SLO Symphony conductor fired, violists threaten exodus

May 19, 2015
Michael Nowak 2

Michael Nowak

The San Luis Obispo Symphony board of directors has fired its longtime music conductor and director, Michael Nowak, prompting the entire violist section to threaten leaving the orchestra.

Last week, the board announced in a press release that Nowak was stepping down from the conductor position he held for 31 years. But, Nowak’s wife, Zette Harbour, told CalCoastNews that Nowak did not choose to step down.

The board invited Nowak and Harbour to attend a meeting Thursday about the symphony’s future. There, the board told Nowak his services were no longer needed and refused to provide a reason for firing him, Harbour said.

The board has since confirmed that it fired Nowak, but has offered no reason for doing so.

Violinist Bill Alpert speculated in an email Monday that the board was unhappy with Nowak’s “artistic and/or strategic vision for the group.”

On Friday, the viola section sent an email to symphony Executive Director Edmund Feingold demanding that Nowak, also a violist, be reinstated as music director.

“We, the members of the San Luis Obispo Symphony viola section, are APPALLED that the symphony board chose — with a press release — to sever the 31-year tenure of our conductor, fellow violist and friend, Michael Nowak,” the email states. “If Mike is not reinstated, then we — the entire viola section — will RESIGN.”

A petition is also calling for Nowak’s reinstatement as music director and conductor.

“We passionately ask the board of directors to reconsider its decision. He is irreplaceable,” the petition states. “Michael Nowak has become for us a member of an extended family; so personal is this that many of us feel we have lost one of our own and indeed we have.”

The petition has 253 online signatures, as of Tuesday.

India D'Avignon

India D’Avignon

On Sunday night, Board President India D’Avignon sent an email to symphony members apologizing for the way the announcement of Nowak’s firing occurred. In the apology email, D’Avignon, a Cal Poly music professor, offered an explanation of how the announcement unfolded.

“Thursday afternoon I planned to send an email about a 9am meeting on Saturday morning that I scheduled for you to discuss this situation. I then found out about Verdi rehearsals and that there was a rehearsal that Thursday evening. It was suggested that I go talk with you after rehearsal instead of waiting until Saturday, so I did not send the email knowing that I would see you in a few hours. But the press release went out and reached you before I did,” D’Avignon’s email states. “I am so very, very sorry.”

D’Avignon made no indication in the email that the board is reconsidering its decision to fire Nowak.

Nowak has performed in and conducted in more than 800 films, the symphony website states. He has conducted scores in films that include Life of Pi, The Hangover, An American Gangster and Spider-Man.


Michael Nowak is an amazing musician and leader. The folks that made this decision need to resign soon. If they don’t, there is a real possibility that the orchestra will see a decline in community support and financial support for many years. Let the members of the orchestra vote on this one. Sign the online petition to reinstate Michael Nowak.


Conductors must give unmistakable and suggestive signals to the orchestra…not choreography to the symphony board. Get over yourselves!


What’s next? A name change to “Symphonic Mosaic”?


I am thinking they will go the direction of “Symphonic D’Avignon” or “Feingold Symphony”.


As long as we can work “India” in some way…


The symphony is a highly subsidized plaything for a hand full of rich people. The reason for firing Nowak is almost certainly budget. The golden rule, “The guy with the gold makes the rules”.


Even if that’s indeed the case, it doesn’t excuse the ugly, ham-fisted manner in which this matter was handled.


“This here’s ‘Merica, and we can fire who we want!!”– every Calcoast internet tough guy on the recent firing of the SLO Symphony conductor.

LOL! Seriously though, after 31 years, couldn’t they at least take him out to dinner and offer up some sort of explanation? I mean, I guess I am just a softie, but an e mail seems a bit “harsh”.

And good luck finding a whole new viola section! Maybe they can find some kazoo players in time for next performance.


I don’t know Nowak or anyone else involved in this imbroglio but there is one universal truth in matters like this:

90%+ of those that serve on non-profit boards like the SLO Symphony are the very last who should serve on ANY board of directors.

Far too many do it to be recognized, to boost their own self image, to be part of the “in” crowd, to exercise power otherwise lacking in their lives, etc. In a word, these 90%+ SUCK as board members.

It would be real interesting to read the resumes of those that comprise the current SLO Symphony BOD. I think the answer to this mess would quickly become self evident.


A quick 10 point checklist on how to evaluate current SLO Symphony BOD Members:

1. If they actively campaigned/politicked for the position they need to be replaced. If they had to be begged/cajoled/sold to be on the board, they might be worth retaining.

2. If they were recruited to serve on the board simply because they are friends of existing members, they need to be replaced.

3. If they came from the SF Bay Area (particularly “the city” I know as “Frisco”), “the” Orange County or certain sections of Los Angeles before moving to SLO County, they need to be replaced.

4. If they frequently attend “wine events” they need to be replaced.

5. If they try to pass themselves off as “locals” because they have lived in Pismo or Paso since the Summer of 2012, they need to be replaced.

6. If they are serving on the board in the hopes of benefiting their jobs/businesses, they need to be replaced.

7. If they are the reason this matter was handled so horribly, they need to be replaced. If they even think this matter was handled appropriately, they still need to be replaced.

8. If they concede the “experience” of being on the BOD outshines the product — in this case the music, they need to be replaced.

9. If they actually listen (or play!) symphonic music when away from their BOD duties, they might be worth retaining.

10. If their face goes blank at the mention of an “ophicleide”, they need to be replaced. If they actually know what a “celesta” is, they might be worth retaining.


Dear Elitist Violista;

We will replace you too. Oh, you’ll retract your letter? Just kidding, I can’t wait to see what actually went down and I know my Cal Coast News hounds are circling as I write this!!


After 31 years move forward, with peace.


Here’s the listing of the Board


India D’Avignon, President

College of Liberal Arts, Cal Poly

Liz Summer , Interim President Elect

Heritage Oaks Bank

Fred Friedman, Secretary

Cal Poly Engineering Professor (retired)

Tom Strait , Treasurer

Executive Vice President, Pacific Western Bank

Edmund Feingold is the Executive Director


Bonnie Richan, Orchestra Representative

Carol Kersten, Youth Symphony Representative

Shannon Downing – Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center

Ursula Fitzgerald – Paso Robles

Claire Gaulin – Slime, Inc.

Diane Heath – Heath Haven Ranch

Judith Kambestad – ARCO (retired)

Suzanne Parker – Pacific Gas &Electric Company

Deanna Richards – Edward Jones Investments

David Hamilton – Sinsheimer, Juhnke, McIvor & Stroh, LLP

Scott Hanning – Heritage Oaks Bank

Robert W. Holtermann – Glenn Burdette


Slime, Inc. about sums it up. What do these Chamber tycoons know about how to run an orchestra?


Oh, boy- hold onto your hats. There’s trouble in River City!


… and here it is:


There really should not be trouble.

No one really knows the real story.

Many dislike change,

but often times change can open new doors,

and can be good. Moving forward may be a

positive move for all.

Kevin Rice

“Moving forward” is code speak for low down and take it.