Ragnar Bohlin with the SFS Chorus in Performance | Credit: San Francisco Symphony

As new vaccine and mask regulations went into effect in San Francisco on Aug. 20, SF Symphony Chorus Master Ragnar Bohlin notified the orchestra he would leave his position at the end of the month.

Bohlin has long argued against COVID vaccinations, writing dozens of social-media posts and emails daily protesting anti-COVID measures, recently touting a call for a complete cessation of COVID vaccines in humans from England’s Evidence-Based Medicine Consultancy Group, which claimed mRNA vaccines in the blood stream are toxic to humans.”

The Symphony’s announcement of the news did not mention the reason for Bohlin’s departure nor the fact that he resigned, stating only that “he will step down” from his position.

In a message to the San Francisco Chronicle on the day of his resignation, Bohlin wrote from Stockholm: “I have with a growing sense of alarm observed the tide turn in this direction, in regards to medical passports. I am sad to now see the SFS comply with these diktats and to deprive their employees their basic rights to privacy, bodily autonomy, and informed consent.”

Well in advance of the City mandate, the Symphony acted on Aug. 3, “requiring all patrons to present proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to ushers upon arrival at the hall.” Vaccine/test mandates also are in effect for SFS personnel.

Members of the Chorus expressed regret about Bohlin’s departure, while being partially divided over the issues that prompted his quitting, some sharing his opposition to mandatory measures, others supporting “whatever it takes to perform safely.”

The Symphony will now have to find guest conductors to lead the Chorus in a heavy schedule including Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9; Handel’s Messiah; Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody, Nänie, Gesang der Parzen, and Schicksalslied; Jack Perla’s arrangements of “Give Me Jesus,” “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord”; and semi-staged productions of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms.

SFS Interim CEO Matthew Spivey’s statement following the announcement of Bohlin’s departure: “He is a gifted and expressive musician and has led the San Francisco Symphony Chorus through countless artistic achievements and memorable performances. He will be greatly missed, and we wish him well as he embarks on his next chapter.”

Important changes at a major orchestra happen slowly, allowing succession in good order. Conductors and administration officials rarely just get up and go, but at the San Francisco Symphony something else is happening.

Just month after the news that Chief Operating Officer Mark Hanson is leaving in six weeks comes this announcement of Bohlin’s departure in 10 days. Previous changes in those key positions took months in order to assure thorough and successful searches for replacements. Brent Assink stepped down from the position of chief executive officer in March 2017 and Hanson was named to the position four months later. Bohlin himself became chorus director in 2007, following Vance George’s departure in 2006.

During his 14 years with the Symphony, Bohlin received high praise from Chorus members, audiences, and critics. Under his leadership, the Chorus was awarded a Grammy for Best Choral Performance for the recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the SF Symphony. Bohlin’s choral concerts in Davies Hall often featured unusual, adventurous programs.

Bohlin’s memorable performances included Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Mass in B Minor, Handel’s Messiah, Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum, and a-cappella works such as Poulenc’s Figure Humaine. Bohlin is also the founding artistic director of the professional chamber choir Cappella SF, which has issued four CDs. He has been awarded the Cultural Achievement Award from the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco, and in 2018 the Michael Korn award from Chorus America.

Before coming to San Francisco in 2007, Bohlin served as choirmaster of Stockholm’s Maria Magdalena Church, conducted major choruses in Europe, and visited choruses throughout the U.S. on a Sweden-America Foundation scholarship. He holds degrees from the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm, studied conducting with Eric Ericson and Jorma Panula, piano with Peter Feuchtwanger in London, and singing with Nicolai Gedda.

Currently teaching at the SF Conservatory of Music (probably on leave in the near future), Bohlin has also taught at the Royal Academy in Stockholm and been a visiting professor at Indiana University and Miami University. He will be active as an organist and teacher in Sweden this fall.