Back to Press Room

Articles & Interviews

A Chorus for All:
The San Francisco Symphony Chorus at Forty

November 25, 2013

“It sounds so good . . . but I can’t resist doing one more thing,” says Ragnar Bohlin with a twinkle in his eye, as the San Francisco Symphony Chorus chuckles in response. It’s a Tuesday evening in October and the Chorus is in the thick of preparations for performances of Mendelssohn’s dramatic cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht. With the first concert days away, Bohlin is fine-tuning the Chorus’s performance. Nuances of German pronunciation are dissected, small adjustments of intonation are perfected, and musical phrases are brought to greater clarity. Bohlin works calmly and decisively, crisply offering suggestions to improve the overall sound, while adding touches of dry humor so the mood never flags. Attention is rapt: Bohlin and the Chorus are working towards the common goal of bringing Mendelssohn’s music to life. Many choirs never get to this level of refinement. For the SFS Chorus, celebrating its fortieth anniversary in 2013-14, this is the norm.

The San Francisco Symphony Chorus was founded in 1973 during the music directorship of Seiji Ozawa. Prior to then, the San Francisco Symphony utilized various local choral groups for choral-orchestral performances. Ozawa wanted a permanent symphony chorus that would provide artistic continuity and enable the Symphony to grow in new directions. The SFS Chorus has been fortunate to have strong and stable leadership since its founding: Louis Magor served as director during its first decade, and in 1982 the legendary Margaret Hillis (founder of the Chicago Symphony Chorus) served as the ensemble’s interim leader. The following year, Hillis protégé Vance George was named director. Over the next twenty-three years, George attracted a bevy of new singers, expanded the Chorus’s repertory substantially, and elevated the ensemble’s artistic profile. The ensemble began to receive international recognition, in part through its impressive work on the SFS’s Grammy-winning recordings (two of which won for Best Choral Performance), chorus-only recordings such as the Grammy-nominated Christmas by the Bay (1998), and in high-profile performances with the SFS at venues such as Carnegie Hall. Ragnar Bohlin assumed the position of Chorus Director in 2007, bringing a unique perspective honed from studies in conducting with Swedish choral master Eric Ericson and Finnish conductor Jorma Panula. Bohlin is also a gifted pianist and tenor, having studied piano with Peter Feuchtwanger and singing with renowned tenor Nicolai Gedda.  

Today, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus is a potent mix of thirty professional members (who are members of the American Guild of Musical Artists) and 125 volunteer members. They perform more than twenty concerts each season. All SFS Chorus musicians must pass a rigorous audition, and singers are expected to be good sight-readers and fast learners and possess a keen ear for intonation. Also a singer, Bohlin believes that solid vocal training is essential to the success of a symphonic choir. “It’s important to have singers with good voices of a certain size, since Davies Symphony Hall is a big place. At the same time, the singers can’t be overly operatic and need to be able to regulate vibrato, depending on what the music demands. This choir is asked to do a lot of different things, and the vocal approach has to reflect that,” he says. This approach has resulted in an exquisitely rich, balanced, and blended choral sound, bright and flexible but with depth. Bohlin’s rigorous attention to detail and focus on beautiful sound are fundamental parts of the Chorus’s success. John Vlahides, a volunteer tenor who joined the Chorus in 2002, notes that “every rehearsal is a voice lesson. Ragnar demands both technical acumen and stylistic detail until every chord is tuned just right. The accuracy is so complete, so perfect, that sometimes the room starts to vibrate. It's an incredible, visceral experience, but it takes lots of work and patience to achieve. Ragnar is a natural-born teacher, a real master of music, and we're the lucky beneficiaries of his esoteric knowledge.” Others like soprano Juliana Urban, who is in her second season as a volunteer member of the Chorus, marvel at Bohlin’s wizardry with choral sound. “Ragnar’s ability to inspire and motivate the Chorus is uncanny. Our rehearsals are fast paced and productive, and he has such an incredible way of finessing the Chorus’s sound,” she says.

Most major US orchestras do not have their own chorus, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus’s close collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony has generated a unique and valuable artistic partnership built over the ensemble’s four decades. SFS Director of Artistic Planning John Mangum notes that the Chorus is a key part of the Symphony’s artistic mission: “The SFS Chorus allows us to be expansive in our programming and to do things artistically that we couldn’t do otherwise. We can put on major works like Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and Berlioz’s Te Deum [both performed last season] or Britten’s Peter Grimes [on the bill for June 2014] and give a performance at the highest artistic level.” Bohlin elaborates, “The SFS Chorus is there for the Symphony for every choral performance. The singers know what it’s like to sing with this Orchestra and they know Davies Symphony Hall intimately. This allows for a wonderful artistic exchange.” Mangum stresses the importance of the Chorus’s reliability, noting that “these singers work together regularly under Ragnar’s leadership and they are a constant presence over the course of a season.” This “institutional knowledge,” as Bohlin calls it, allows him to work quickly, confident that the Chorus will be able to handle the pace. He recalls a recent summer performance of Orff’s Carmina burana that required the chorus to be ready with only a very short rehearsal period. The electrifying performance, of course, went off without a hitch.

The San Francisco Symphony Chorus’s versatility is one of its greatest assets. In addition to performances of major choral/orchestral works on subscription, the Chorus is regularly featured in holiday and community concerts like the SFS’s annual Día de los Muertos Community Concert; organ and chamber music concerts; SFS festivals, including our recent Beethoven and Mendelssohn concerts; and special staged and multimedia productions, such as Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien and last season’s Peer Gynt project that included music of Grieg, Robin Holloway, and Alfred Schnittke. “The Chorus is extremely versatile. We’re always looking for ways to showcase this ensemble in as many platforms as we can,” Mangum says. “We have the luxury of being able to program a wide range of things because we have the SFS Chorus,” he adds. Bohlin points to performances of György Ligeti’s bravely beautiful Requiem and Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, both with SFS Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, as highlights of the San Francisco’s bold choral programming.

The Chorus has also presented a cappella pieces on programs with major choral/orchestral works, creating a dialogue between music of different styles and eras. Think of Ligeti’s Lux aeterna as a foil to the Beethoven Ninth Symphony. A Palestrina Mass illuminating Beethoven’s fascination with Renaissance choral music. Or an early-Baroque motet by Heinrich Schütz setting the stage for Brahms’s A German Requiem. “It’s not a given that a symphonic choir does a cappella music,” remarks Bohlin. “This provides a richer musical palette to draw from and presents a different artistic perspective for the audience. Singing a cappella is also good for the Chorus and challenges us to listen to each other in a different way, much like chamber music does for orchestral players.” The Chorus also has a hand in bringing contemporary choral music to San Francisco. Bohlin has introduced the ensemble to living composers such as Fredrik Sixten and Arvo Pärt and in the Symphony’s Centennial season in 2011-12, the Chorus gave the world premiere of Mass Transmission by Mason Bates, commissioned especially for them. In describing his enthusiasm for contemporary music, Bohlin remarks that “the best music has yet to be written.” The Chorus has also figured prominently in Tilson Thomas’s efforts to “rediscover” forgotten works by master composers, such as the nineteen-year-old Beethoven’s Cantata on the Death of the Emperor Joseph II, recorded during last season’s Beethoven Festival and recently released on SFS Media. The Chorus has further enriched the SFS Media catalog in recent years, adding its glorious sound to San Francisco Symphony recordings of large choral works, such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. The Mahler disc received three Grammys, including Best Choral Performance.

With such a wide repertory, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus is busy throughout the season, and the ensemble is sometimes asked to prepare music for several performances simultaneously. In one stretch last month, the Chorus rehearsed for performances of Britten’s War Requiem, Handel’s Messiah (which Bohlin leads December 19-21), and Beethoven’s Mass in C major (presented January 15-18) over the course of three days. While each concert features a somewhat different combination of singers, many choristers will eagerly take on all three. Bohlin is impressed at his singers’ unflagging commitment and ability to handily shift styles. Bass Chung-Wai Soong, a professional member who recently celebrated his twentieth anniversary with the Chorus, notes that the busy schedule can be a juggling act. “Sometimes it can get a little crazy,” he says. “Most of us have full time jobs outside of the Symphony Chorus, and I’m lucky in that I work and live in the city, which makes it easy to get to rehearsals. We have people coming from San Ramon and even someone from Stockton. It’s a very dedicated group. None of us would do it if we didn’t love it.” Juliana Urban, who is at the start of a promising career as a soloist, is resolute in her commitment to the Symphony Chorus: “As an aspiring musician, you do what you have to do to sing, even if it means working a day job for nine hours and singing in the evenings. Sometimes I'm exhausted going into a rehearsal, but the amount of satisfaction I feel throughout rehearsal and afterwards always makes up for it.” Others, such as John Vlahides, whose fascinating career has included work as a travel writer and TV host for the National Geographic channel, thrive on the immersive nature of the Chorus’s schedule: “When I open my calendar and see a week-long run of rehearsals and performances, I don’t feel stress, I feel excitement. I love my job, but the part of my life of which I'm most proud, the thing I love the most, is my work with the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus. The music is transformative and I will happily endure a few scheduling conflicts in exchange for that.”

Spending hours together singing beautiful music has also fostered a sense of family. Soong met his partner of sixteen years in the Chorus and notes that several other Chorus couples have met this way. “People look after each other,” he remarks, recalling a friend who became seriously ill and was cared for in his final days by his Chorus family. Vlahides adds, “The hallmark of the Symphony Chorus is collegiality. Everyone has tremendous respect and admiration for one another. No other group of people I have ever known expresses such consistent collective joy. We all share love for the music that we make together, and by extension love for one another.”

The Chorus has brought this sense of family into the Bay Area community through its work in the San Francisco Symphony’s program for amateur musicians, Community of Music Makers, founded in 2011. In these workshops, singers come together to read through great choral works and receive coaching from Bohlin and Symphony Chorus members, all in an intensive three-hour period. Workshops regularly are filled to capacity with music lovers looking to experience music the SFS Chorus way. “We really take them from square one to something approaching a finished performance at the end,” Bohlin says. “Our goal is to challenge people to dig deeper and provide different ways to think about the music that they can then take back to their own choirs.” Although singers in Community of Music Makers workshops come from a variety of different backgrounds and experience levels, Bohlin and the SFS Chorus mentors do not simplify their approach. “Everyone is there to do their utmost and the singers really rise to the challenge.”

In a similar vein are the vocal workshops Bohlin stages for the members of the Symphony Chorus four times a year. After a session of voice and ensemble building, singers are able to sing for Bohlin and their colleagues in a master class setting. “These workshops give the opportunity for individual attention, something that can be difficult with a large chorus with a demanding schedule,” Bohlin says. “We are able to further develop vocal qualities and increase flexibility, which then carries over into our work with the Orchestra.” Bohlin has also maintained a presence in the Bay Area choral scene, both as director of the Conservatory Chamber Choir at the San Francisco Conservatory and Music Director of the Renaissance vocal group Chalice Consort, and through work with various local choirs, including the International Orange Chorale. These collaborations have proved fruitful for the SFS Chorus as well, as several singers, such as alto Danielle Reutter-Harrah, have joined the Chorus after singing with Bohlin in other capacities. Reutter-Harrah enjoyed working with Bohlin at the San Francisco Conservatory, and came on board as a professional member of the SFS Chorus in 2011. A self-proclaimed “passionate choir geek,” she admires Bohlin’s attention to detail, remarking that “Ragnar is tireless! We work out phrases until they are molded perfectly to his liking, which is such an enjoyable process.” For Bohlin, continuing these artistic relationships has been “kind of like a snowball effect. People get excited about the music making and we now have all these wonderful singers from the Conservatory and elsewhere coming to the Symphony Chorus, which is really great.” Mangum also believes Bohlin’s work outside the Symphony Chorus has been an integral part of the ensemble’s growth. “Ragnar has continued to attract top singers to the Chorus,” he says. “He has cultivated a very refined sound and he is able to shape the ensemble in a particular way, continuing the evolution of the Chorus.”

Directing a symphony chorus is unique in the conducting field in that a choral conductor prepares the choir in rehearsal and then, more often than not, turns the choir over to a different conductor for performances. This job requires a special kind of musician and Bohlin relishes the challenge. In addition, he rarely gets information about a conductor’s vision of a particular piece ahead of rehearsals (Tilson Thomas and Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt are notable exceptions). “You have to have your own take on a work and it’s really helpful to present an incoming conductor with a fully-fledged version of a piece, with a strong interpretation,” he says. Chung-Wai Soong echoes this sentiment, noting that “there has to be something in place for an incoming conductor to work with, but at the same time we also have to be flexible and ready to turn on a dime. Sometimes the first maestro rehearsal can be interesting!” Bohlin’s hard work doesn’t go unnoticed, says Mangum, remarking that “guest conductors have told us that this is one of the best choruses in the world.”  Bohlin’s job isn’t over when the Chorus takes the stage, however. Throughout a concert run, he continues to take notes and improve details based on what he hears in performance or on suggestions offered by a conductor. (“Art is never perfect,” he remarks.) SFS Chorus performances are truly a collaborative effort, and Bohlin plays a role in the artistic process from start to finish.

A concert featuring the San Francisco Symphony Chorus is something to behold, and the ensemble can awe with its power in something like the first movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms or take an audience’s breath away in the tender conclusion of Fauré’s Requiem (both of which are heard here May 29-30). Audiences have been enthusiastic in their response to the SFS Chorus, and Bohlin is appreciative of the recognition he and the ensemble receive with each performance. Danielle Reutter-Harrah remarks that “arts and culture are held in high esteem in San Francisco and the support from the community is palpable. We love the music we make, and we love the people who come to hear the Symphony and Chorus!” Taking the stage following a successful concert, Ragnar Bohlin can be pleased that the Chorus’s hard work has paid off. But with more performances on the horizon, it’s back to work soon. With characteristic fervor they set off on their next artistic adventure together.

—Steven Ziegler

Steven Ziegler is Associate Editor of Publications for the San Francisco Symphony. He is also a freelance singer in the San Francisco Bay Area.