Music News & Reviews

Michael Nowak says his SLO Symphony contract 'was severed'

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. The Tribune

The nine-member viola section of the San Luis Obispo Symphony has threatened to resign unless Michael Nowak is reinstated as the nonprofit organization’s music director.

Their intention, announced in an email sent late Friday night to symphony Executive Director Ed Feingold and the symphony’s board of directors, is part of an outpouring of anger and frustration following the announcement Thursday that Nowak was stepping down after conducting the symphony for 31 years.

“Michael Nowak’s contract was severed by a unanimous decision of the board of directors,” board President India D’Avignon wrote in an email to The Tribune early Saturday morning in response to questions.

She did not offer a reason for the termination of his contract.

Feingold said he couldn’t comment on Nowak’s termination, saying that he wasn’t part of the decision and had not taken part in discussions leading up to it.

“I will say that I am well aware of, conscious of and understand the emotion and the pain of a community that is mourning a decision, and it is a sad decision,” said Feingold, who took over as executive director in July. “This is a type of decision that is not made lightly.”

Although news of Nowak’s departure was announced in a news release sent at 4:48 p.m. Thursday, symphony musicians didn’t receive official word until around 10 that night, David Hennessee, the symphony’s principal violist, said on Monday.

According to Hennessee, D’Avignon and two other board members shared the news with about half the symphony musicians as they finished rehearsing Giuseppe Verdi’s “Messa da Requiem” with the Cuesta Master Chorale.

Others, he added, found out when they “read about it in the paper” Friday.

“It was a total shock and completely unexpected,” said Hennessee, a symphony musician since 2003. “We didn’t know this was being considered at all.”

Symphony oboist Linda Ashworth summed up her own reaction.

“Stunned, totally stunned and devastated are the two adjectives I would put with it,” said Ashworth, who joined the symphony in 2002. “Anger came later, but it definitely came.”

“Mike is such an integral part of this organization and has been (for) so long and has been so successful,” she said. “It’s inconceivable that there could be anything that was so unfixable that the board thought they had to let Mike go.”

On Monday evening, Nowak told The Tribune that he and the board have “different visions,” adding that his hasn’t varied for a long time.

“I don’t know what their vision is,” he said of the symphony. “The fact they don’t want me on that path now tells me they have another vision that they want to follow.”

In an on-air conversation with KVEC radio host Dave Congalton on Monday, Nowak and his wife, Zette Harbour, confirmed that Nowak did not resign as symphony music director.

Rather, Nowak said, he and Harbour were asked to attend a board meeting Thursday about the future of the symphony and were told that Nowak’s services as music director were no longer needed.

Nowak said he was shocked by the news, comparing it to the sudden death of a friend.

“It’s a major sense of loss. It’s a deep, deep sense of loss,” he told Congalton. 

Describing his tenure with the symphony, Nowak said, “This is a 31-year-old love affair with this organization. This isn’t just a job for me. This is a passion for me to be with these people week after week, month after month, year after year.”

“The outpouring of support and caring from the orchestra and the community has been very gratifying and encouraging,” he added.

Harbour said she and her husband were not told why his contract was terminated.

“We asked for a reason, and we were told that no reason was required according to the terms of the contract, and we would not have a reason,” she said.

Hennessee said the two people who represent symphony ensembles on the board — symphony flutist Bonnie Richan and Carol Kersten, director of the San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony’s Academy String Orchestra and Preparatory Strings — were “completely shut out” of meetings on the subject. Their roles on the board are advisory and don’t include voting rights.

“We don’t know the whole reason behind the decision, but it’s incredibly fishy, and something stinks,” he said.

In an email sent Sunday night to symphony musicians, D’Avignon apologized for the way the announcement about Nowak’s departure was handled.

“Dear musicians, you are owed a huge and sincere apology from me and the board about how you found out about Michael,” she wrote. “I am so very, very sorry. It was shocking news on its own, and I am sure that you felt outraged and disrespected hearing it through the media.”

The viola section expressed their reaction in Friday’s email.

“We, the members of the San Luis Obispo Symphony viola section, are appalled that the symphony board chose, through a press release, to sever the 31-year tenure of our conductor, fellow violist and friend, Michael Nowak,” the section members wrote.

“We demand that he be reinstated as music director, and we urge the board and staff to implement creative solutions to the differences leading to this situation,” the email continued. “If Mike is not reinstated, then we — the entire viola section — will resign.”

Symphony musicians receive only modest payment for their services — about $1,000 a year, Ashworth said — and most hold full-time jobs in fields ranging from dentistry to teaching.

“It’s not the money. It’s because we love it, because it’s a community service,” Hennessee said.

According to Hennessee, the symphony viola section would be particularly sad to see Nowak go because he is a viola player.

“We’re very close to him, and we all love him and respect him,” Hennessee said. “It feels like somebody came in and ripped out the heart of the organization.”

Nowak said Monday that he would consider returning to the symphony if asked, adding that he “absolutely” hopes to stay in the area and continue to be part of the music community.

“We’ll just have to wait and see as things unfold,” he said.

According to Thursday’s news release, San Luis Obispo Symphony programs will “proceed as planned with the help of guest conductors” as the board searches for a new music director.

In particular, Feingold stressed Monday that the San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony and symphony music education programs will continue.

D’Avignon said she hopes to find a successor for Nowak in place by the 2016-2017 season.

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