Music News & Reviews

SLO Symphony musicians vote no confidence in board of directors

File photo of former Music Director Michael Nowak leading a San Luis Obispo Symphony rehearsal in 2011.
File photo of former Music Director Michael Nowak leading a San Luis Obispo Symphony rehearsal in 2011. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo Symphony musicians announced Saturday that they have voted no confidence in the organization’s board of directors and can no longer work with the board because of a breach of trust.

Exactly what that means is unclear.

The vote was taken Thursday night in response to the board’s May 14 announcement that it had fired longtime Music Director Michael Nowak. The musicians have protested both Nowak’s ouster and the fact that they were notified of the move after a news release was sent out.

“There was strong solidarity among the orchestra members” at Thursday’s vote, said Linda Ashworth, an oboe player and orchestra member. She said 57 of the 74 musicians on the symphony’s regular call list attended the meeting. The musicians had notified the board of the vote on Friday morning.

Symphony board President India D’Avignon, who has said the decision to remove Nowak is final, said Saturday that the organization hopes to bring in an independent mediator to try to resolve the impasse.

“We are extremely committed to sitting down face-to-face with the musicians and finally being able to talk through this,” D’Avignon said. “It’s a go if the orchestra is willing to go in that direction, and we hope they are.”

Ashworth would not say specifically what the musicians intend to do moving forward, only that they “are considering a variety of options” and have been in contact with Nowak. She declined to say what the conversations with Nowak were about or whether they involved creating a separate orchestra.

“We’re not ready to show our hand right now,” Ashworth said.

Violinist Kathleen Lenski said the musicians are discussing the proposal to meet with a mediator but no decision has been made.

The symphony board hasn’t given a reason for terminating Nowak’s contract, citing personnel privacy laws, which D’Avignon reiterated on Saturday.

In a Viewpoint opinion piece published Saturday in The Tribune, the executive board said, “The symphony has had excessive staff turnover in the past five years, and we must bring stability back to the organization. …

"We recognize Michael Nowak’s sweeping contributions to the organization and his undeniable artistic excellence. His talent was never in question, but as a board, we have legal and financial obligations to protect the organization, its employees, donors and patrons. That is what we are doing. We truly wish things with Michael had ended differently.”

Nowak served as music director for the symphony for 31 years. His ouster has outraged some community members and symphony supporters, with some encouraging the musicians to start their own breakaway orchestra.

Ashworth said the response heartened the musicians. “We really appreciate all of the support the community has given us,” she said. “We’re very touched by it.”

D’Avignon said the board anticipated the firestorm and the possibility of losing musicians but felt it had no recourse. She expressed regret for not informing musicians of the decision to terminate Nowak’s contract before making a public announcement.

“Absolutely, I think we could have handled that better,” she said.

D’Avignon said the board talked about bringing in a mediator even before they announced Nowak's termination. She said someone — D’Avignon would only describe the person as a highly-respected community member trusted by the board and musicians — has found a mediator in Los Angeles who has worked with musicians but has no connections with San Luis Obispo board members or the orchestra. D’Avignon said she has not spoken to the mediator.

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The full text of the musicians' statement reads: "We, the musicians of the San Luis Obispo Symphony, resolve that the current Board of Directors has broken our trust. Therefore, we can no longer work with them, and we proclaim our vote of NO CONFIDENCE."

The statement concludes, "We wish to thank the community for the groundswell of support."

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