humanity, Werlin said.

“For those of us who grew up in Jewish culture, this text is a very familiar one,” she said. “How good and pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to be together in community.”

Duran said the message of the piece is especially relevant now.

“We went into 2020 thinking what a great year this will be. The text speaks of gladness, of making a joyful noise unto the Lord,” he said. “All of a sudden, we go into the second movement where there’s uncertainty and doubt. This year might not be what we thought it might be. Then comes movement three, which starts with doubt and uncertainly and finishes with the thought that everything will be fine. We will get out of this. There is hope and love to be found in unity.”

Spinelli hopes the listening sessions will continue, even after students and faculty return to in-person instruction.

“I’m excited by the creative energy I’m feeling through this project,” he said.

Spinelli is also working with Cornell singers and members of the First Presbyterian Church Chancel Choir in downtown Ithaca to practice on their own for a community reopening event, where members would join together to sing Schubert Mass in G as a fundraiser for COVID-19 needs, though he’s unsure when that might take place.

“I feel this acutely and my students are hurting (from not singing together),” he said. “I know how good it will feel when we are all together again.”

 Choral students on a Zoom callUpcoming listening sessions include:

  • Wednesday, April 22: Eriks Esenvalds' Sun Dogs and the Baltic Choral Tradition with Chris Walsh (singer with the Latvian State Choir)

  • Sunday, April 26: The Verdi Requiem with Tamara Acosta (Cornell voice faculty)
  • Wednesday, April 29: Händel's Messiah with Patrick Chamberlain, (Cornell alumnus, Artistic Planning Director for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra)

  • Sunday, May 3 (tentative): Contemporary Commissioning for Treble Choir with Megan Lemley (Cornell Alumna, COO of the Brooklyn Young Chorus)
  • Wednesday, May 6: Julia Wolfe's Fire in My Mouth with two-time Grammy award winning conducting, Donald Nally – Spinelli’s former mentor
  • Sunday, 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)
  • Wednesday, May 13: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with Alan Fletcher (Composer and President and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival)

To join one of the listening sessions, email Spinelli at spinelli@cornell.edu for a Zoom link.


  Zoom call with orchestra