Michael Nowak's ouster from SLO Symphony followed fight over fundraising

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 ousting last week of longtime San Luis Obispo Symphony Music Director Michael Nowak by the symphony’s board of directors came on the heels of a heated argument between Nowak and symphony Executive Director Ed Feingold over fundraising, according to two people close to the situation.

Board President India D’Avignon declined to comment on the subject, saying that the unanimous decision to terminate Nowak’s contract after 31 years with the symphony is a personnel issue and thus “bound by legal limitations and privacy matters.”

“There really isn’t anything about the situation I can share,” she said Thursday.

However, D’Avignon confirmed that the board has no plans to reinstate Nowak as the nonprofit organization’s music director — despite threats of resignation from symphony musicians.

“The board looked at things long and hard, looked at various actions, looked at the backlash we would get and made their decision confidently and resolutely in the best interest of the organization,” D’Avignon said.

“We won’t change our decision,” she added.

Symphony musicians were planning to meet privately Thursday night.

Nowak’s departure was announced in a news release emailed May 14 by Feingold. In addition, the board told donors Nowak was leaving in a letter dated May 14 and signed by D’Avignon and board President-elect Liz Summer, who is vice president and senior client relationship manager at Heritage Oaks Bank in Paso Robles.

“We’ve heard lots of support (and) understanding, and we’ve heard from people who are very disgruntled and upset,” said D’Avignon, an associate music professor at Cal Poly. “I know that’s very frustrating, and it’s raised a lot of anger. We definitely understand and empathize with that.”

Part of the reaction stemmed from the way last week’s announcement was made. Although the May 14 email was sent to local media just before 5 p.m., symphony musicians didn’t receive official word until 10 that night.

“It was really, incredibly inept,” said David Hennesee, the symphony’s principal violist, on Monday. “The orchestra just feels incredibly disrespected by the board right now.”

Two people who consulted with D’Avignon about the situation advised her to involve the orchestra from the start, they told The Tribune on Thursday.

But D’Avignon said neither the orchestra nor the executive director were allowed in the decision to terminate Nowak’s contract, noting that personnel matters are typically handled by an executive committee consisting of the board officers plus two additional board members.

“If (the symphony) was hiring a music director, the orchestra would of course be involved,” she said, especially to aid in the vetting of candidates. “They must be front and center on that.”

The board has yet to say publicly why Nowak’s contract was terminated.

“I was released without a breach in my contract,” Nowak said Thursday. “There was no reason given. Everything at this point is conjecture.”

But an orchestra member who has discussed the matter with board members said Feingold and Nowak had a heated argument just before the symphony’s final concert of the season on May 2. The musician asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal by the symphony board.

According to the orchestra member, Nowak had worked with an elderly couple who had agreed to donate approximately $35,000 to the symphony’s Summer String Workshop, held in August at Camp Ocean Pines in Cambria. But Feingold allegedly persuaded the donors to designate the money to the symphony itself, the musician said, and announced to the audience at a rehearsal before the concert that the symphony was seeking matching funds for $50,000 in donations, implying that he had raised all the funds himself.

According to the musician, Nowak later angrily confronted Feingold by phone — then told the orchestra member and others that he feared that his contract was in jeopardy.

Another person with ties to the orchestra confirmed that “an explosion” had occurred between Feingold and Nowak.

Nowak on Thursday declined to discuss the issue, adding that he and his wife, Zette Harbour, are consulting an attorney over his dismissal. D’Avignon said the board, which is also being advised by counsel, is anticipating legal action from Nowak.

Asked about the symphony’s plan for replacing Nowak, D’Avignon said the executive committee’s search for a new music director has yet to begin.

While guest conductors will lead the orchestra through the 2015-16 season, the symphony will likely put out a call for music director candidates to conduct during the 2016-17 season.

“It’s a long process, and rightly so. It’s a very important decision,” she said.

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