Music News & Reviews

SLO Symphony has a new director. Here’s how he plans to ‘push the boundaries’

Outdoor concerts. Unconventional new venues. Pop music-driven programs exploring everything from movie soundtracks to video game scores.

These are some of the ideas the San Luis Obispo Symphony’s new music director is considering to attract more concert-goers.

“Relevance is the key word,” Andrew Sewell said. “How do we keep relevant in a changing society with social media that is all electronically linked? How do we keep it so we don’t seem like a bunch of antiquated musicians?”

Sewell, 53, will start as symphony music director on July 1 and officially take the podium Oct. 7, when the orchestra kicks off the Classics in the Cohan concert series at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo. (The concert comes about a year after Sewell’s first appearance there.) He replaces Michael Nowak in the post.

Sewell plans to split his time between the Central Coast and Madison, Wisconsin, where he’s served as music director of Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra since 2000. Noting that it’s common for conductors to command multiple ensembles, Sewell doesn’t see any potential scheduling conflicts.

“The two programs actually work … surprisingly well (together),” he said, adding that they’ll be able to share repertoire and soloists.

Sewell and his wife, Mary, will likely maintain homes in both communities, he said, although they have yet to find a place to live locally. Their three children, ages 20 to 27, will remain back east.

A native of New Zealand, Sewell is the first foreign-born conductor to lead the San Luis Obispo Symphony, a nonprofit organization that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010. He worked with Auckland’s Mercury Opera and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra before moving to the United States to earn a master’s degree at the University of Michigan.

In addition to his work in Wisconsin, Sewell served as resident conductor of Ohio’s Toledo Symphony and music director of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra in Kansas and Mansfield Symphony in Ohio.

His arrival on the Central Coast marks the culmination of an 18-month search for a permanent replacement for Nowak, who led the symphony for 31 years. (Nowak now conducts Orchestra Novo.) He’ll work alongside the symphony’s new executive director, Catherine Landsdowne, who came aboard in April.

As one of five finalists, Sewell conducted the symphony in concert in October 2016. David Handel, Rei Hotoda, José-Luis Novo and Nan Washburn also competed for the music director position.

According to incoming symphony board president and search committee chair David Hamilton, Sewell’s selection was a unanimous decision by the 10-person search committee, and one approved unanimously by the symphony board. (Hamilton declined to disclose Sewell’s salary or how it compares to those of past music directors.)

In addition, Hamilton said, “Andrew … had the absolute overwhelming support of the orchestra.”

Asked which qualities inspired that response, the San Luis Obispo attorney cited Sewell’s artistic vision, work ethic and lack of ego.

“His attention to detail is really intense. He memorized the name of every single person in the orchestra,” Hamilton said, and coaxed powerful performances from them. “The orchestra worked hard under him. I’ve never seen double bass players sweat so much.”

“The orchestra has great potential,” Sewell said. “That’s what really excites me.”

Sewell wants to see the symphony become “the premiere performing orchestra on the Central Coast,” in part by tackling more challenging repertoire.

But getting a full audience requires more than amazing music, he said. “It’s not just programming. It’s excitement. It’s enthusiasm. It’s education.”

For starters, Sewell said, the symphony has to expand its physical reach beyond its home base of San Luis Obispo and seek out new venues in areas such as Atascadero and Morro Bay.

Rather than expecting North County concertgoers to drive south of the Cuesta Grade, Sewell asked, “Why don’t we drive up there?” (The symphony’s upcoming chamber concert series, he said, will include concerts in Los Osos and Paso Robles.)

Other ideas involve staging concerts outdoors, collaborating with other local arts organizations and offering pre-show dinners and talks for select symphony patrons.

In addition to tackling new and experimental works, Sewell said he’ll look at expanding the symphony’s pops repertoire, noting that music composed for video games and movies – such as John Williams’ scores for the “Star Wars” series and the “Harry Potter” movies – often crosses over into classical music territory.

Although Sewell said he’ll discuss bringing back Pops by the Sea, traditionally held Labor Day weekend in Avila Beach, it won’t return this year, Hamilton confirmed.

Sewell will not lead the symphony July 1 at Paso Pops at the Paso Robles Horse Park — Cal Poly professor Christopher Woodruff is guest conductor — but he will pick up the baton for the rest of the 2017-2018 season.

The music director said he’s eager to “shake the bushes, so to speak.”

“Sometimes it’s just a question of pushing the envelopes and pushing the boundaries,” he said.

San Luis Obispo Symphony

For more information about the San Luis Obispo Symphony, call 805-543-3533 or visit