Music News & Reviews

SLO Symphony plans future without Michael Nowak

Conductor Michael Nowak leads the San Luis Obispo Symphony through a rehearsal in 2011.
Conductor Michael Nowak leads the San Luis Obispo Symphony through a rehearsal in 2011. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Former San Luis Obispo Symphony Music Director Michael Nowak will not return as a guest conductor this upcoming season — cementing the nonprofit organization’s plans to move forward without him as it grapples with a future fraught with financial and personnel challenges.

The symphony’s board of directors and orchestra musicians had invited Nowak, who led the orchestra for 31 years before his ouster in May, to conduct two of the symphony's five Classics in the Cohan concerts, as well as the Apex for Kids children's concert.

But Nowak said Thursday morning that he decided to reject the offer “after much deliberation and heart-felt and painstaking effort.”

“Doing the entire season would always be my first choice,” he explained. “Anything less would be extremely painful.”

In light of Nowak’s decision, Lisa Nauful, orchestra member and symphony communications director, said the symphony is planning a full slate of concerts helmed by guest conductors from across the United States.

Nauful said the symphony plans to announce the identities of those seven conductors, most likely a mix of men and women, within a month. They’ll be selected by symphony staff and orchestra members.

Nauful declined to say how much it will cost to bring in outside conductors but said that amount will be covered by originally budgeted expenses for the music director during the 2015-16 season.

The 2015-16 season, which kicks off Oct. 3 at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo, will include three chamber concerts and a New Year’s Eve pops concert. (Programming for the season was set in place by Nowak before his departure.)

This year’s Pops by the Sea concert, traditionally held Labor Day weekend in Avila Beach, was canceled — although the outdoor event could return next year, Nauful said.

In a decision that was announced publicly May 14, the San Luis Obispo Symphony’s board of directors voted unanimously to terminate Nowak’s contract — leading to threats of resignation by symphony musicians.

According to Bonnie Richan, who plays flute in the symphony, the “overwhelming majority” of the 74 orchestra members plan to return this fall. No personnel changes are planned, she added, noting that a full complement of musicians isn’t needed for every concert.

“It doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum, your seat will be ready for you whenever you want to come back,” Richan said.

No official reason has been given for Nowak’s ouster.

The search for his replacement, which will be led by symphony Executive Director Ed Feingold and a new orchestra advisory committee comprised of six symphony musicians, will begin in the next couple of months.

In addition, the orchestra advisory committee will meet monthly with the symphony’s executive committee — which consists of current board president Liz Summer, past president India D’Avignon, incoming president Deanna Richards, treasurer Jeff Brady and secretary Fred Friedman — to offer information and a musician’s perspective on issues that affect the orchestra directly, including performances and rehearsal scheduling.

Guest conductors will be brought in during the 2016-17 season to audition for the music director position, with no permanent replacement likely until that time.

Nauful would not reveal how much Nowak was paid as music director, saying that symphony employees’ salaries and wages and fees paid to symphony contractors are “a confidential personnel matter and are not disclosed.”

However, she noted, neither Nowak or Feingold made enough in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2014, to have their earnings disclosed on federal tax Form 990; that distinction is reserved for the five highest-paid employees or contractors who receive more than $100,000 in compensation.

That’s not the only change that’s arisen from recent discussions between the board and orchestra musicians overseen by a mediator.

Once the symphony finishes revising its bylaws, the orchestra will control three board seats with full voting rights. Currently, two musicians — Richan, the orchestra representative, and violinist and San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony representative Carol Kersten — sit on the board as advisers but cannot vote. (The board has 12 voting members now but can expand to 21.)

Nauful, Richan and Summer said they’ve seen the relationship between symphony administration, the board and musicians strengthen in recent weeks as communication between those entities has improved.

Asked why those groups didn’t work together closely before, board members and musicians cited reasons ranging from limited outreach to rapid turnover on the board. Plus, with Nowak “running the show” as music director, Brady added, there simply wasn’t a “pressing need” for closer communication.

“We trusted Mike,” Richan said, adding that the musicians’ initial reaction to news of Nowak’s departure was “fear.”

“We were so afraid of what was going to happen,” she said. “A big component was taken out of our family. This family has (had) to reorganize itself to pull together.”

That bond will prove especially important as the symphony faces mounting financial challenges.

Net income for the nonprofit organization has generally fallen in recent years — from $18,974 in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010, up to $193,038 in fiscal year 2011, then down again to $44,982 in fiscal year 2012 and $9,055 in fiscal year 2013.

The symphony reported a loss of $13,400 in fiscal year 2014 — the most recent information available. A loss is anticipated for the fiscal year that just ended June 30, but the extent has not yet been determined, according to Brady.

The symphony’s struggles have been further aggravated by requests from ticketholders seeking refunds because of Nowak’s dismissal.

About a third of the people who had signed up for 2015-16 concert tickets or season subscriptions this spring asked for refunds, Summer said. The symphony has issued refunds for 44 subscription seats, Nauful said.

According to Feingold, the symphony derived 26 percent of its operating revenue from concert ticket sales and subscriptions in the past fiscal year.

Fourteen percent of operating revenue came from tuition from music education programs, Feingold said, while 39 percent came from individual donations and 5 percent came from corporate and business contributions.

Foundations, grants, trusts and government funding amounted to 7 percent, with non-program and other income making up the rest.

One key to improving symphony finances is growing the symphony’s endowment, Brady said.

Another goal, board members and musicians said, is creating programming that appeals to the symphony’s established supporter base while targeting new audience members.

“We’re hoping that the guest conductors add some charisma and curiosity,” said honorary life board member Clifton Swanson, who conducted the symphony from 1971 to 1987.

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