The prestigious San Francisco Symphony Chorus is one of just a handful of choruses worldwide dedicated to a specific orchestra. The SFS Chorus is known for its ‘precision, power and versatility’ and also its ‘welcomed blend of robust vigour and precisely shaded transparency’ (San Francisco Chronicle). The SFS Chorus is often featured in recordings, earning them eight Grammy awards to date. In addition to symphonic recordings with theSan Francisco Symphony, they can be heard on a number of soundtracks including to the filmsAmadeus, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Godfather III and on Emmy Award-winning video/DVD release ofSweeny Todd.
The San Francisco Symphony Chorus was established in 1973 at the request of the San Francisco Symphony’s Music Director at the time, Seiji Ozawa. Since then, the SFS Chorus has performed under Ozawa’s successors, Herbert Blomstedt, Edo de Waart andMichael Tilson Thomas. They have also sung under the direction of guest conductorsKurt Masur, James Conlon, Valery Gergiev, David Robertson, Charles Dutoit, Sir Neville Marriner, Sir Roger Norrington, Yuri Temirkanov, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Wolfgang Sawallisch, and Robert Shaw.
During the first decade of the SFS Chorus’ existence, it was led by Chorus Director Louis Magor. Margaret Hillis took over in 1982, followed by Vance George in 1993. George served as Chorus Director up through the 2005-06 season, with Ragnar Bohlin assuming the position in March 2007.
The SFS Chorus consists of 152 singers, of which 120 are volunteers and 32 are professionals from the American Guild of Musical Artists. As such, the SFS Chorus is a diverse group, home to singers with many different passions and day-jobs ranging from employment at a high-end Japanese restaurant, music schools, tech companies and accounting firms. On stage, the SFS Chorus is able to come together to create wonderful music, generating warm responses. Volunteer singer Willie Alexander commented on his own experience with the Chorus, ‘it can be a huge culture shock when people meet me [he’s Mexican and African American] and find out I sing classical music and opera. I feel like I’m opening up a new world for everyone’. The volunteer bass, Chris Cheng, describes the SFS Chorus as ‘an incredible opportunity to be in a world-renowned musical organization’. Even the professional singers are enthusiastic about their participation in the choir. According to alto Silvie Jensen, ‘it’s kind of amazing to be involved in such a range of musical experiences in one place. I feel really honoured and lucky to be able to do it’.
Throughout the season, the SFS Chorus gives more than two dozen performances. During the 2016-17 season, the SFS Chorus gave a number of performances with the San Francisco Symphony, including Verdi’sTe Deum and Allegri’s Miserere, both conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. They also sang in the Tilson Thomas’ semi-staged version of Mahler’sDas klagende Lied in January 2017. Other performances from the season included Beethoven’s famous Symphony No. 9 with Herbert Blomstedt, John Adam’sThe Gospel According to the Other Mary with Joana Carneiro and Berlioz’sRequiem with Charles Dutoit. Furthermore, they joined the orchestra in a live accompaniment to Stanley Kubrick’s2001: A Space Odyssey and gave a solo concert in April 2017 featuring Orff’sCarmina Burana and David Conte’sInvocation and Dance. The women of the SFS Chorus also performed during the community concerts for the Día de los Muertos. The SFS Chorus concluded the 2016-17 season with Berlioz’sRoméo et Juliette, conducted by Tilson Thomas.
The 2015-16 season was equally exciting for the SFS Chorus, which appeared with the SF Symphony in Haydn’s Mass in D minor,Lord Nelson with András Schiff, Tilson Thomas’ semi-staged production of Bernstein’sOn The Town and Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 with Michael Tilson Thomas. The SFS Chorus also gave a solo concert in May 2016 under the direction of Ragnar Bohlin, featuring Fauré’s Requiem,Brahms’ Fest-und Gedenksprüche and Mason Bate’s Transmission for chorus and organ. They also gave a pair of experimental performances, entitled Transcendence, in SoundBox, a venue located backstage at Davies Symphony Hall. The performances, which were sold-out, featured Arvo Pärt’sTe Deum, along with works by Tormis, von Bingen, Monteverdi and Mahler. The next month, some of the chorus members appeared on the following SoundBox programme, featuring Perotin’s Sederunt principes.
The SFS Chorus has won eight Grammy Awards for its recordings. Among these awards are three for Best Choral Performance. Their recording of Mahler Symphony no. 8 with the SF Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas won three Grammy Awards in 2010, including one for Best Choral Performance. They also received Grammy Awards for Best Choral Performance in 1995 for their recording of Brahm’s Ein Deutsches Requiemand in 1992 with Orff’s Carmina burana. In 2004 they won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Album with the SF Symphony for Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 andKindertotenlieder. In 2000 they also received the award for Best Classical Album for their performance ofPerséphone in a collection of Stravinsky’s works.
Other recordings with the SF Symphony include Beethoven’s Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph IIand Symphony no. 9, Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 and Das klagende Lied, Ives’ An American Journey and selections from Berlioz’s Lélio. There are also several recordings with Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt, including Grieg’s incidental music forPeer Gynt, Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 (nominated for a Grammy) and a collection of choral works by Brahms.
In addition, the SFS Chorus has made two recordings of John Adam’s Harmonium, one on ECM with Edo de Waart and one on Nonesuch with the composer conducting. They also recorded Gordon Getty’sAnnabel Lee and Young America with Michael Tilson Thomas and the SF Symphony for a disc of Getty’s choral works on PentaTone Classics. For Thunderbird Records, the SFS Chorus recorded Jerod Impichchaachaaha Tate’sTracing Mississippi and Iholba.
The SFS Chorus has released two solo recordings: Christmas by the Bay (1998, Delos), which was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Classical Crossover category, andVoices 1900/2000 (2001, Delos).
The SFS Chorus’ most recent albums are of Beethoven’s Mass in C major, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (November 2015, SFS Media) and a complete concert recording of Bernstein’sWest Side Story (June 2014), which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.
Its successes and tradition of excellence have led the San Francisco Symphony Chorus to be a great ‘source of pride and musical inspiration for the entire Bay Area’.