Music News & Reviews

SLO Symphony names 5 finalists for music director job

Andrew Sewell conducts the Witchita Symphony Orchestra in Kansas. He is one of the top five candidates selected to replace Michael Nowak as music director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony.
Andrew Sewell conducts the Witchita Symphony Orchestra in Kansas. He is one of the top five candidates selected to replace Michael Nowak as music director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony.

Two women and three men make up the field of top candidates to replace Michael Nowak as music director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony.

On Friday, the symphony officially identified the finalists: David Handel, Rei Hotoda, José-Luis Novo, Andrew Sewell and Nan Washburn.

They include conductors who have led symphony orchestras across the nation and around the world.

“We weren’t just looking for a music director. We were looking for a superb music director,” said San Luis Obispo attorney David Hamilton, who chaired the 10-person selection committee that picked the finalists. “We wanted to pick someone who was exceptional.”

The announcement comes as the symphony wraps up its 2015-16 season with the final concert in its Classics in the Cohan series. Thomas Davies, Cal Poly’s director of choral activities and vocal studies, will conduct a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 on Saturday at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo.

The San Luis Obispo Symphony has been searching since the beginning of 2016 for a permanent replacement for Nowak, who departed almost a year ago. (He now conducts Orchestra Novo.)

In a decision that was announced publicly May 14, 2015, the symphony’s board of directors voted unanimously to terminate Nowak’s contract. The board has provided no details on ousting Nowak, who had led the symphony for 31 years, saying only that the decision was a “confidential personnel matter.”

According to Hamilton, a symphony board member, the nonprofit organization placed an ad seeking a new music director on New Year’s Day.

The search committee, which consists of four symphony board members and six orchestra musicians, initially sifted through more than 130 applicants before narrowing that number down to 36, then 12, committee member Karen Loewi Jones said.

Committee members interviewed the final 12 candidates via Skype and watched videos of them conducting an orchestra. They also asked each candidate to prepare a sample year of programming, then quizzed them on their choices.

Jones, who plays viola in the orchestra, said she wanted to see how the finalists worked with musicians.

“How are they on the podium? How do they rehearse? How do they communicate with an orchestra?” Jones asked. “You don’t want somebody up there who’s going to be a totally serious task master. There has to be some personality and hopefully some humor and mutual respect, too.

“We were looking for musicality. We were looking for personality,” as well as how well they fit with the organization and San Luis Obispo County as a whole, Jones said. “We wanted to make sure we found someone who shared that feeling of community and being part of the orchestra.”

Each of the five finalists will lead the orchestra in a Classics in the Cohan concert during the 2016-17 season, which kicks off Oct. 8, according to Heather Hellman, the symphony’s marketing and communications director.

The new music director will be chosen after the season finale May 6, 2017, Hellman said, although Jones said there’s no formal deadline for that decision.

While the selection committee will share its recommendations, only the symphony board has the authority to make the hire, he said.

Rei Hotada, one of the top five candidates for San Luis Obispo Symphony's new music director, conducts Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 8.

San Luis Obispo Symphony music director finalists

Here are the backgrounds of the five finalists for San Luis Obispo Symphony music director.

David Handel

Named music director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Bolivia at the relatively tender age of 33, David Handel spent 14 years building the organization before moving on to guest-conducting gigs across the world. Handel, who has a master’s degree in orchestral conducting from the University of Michigan, has served as principal guest conductor of the Moscow City Symphony-Russian Philharmonic since 2011.

Rei Hotoda

Rei Hotoda, who has a doctorate in piano performance from USC, is associate conductor of the Utah Symphony — the first woman to hold that position in the organization’s 75-year history. She’s also worked as associate conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in Manitoba, Canada.

José-Luis Novo

José-Luis Novo began his musical training as a violinist in his native Spain, coming to the United States in 1988 as a Fulbright scholar.

Novo, who has two master’s degrees from Yale University, served as assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra before becoming music director and conductor of the Binghamton Philharmonic in New York and the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra in Maryland.

Andrew Sewell

A native of New Zealand, Andrew Sewell began conducting at age 16 and made his professional opera debut six years later with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and Auckland’s Mercury Opera.

The conductor, who holds a master of music degree from the University of Michigan, has spent 15 seasons as the music director of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in Madison. He previously served as resident conductor of Ohio’s Toledo Symphony and music director of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra in Kansas and the Mansfield Symphony in Ohio.

Nan Washburn

Winner of the American Prize in orchestral conducting, Nan Washburn first came to national attention as the co-founder, artistic director and associate conductor of The Women’s Philharmonic in San Francisco.

The conductor, who has a master’s degree in performance from the New England Conservatory of Music, has led California ensembles including the Channel Islands Symphony Orchestra, the West Hollywood Orchestra and Sacramento’s Camellia Symphony. She now serves as music director of the Michigan Philharmonic and artistic director and principal conductor of the Michigan Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.