Letters to the Editor

SLO Symphony: The musicians speak

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

The San Luis Obispo Symphony has received a lot of press coverage lately, much of it unfavorable. The musicians have mostly refrained from participating in the public discussion. It is now time for us to speak. This situation has been extremely difficult and painful, but we are ready to heal. We are ready to work together, to move forward and to make music again. We are ready to preserve our unique and precious musical family.

For 31 years, Michael Nowak was at the heart of that family. We are enormously grateful for Mike’s dedicated service and immense contributions. We are deeply saddened that he will no longer be with us in the SLO Symphony. For many musicians, these months have been especially hard because Mike is a friend as well as conductor. We love playing for him. He is musically gifted, his wit is unmatchable and his vision is remarkable. His ability to put together a pops concert or a children’s concert is one-of-a-kind. We were delighted to play for Mike at the June 28 “Concert for Harmony” benefit at the Clark Center, cosponsored by the Vocal Arts Ensemble. This is the kind of community collaboration for which San Luis Obispo is famous and proud. We are very grateful for Mike’s strong leadership in community artistic collaborations.

Nevertheless, everyone was shocked by the suddenness of his dismissal from the SLO Symphony, which appeared insulting to a 31-year legacy as music director. The orchestra — surprised, suspicious, hurt and angry — was moved to offer a statement of “no confidence” in the board. The board immediately and publicly apologized for the way it handled the situation. Unfortunately, recent events had reached a tipping point. In fact, problems had existed for some time behind the scenes. Many musicians were unaware of these issues or chose to leave them to others to resolve. Much effort had gone toward finding solutions . The board has been in an awkward position, legally unable to defend its decision to sever its contract with Mike. Because of this legally required silence, the board of directors has faced an avalanche of criticism, ostracism and dire predictions.

In an effort to preserve the symphony, the orchestra and board have been working together more closely. This spirit of cooperation is one positive result of the lamentable situation. For example, 10 elected members of the orchestra met with members of the board in a 15-hour session to find common ground and build a platform for the future. This meeting resulted in greater mutual respect, improved communication and the beginnings of plans for moving ahead. It is anticipated that the board and orchestra will work even more closely together in the future through better procedures and increased representation of musicians in the symphony organization.

Recently, we have been concerned as the organization has been plagued by two areas of misconception: the invitation for Mike to guest conduct and the cancellation of the Labor Day Pops by the Sea concert. The invitation from the board to Mike to guest conduct in the coming season was interpreted by many as an insult to Mike or a token to save face. In fact, this invitation was requested by the musicians’ representatives. Some of us hoped that this plan would smooth the group’s transition. The board intended to honor our wishes. Unfortunately, the news release announcing the board’s offer was seen as a plot to manipulate Mike. In truth, the symphony went public with this offer because of persistent requests for information about the situation.

Another point of controversy has been the Labor Day Pops by the Sea concert. A Pops concert without Mike would have been very difficult to assemble and still meet the tradition of excellence the community expects. Pops is presented primarily through volunteer labor, and it requires an enormous amount of staff time. The event was designed to be a fundraiser, but recent Pops didn’t raise money. The lack of a winning program, increasing venue costs and the prospect of another financial loss led the board to rethink the event. Facing reality, the board approached the musicians to recommend that this year’s Pops be suspended. In sympathy with the board, the musicians endorsed suspension. Unfortunately, the board again suffered criticism for what we considered a sound business decision.

So where are we now? While the original response of the orchestra was “no confidence,” a recent poll of musicians revealed that over 50 have expressed intent to play in the Opening Night Concert on Oct. 3. Musicians elected by the orchestra at large are closely collaborating with the board to firm up 2015-2016. Guest conductors are being arranged, and most of the soloists are honoring their contracts. The symphony will announce the specifics of the coming season soon. Every effort is going into producing a successful year with a positive approach.

In the same spirit, we, the musicians of the San Luis Obispo Symphony, ask for the community’s goodwill and patience. We hope you will continue to support a remarkable community-based orchestra of local musicians who proudly perform together under the auspices of a board of directors that works hard on our behalf. Ours is a community that is envied for its long-standing tradition of collaboration among outstanding performing arts groups of all kinds. We hope to keep it that way.

We thank you for your expressions of support and concern during this difficult time. We feel greatly blessed to live in a community that so highly values us and what we do. We understand that many of you in the community have experienced shock, confusion, frustration and dismay in the past two months. We have felt the same. Many of us have been deeply grieved and angered. A few have left the symphony. But through all the pain, we have come to see more clearly than ever what is true and what is real. The San Luis Obispo Symphony is more than a community orchestra. We are a family, and as such we will continue to work together to bring music to our community.

David Hennessee is principal violist with the San Luis Obispo Symphony. Drew Van Duren has performed cello with the San Luis Obispo symphony since 1993. Clifton Swanson was professor of music for Cal Poly for 40 years, conducted the San Luis Obispo Symphony from 1971 to 1983, and has been a member of the bass section from 1984 to 2015. Pam Dassenko has been concertmaster and co-concertmaster of the San Luis Obispo Symphony since 1988.

Viewpoint also signed by: Paul Severtson, co-concertmaster; Brynn Albanese, co-concertmaster; Lisa Naufel, principal bassoon; Jennifer Galvan, principal horn; Emily Lanzone, principal second violin; Jerry Boots, principal trumpet; David Landers, principal trombone; Nancy Nagano, principal cello; Tony Clements, tuba; Ken Hustad, co-principal bass; John Astaire, timpani; Lara Lehmer, co-principal bass; Marshall Granger, principal percussion; Alice McGonigal, principal flute; Marcia Dickstein, harp; Jessica Hoffman, principal oboe; Caroline Tobin, principal clarinet; and over 40 members of the San Luis Obispo Symphony Orchestra.