The May 14 announcement that Michael Nowak, music director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony for 31 years, will no longer conduct the orchestra, struck a sour note with the group’s musicians.
A statement released by the symphony’s Executive Director Edmund Feingold simply said: “Music Director Michael Nowak has left his position with the organization.”
- FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL NOWAK AND THE SLO SYMPHONY
- DOUBLE BARRED: The San Luis Obispo Symphony announced May 14 that long-time Music Director Michael Nowak will be leaving the orchestra. Nowak says he was fired.
Nowak, however, told New Times that he was told his contract was “severed.” Nowak said he was invited to a May 14 meeting with the Symphony’s board “to discuss the future of the symphony.” There, the board told Nowak that his services were no longer needed. When he asked the board why they made that decision, Nowak—who is an independent contractor with the Symphony—said they told him “we don’t have to tell why, we don’t have to have a reason.”
The news came suddenly and shocked both Nowak and the orchestra’s musicians, who said that the decision to end Nowak’s three-decade tenure with the group came without warning.
“It would have been nice to have some sort of lead up to it, or to involve me in the conversation,” Nowak said. “It’s kind of like losing something very, very dear, when you’ve been involved in a relationship for 30 years, and it’s severed, and you’re not really sure why.”
New Times contacted several board members for this article, but most didn’t return the phone calls. Two board members declined to comment. Executive Director Feingold confirmed that the board’s voting members made a unanimous decision to end Nowak’s employment, but he declined to say whether he was fired.
The unanimity among the board’s 12 voting members (not including the two orchestra liaisons, who are non-voting members) baffled Nowak: “My brain was going around the room with pictures of people in the room, and I thought ‘they all voted against me,’ really?”
Neither board President India D’Avignon, nor interim President Elect Liz Summer returned requests for comment. The Symphony’s press release did say that the organization “has succeeded for decades because of the organization’s commitment to vision and forward thinking.”
“We must continually seize opportunities and tackle new challenges,” D’Avignon said in the statement. “Michael’s departure moves us to the next step in that evolution.”
So far, the notion that Nowak’s departure will be a fundamental step in the organization’s evolution has created discord with members of the orchestra, who are showing an outpouring of support for their long-time conductor.
“I feel confident in saying that pretty much unanimously the musicians are appalled,” said Ken Hustad, who plays double bass in the group.
Trumpet player Rich Ward, who’s played in the orchestra for 35 years, said the fact that the decision was made without any input from the orchestra isn’t sitting well.
“The orchestra members, of course, were completely shut out of any decision making that the board of directors came up with,” Ward said. “Rather than being approached personally or consulted with [on] this situation, we had to read it in the news.”
So far, word is that the entire nine-member viola section said they’d leave the group if Nowak isn’t reinstated. That sentiment is echoed by Ward, who said he’d consider leaving the group as well and suspects there are many more who would do the same.
“We’re in solidarity behind Michael. If one section resigns, it’s very likely that other sections will resign,” Ward said. “We’re not afraid of progress and change if it’s done in a responsible manner, with open lines of communication. That didn’t happen.”
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay