What is up with the San Luis Obispo Symphony? Many believe the recent departure of long-time conductor Mike Nowak will hurt the orchestra in the short term. Some believe the orchestra will never be the same and others are more pragmatic; while they enjoyed Nowak’s tenure with the orchestra, they felt that the programming had become unadventurous. This may account for the drop in concert attendance in recent years.
Many musicians were and are fans of Nowak; some to the point of slavishness. Community orchestras are generally more social than musical. It can make the orchestra experience fun and cohesive. But somewhere behind all the camaraderie must be a vision. If the orchestra is to keep growing, it needs to embrace newer music and bold programming. When André Previn led the L.A. Philharmonic, musicians loved him. He left amid controversy and demands for his return. But the board held and now L.A. has Gustavo Dudamel and the love fest has returned. André who? The “Dude” worship has completely replaced any animosity generated from Previn’s departure or Salonen’s place holding.
The same will happen here. The board may or may not want Nowak back but unfortunately, any chance for even temporary reconciliation is gone. If Nowak returns, that’s the end of the board. That will not and cannot happen.
How will the musicians respond to a new director? There is talk of forming a new orchestra. Nowak may be fanning flames of dissatisfaction but in the long run, these rifts hurt the music. In this vein, he’s going to conduct some 60 or so of the existing orchestra in some kind of “healing” concert in support of a charity dear to Nowak. This is an obvious and thinly veiled attempt to show the board how little the musicians care for the board and how much they love Nowak. It’s heartfelt but wrongheaded. As clumsily as Nowak’s departure was handled, he’s not bigger than the orchestra he previously led.
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Orchestras are incredibly difficult to run. If running small ensembles is a headache, an 80-plus-member orchestra is a migraine. Musicians are ego-driven performers and a seat in a symphony orchestra, however mundane that orchestra or however poor the general music making, is a status symbol with few equals in the musical world. So there’s always a balance that must be struck between the musical director, the board of directors, the musicians and the donors. So what musical direction should our orchestra take? Where are we going?
Betty Freeman was a new music advocate. Not since Peggy Guggenheim has a woman so singlehandedly and purposely advanced the cause of contemporary art. She sponsored commissions and performances for the L.A. Philharmonic. But it’s doubtful that people involved with the arts here have such a vision. We do have an active donor group and while their efforts are to be lauded, they are a little short-sighted. We don’t appear to have anyone interested in commissioning active composers and this is a sad oversight. It is brought about by lack of a vision for the orchestra.
Ed Feingold, executive director of the symphony, was recently interviewed on Musical Exploration, a program on KEBF, in Morro Bay. According to Ed, the board is waiting for the new music director. He thought it wouldn’t be prudent to define a direction without input from the new director. This may be a little disingenuous. The board knows what kind of orchestra this is and will be. That vision needs to expand. It’s that simple.
The upcoming “Festival Mozaic” is a good example of uninspired programming typical of our orchestra. We will have good performances of traditional stuff and for the “Fringe” concerts, pop music. The “festival” has become an elitist, expensive social event with a background of accessible, well-played music. Pardon me while I yawn.
But while the social aspects of the orchestra are important, there is that little thing called music. If we want to attract new audience, our community orchestra must become a community of musical adventurers where new music is not only welcomed but lauded. We need to play classics but we need to play more than classics. Our community orchestra needs to experiment. Experiment gives life and is exciting.
But it means that somehow orchestra members and supporters must get excited by the discovery of something musically new, rather than the discovery that a high-powered donor is wearing a new dress.