When the San Francisco Symphony’s choral director recently resigned due to a vaccine mandate, the arts community took pause. The symphony is widely considered one of the best in the world and Ragnar Bohlin, a Grammy Award winner described by members of the chorus as a “genius,” has a significant following in his own right.
But other members of the symphony weren’t surprised. They’d been expecting turmoil for months.
Bohlin had been posting on his Facebook page about why he didn’t want to take the vaccine. He surfaced scientifically incorrect information about the vaccines’ efficacy and safety. The posts inspired many of his colleagues to wonder what might happen when they returned to work in the fall.
Darla Wigginton, a member of the chorus, says that Bohlin’s Facebook posts had her worried for months, leading her to have several contentious conversations with peers about both returning to singing safely, and the ethics of vaccination more generally.
“I feel like public health should be about the collective, not the individual,” said Wigginton. “Ragnar, very disappointingly to me, seems to care more about his own notions of freedom than the community, the patrons, and, shockingly, the whole human family.”
Bohlin did not respond to questions posed by The Examiner.
The symphony began reinstating more coronavirus precautions for the fall season on Aug. 3, initially requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test within 72 hours of the performance. Then, on Aug. 12, San Francisco officials introduced a vaccine mandate for indoor venues that seat more than 1,000, which the symphony supplemented with a requirement of a negative coronavirus test for guests under age 12 and ineligible for vaccination. Four days after that announcement — and, coincidentally, four days after the symphony announced Bohlin’s resignation — the symphony instituted a vaccine mandate for everyone over the age of 12 who enters Davies Hall.
The vast majority of musicians complied with the order, with only a few remaining vaccine holdouts. At least one musician in the symphony is still unvaccinated, but has not resigned, The Examiner has learned.
Robin Freeman, senior director of communications for the symphony, said members can apply for an exemption to the vaccine on narrow medical or religious grounds, which will be evaluated in partnership with an internal health and safety task force to determine if safe and reasonable accommodations can be made. Because each case is being handled on an individual basis, Freeman says that it is too early to say whether unvaccinated musicians who are ineligible for an exemption will be fired. “First and foremost, the purpose of the San Francisco Symphony’s vaccination policy is to ensure the health and safety of our employees, artists, volunteers, their families, and members of our community,” said Freeman.
Whether to return to work has been a treacherous question for many workers. The symphony, however, faces unique challenges with respect to reducing the spread of COVID-19. Though research on how well the virus spreads in different scenarios is still developing, multiple studies have suggested that the act of singing and playing wind instruments could be particularly risky. Add to that the fact that classical music fans tend to be older in age — about 62% of the New York City Philharmonic’s audience was over 55 during the 2019-20 season, for reference — and you can see how orchestra halls are primed for particularly damaging superspreader events.
“I don’t know that it will ever be totally safe to gather, and I think some people may not ever feel safe coming back to singing because it’s one of the riskiest things on the spectrum,” says mezzo-soprano Sylvie Jensen, who believes getting the vaccine should be a choice for members. “So we kind of have to defer to the most anxious or nervous among us.”
The frustration on either side has divided friendships and, in at least one case, romantic relationships. However, the divisions are largely between individuals rather than groups, according to both Jensen and Wigginton.
Like the rest of San Francisco, most of the symphony has spent the past pandemic year communicating on social media, over text on Facetime, and through Zoom. For some, the debate over vaccines has felt personal and emotional, while others are less engaged, according to musicians who spoke with The Examiner. “I don’t have a really strong position, but I’m glad that precautions of the highest quality are being taken, not just for symphony staff and musicians, but for our audiences, most importantly,” said Eliot Lev, second violin and Isaac Stern Chair.
Kale Cumings, president of American Federation of Musicians Local 6, which represents symphony members, says the musicians are no more divided than the rest of America. Union representation negotiated in favor of vaccine mandates after learning the move was supported by the majority of symphony musicians in order to safely return to work. “Any time you go to a symphony, you can pretty much guarantee that there’s some disagreement going on,” he says. “What I see at the symphony is echoed throughout the country.”
Musicians who spoke with The Examiner agree: The internal strife at the San Francisco Symphony is only a microcosm of an increasingly polarized world. But for some musicians, the disagreement over vaccines is about more than politics: It’s about the meaning of art, as an essential, unifying and life-giving force.
“Sometimes, when you go and you sing Beethoven’s Ninth together, you forget all the lines that are drawn, and you come together as a group, as one voice,” said Wigginton. “It’s sad to me that we have to feel separated when we should all be coming together, back in the room together, feeling that all we care about is each other and making music.”