Question for the SLO Symphony musicians: WTF?

July 23, 2015
Michael Nowak

Michael Nowak


I called former San Luis Symphony conductor Michael Nowak at home Wednesday morning. Michael had invited me to serve as emcee at the special Pops concert he was planning for Labor Day weekend in Avila Beach. After initially and enthusiastically accepting, I told Michael that I thought it best to step aside.

In truth, I’ve become pretty toxic, really in-your-face, over the abrupt firing of Michael from the symphony after 31 years. It goes with being a radio talk show host, I guess—we organized the community to get John Lindsey rehired after PG&E fired him. The debate in 2010 over who legally owned Annie the dog became quite heated—Bob Cuddy in The Tribune accused me of being a terrorist. Controversy goes with the territory.

The Symphony issue is particularly difficult because I know so many of the musicians. They’re my friends and colleagues. Hell, my dentist Dr. Pam Dassenko is the concertmaster. I admire these musicians so much; I’m so envious of their talents and what they bring to the community. It’s no fun arguing or criticizing them on the radio or social media.

But, after reading the viewpoint editorial in the Tribune, supposedly signed by more than 50 members of the orchestra, I’m left to ask the most fundamental question of all.


When this sad mess broke last May, we the community (let me repeat that phrase–WE THE COMMUNITY) rushed to the defense of the musicians and Michael Nowak. The local media, including The Tribune, spoke with one voice in criticizing the inept board of directors.

Everyone from Fred Munroe to Dianne Blakeslee jumped in on behalf of the musicians and Michael. What could we do to help you? Do we write letters? Do we not buy tickets? Yes, yes, and yes. We supported the musicians as you attempted to make sense out of chaos.

Meanwhile, the board, an assembled group of Keystone Cops, just kept digging itself deeper. You offered that wonderful show at the Clark Center and it sold out quickly. The board cancelled the traditional Pops–Michael Nowak jumped in with an alternative and the community is set to still celebrate on Labor Day.

But here’s the deal. I thought (wrongly) that what we were working for was change at the Symphony, starting with an incompetent executive director, Ed Feingold, who left his previous job under controversy, and including a dysfunctional board of directors. That’s the change we were expecting. The community made it clear that we were behind you and would support any and all efforts at reform.

Now apparently none of that matters, does it? You meet in mediation and suddenly, magically, all is forgiven. We, the community, are being asked to forget everything from the last few months. We’re supposed to forget the fact that Feingold has a job, but Michael doesn’t. It’s like that classic Gilda Radner line from Saturday Night Live, “Never mind.”

So I repeat the question to the musicians with equal doses of admiration, affection, and, yes, confusion: WTF?

What did we fight for in May and June? What was the point? And why weren’t you willing to fight for the principle of retaining your conductor? Why did you give up?

I’m sad to see the musicians throw their conductor under the bus while the body is still warm. Is there no principle worth fighting for? Is there no issue worthy of an ethical stand? To play for this current Symphony organization is to endorse the current executive director and the current board of directors. and what they did to Michael, your conductor of 31 years. The board of directors took the action they did last May because they figured they could get away with it–this letter woefully demonstrates just how right they were.

I’ve been hearing from the disgruntled minority all day—good people, talented musicians, who allege that this whole reconciliation is being staged by the folks who served on the mediation team. One email even claims that some of the signatures were forged. One musician wrote of fear of speaking out—this person completely supports Michael, but was warned to go along with the others.

Also, that Viewpoint column was totally misleading about why the traditional Pops concert was cancelled. The reality is simple: (1) the long time stage manager quit and (2) they knew no one would come.

This story is not over. Still to be learned is what happens to Michael and what happens in the upcoming Symphony season. Will the audiences come back or, like me, are they still blinded by everything that happened? And I would love to know more about the behind-the-scenes drama involving the writing of that newspaper column. We’ll keep sniffing around.

Meanwhile, I’ll step aside from this upcoming Pops concert and I hope it’s a smashing success–I’m confident it will be with Michael at the baton.

And for those of you choosing to continue to play for the SLO Symphony, I wish you only the best—your performances are destined to be filled with added passion this season.

But if your executive director messes up again, if your board of directors betrays you as they’ve already done–call New Times.

I’m done.

David Congalton is a writer and KVEC radio talk show host who lives in Nipomo.

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I grew up in SLO. About twenty years ago I worked part time for the San Luis Obispo Symphony. Since my roots are in SLO and I spent several summers working at the Pops by the Sea event, I have been following the unfolding stories relating to the board’s dismissal of Mike Nowak.

My work experience informs my opinions about this topic. After several years with the SLO Symphony, I moved on to work full time for a high profile music organization in Los Angeles. During my two year tenure there, and from what I hear to this very day, the Artistic Director was gifted, passionate, and highly valued by patrons, musicians, and the board of directors. However, the AD was notoriously combative and intimidating to the staff, including the Executive Directors (we had two EDs during my time there. The first one left as a direct result of the AD’s behavior and the board’s refusal to address said behavior). The general sentiment among the organization was that the AD had an “artistic temperament,” and was therefore given latitude in terms of workplace conduct and “communication style.”

My employment with this organization ended after two years. It did not end well. The AD’s “artistic temperament,” left unchecked by the board, flared up one afternoon. The AD physically assaulted me in front of witnesses. Even after the assault, the board stood by their AD. I was powerless. I felt I had no choice but to resign. To this day, very few people involved with the organization know why I Ieft. It was, after all, a private personnel matter.

This experience has affected all of my subsequent work experiences in positive and negative ways. The positive: I always define my boundaries early on with co-workers and bosses. I won’t allow myself to be mistreated. The negative: I will never again work for a nonprofit arts organization. My story is not unique. In theaters, symphonies, movie sets, and art galleries across the country, “the Talent” operates with impunity, within a vacuum of managerial authority.

Although I respect the fact that so many musicians in the SLO Symphony feel a deep admiration and respect for Mike Nowak’s artistry, I continue to be disturbed by the musicians’ rush to judgment against the board, particularly their hasty “vote of no confidence,” and Dave Congalton’s inflammatory and biased reporting and commentary. I’m glad that some Symphony members recently chose to admit that they made their vote of no confidence decision in the heat of a moment clouded by surprise, anger, fear, and ignorance.

Ignorance. A loaded word, to be sure, but I mean it here in the truest sense of the word: lack of knowledge. None of us know the exact reasons why the board decided to terminate Mr Nowak. And quite frankly, the only people who should know from a legal standpoint are Mr Nowak, the board, and their respective attorneys. Mr Nowak was an employee. He was dismissed. Since he has not yet filed a lawsuit against his former employer for unlawful discharge (was he constructively discharged? Was he fired for whistleblowing? For being a member of a protected class?), at this point it appears that Mr Nowak’s firing may be related to his job performance. And an employee’s overall job performance is much more than an employee’s skillset, in this instance Mr Nowak’s musicianship. No one has questioned his abilities as a musician and as a conductor, not even the board which chose to let him go.

From previous reporting and the Viewpoint article, I have gleaned that there had been longstanding issues in regards to Mike’s overall job performance, issues which the musicians may or may not have been aware of to varying degrees. According to symphony members, the issues came to a head in May during a fundraising dispute between Mike and Mr Feingold, the ED. There was a heated phone conversation between the two men. Shortly afterwards, the board decided to let Mike go.

The board has wisely remained silent about the reason(s) for Mike’s termination. Legally, they have to. It is a private personnel matter. Mike says that he was never given a reason for his termination. That may be the case. But as an at will employee, no reason has to be given. This happens every day all across the country.

So after all this Wagnerian sturm und drang, Mike Nowak is still extremely talented, passionate, and dedicated to music, albeit unemployed for the time being. And the Symphony and its musicians are still a family, albeit one without a “father figure” for the time being. The music remains.

I support the Board of Directors. I respect Mike Nowak. I look forward to hearing my hometown Symphony in the fall.

For what it’s worth, you should have driven to the office of the nearest cognizant law enforcement agency and reported being “physically assaulted.” That sort of crap has no place in the operation of a symphony.

Looking back, I realize that I should have done that right away. Thanks for reading my post.

Awesome post. Thank you for being brave and writing about Nowak. I experienced some of the same treatment though not the physical assault part. Nowak loves to intimidate people and subsequently this has left a bad taste in my mouth with regards to any kind of support of the symphony because of him. I think what the board did was brave – and that is to call him on his behavior FINALLY.

So just to be clear, the AD that assaulted you was in Los Angeles and you don’t have any first hand experience with Michael Nowak that you care to relay in your well written comment.

The experience I wrote about occurred in LA. I did not frequently interact with Michael Nowak during my time at the SLO Symphony.

So many of us share your same feelings about the inept board and are frustrated by the recent twist by the symphony members. In their letter, the members have not resolved Michael’s future position and in fact, have made it more uncertain. From their perspective, these musicians have spent their entire lives honing their musical skills, practicing countless hours for little or no monetary gain, and basically have little or no other available venues to share the fruits of their labor with others. They do this because of their love for music. If there were a viable alternative, such as another start-up symphony organization with real financial firepower, they most likely would have been empowered to get rid of the present ego-driven board and to jump ship to a new cohesive, enlightened organization rather than to be brow-beaten to go along the old, oppressive one that lacks integrity in the community for lack of choice.

Dear Dave,

I appreciate your efforts, your commitment, your show, and your loyalty to Karen Velie and Cal Coast News. Thank you

Unfortunately your enthusiasm and passion sometimes get you revved up and tearing off in a direction with only partial information. Combine this with your tenacity (maybe ego could be used here) and at times you don’t know when to take a step back and sort things out.

You may be right on this one. Maybe not. The article says a majority of the performers, once brought up to speed on the details and progress, have decided to move forward and support the current Ex Director and the Board (for now). To which you start now attacking the performers!

You completely threw an Individual under the bus during your Chipotle tirade last year. You whipped up tons of animosity towards this poor hard working fellow, another employee of Chipotle. Your attacks were based on unsubstantiated allegations from a disgruntled ex-employee Janeka Samuels. After weeks of coverage on your shows, trashing the hard working family man, with taking no time to review alternate sides of the story, Ms Samuels did not even show up to her court dates and the Judge and Ms Samuels’ attorney had no other option but to have the case dismissed!

Did you apologize to that family you trashed repeatedly? NO! NOT ONCE!

I actually sent you a message crying foul. Your reply? You stated Mr Stulberg, ESQ. (Ms Samuels’ attorney) would be on your show soon and you would address the case with him. Exactly the type of one sided dialog that you have engaged in with this San Luis Symphony case.

And for Pete’s sake (this is your queue Ted) give that hard working family man AND HIS FAMILY the public apology he deserves!

“Janeka Samuels’ case against Chipotle manager is dismissed after she fails to show in court again” New Times April 8th, 2015, in the New Times – Volume 29, Issue 37

Attacking the Board and Ex Director maybe, but the performers/musicians!?

Enough is enough either do some legwork and present both sides of the story or let someone else drive the train.

Thank you for your dedication to Home Town Radio! I don’t expect you to get them all right, but fess up when you miss them.

Dave definitely makes some valid points but the “WTF” in the title was a bit lowbrow, like something a teen would write.

Does it mean they will play on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday?

Yes, professionalism at it’s finest. I would think a “journalist” may have a more extensive vocabulary to use when making a point.

Sorry I had t lower my vocabulary–but I had to make sure you could understand what I was saying…..

Pure class.

You can keep bringing up Chipotle, but it doesn’t change anything. I was offered a chance to interview Ms. Samuels by her attorney Jeff Stulberg, a respected local criminal defense attorney who was named Trial Attorney of the Year for 2014. New Times and The Tribune also covered the story.

Here’s a quote from the original New Times article–let’s refresh your memory:

“Another former employee confirmed Samuels’ account in a sworn witness statement obtained by New Times. A former Chipotle manager who worked with DeBilzan and Samuels, Jake Whiddon, gave a similar account.”

So there was a second person, someone who backed up the original claims.

So I gave an hour on the radio to a woman in the local news, represented by a credible attorney and backed up by at least one other employee.

At no time did YOU or any other supporter come forward and ask for equal time. No one asked for a chance to provide a different point of view. Had you, had anyone, of course that would have been provided because that’s the way it’s been for almost 24 years on my show.

It’s up to the listener to decide whom they believe. What happened to Samuels? I don’t know, nor can I explain. Perhaps she’s mentally ill. We can speculate all night.

But I told you that I would ask Stulberg about that case the next time he came on the radio. I did and he declined to talk about it. It’s not my job to force him. Again, you could have called in to the show and challenged him yourself.

I don’t feel the need to apologize to anyone.

Dear Dave,

You are actually making my point even more clear!

Let me first again clarify how much I appreciate you, your show, and your passion and enthusiasm. You make a difference. One example was your fervent support of Camp Hapitok. You did a GREAT JOB with that! Thank you.

The matter of “bringing up Chipotle”, is missing the point entirely. You were not trashing Chipolte via the public airwaves. You were dragging a hard working family man simply trying to make a living in our community and raise his family through the mud publicly. I am not he, nor do I even know the man. My wife is friends with his wife. The public embarrassment and emotional distress you and your show caused him and his family can not be imagined without actually being drug through it personally.

Your comment “I was offered a chance to interview Ms. Samuels by her attorney Jeff Stulberg, a respected local criminal defense attorney who was named Trial Attorney of the Year for 2014.” Would be more accurately described as:

“Attorney Jeff Stulberg, a respected local criminal defense attorney who was named Trial Attorney of the Year for 2014” used you and your show as a pawn to mount a public case against a national restaurant chain at the expense of a single hard working individual family man. You bit hook, line, and sinker! Your shows were NOT about Chipolte, they were about the character assassination of Mr. Ben DeBilzan! Dave it seems you sometimes forget these are real people, not news segments. As the performers/musicians are also. These people do NOT deserve to be publicly attacked! Nor do you. But as a public figure, you have put yourself there. You also have a large audience and wield a great deal of influence;

that comes with the responsibility of discretion.

Mr Stulberg’s job as an attorney is to use all assets available to legally represent his client towards their objective. In this case a financial one. Using your radio show thrashing an individual to rake in a big settlement from a national chain. Unfortunately for Mr Stulberg the national chain didn’t fold. His client was unreliable “whack job”. Mr. Ben DeBilzan, Chipolte, and Mr Stulberg were all doing there job. Frankly only you and Ms. Samuels acted irresponsibly!

Making mistakes is human. Not admitting them is wrong part.

Think about this Dave before you decide to publicly go after individuals to prove a point or generate ratings in the future.

Well you should especially since you appear to have been a little wrapped up in who’s who rather than the poor family that was attacked on air.

Sand, thanks for that update on Janeka. I had a sneaky suspicion that there was more to that story. I certainly don’t know what the real truth is, but I was highly suspicious when you hear just one side of the story and from a disgruntled employee to boot.

Dave, no one likes criticism so you aren’t going to like this, but I do hope you take time to reflect when you calm down a little. Not every case of a black person crying racism is true. I know your passion can make interesting radio but it can also alienate your audience when it is clearly one sided. I, too, think you owe the manager of Chipotles an apology. Not because what Janeka accused him of was true or not (although I highly think it wasn’t now) but because you chastised him as if it was true beyond a doubt yet Janeka couldn’t even be bothered to show up at her court date to press the case. I will let you formulate how you structure the apology but hopefully it includes something that addresses how you appeared to show the case was cut and dry when now we know it certainly wasn’t.

Dave there is nothing more depressing than when opportunities for real and positive change are wasted.

The current debate isn’t really anymore about whether Maestro Nowak should have or shouldn’t have been terminated, that ship has sailed. As he put it on your program, you don’t want to be where you’re not wanted, but it’s the actions of the Board of Directors and their disregard for the truth and lack of respect that keeps leading to such a wide reaching inflammation of the issue. So without the Board coming clean and admitting that they just aren’t good at making wise decisions, it appears like they asked for a viewpoint letter to be written on their behalf by the orchestra. Perhaps the orchestra leaders were reluctant, and perhaps they were just so invested in the organization that they were willing to coral and herd the rest. However when they agreed to this desperate effort to drag out the SLO Symphony’s existence, in so doing wasted that opportunity for real and positive change.

What many of the musicians may have forgotten and what makes this so sad is that Michael Nowak was probably the one that auditioned them and gave them that chair on the stage. It was Michael Nowak that spent 31 years polishing that diamond, by hand, so that its shine was recognized, even at Carnegie Hall. The musicians are wonderful people, I know them, but many are shy and introverted. Being on stage means the world to them but to play well in an orchestra means playing well together and not standing out. So I believe this fiasco with the viewpoint letter really comes down to leadership. Perhaps those leaders were satisfied with the changes yielded through that one 15 hour session of mediation and perhaps there they felt like the Board was able to right the wrongs done so grievously to them. However, we the community have not heard anything from the Board of Directors to give us any inkling that they even care. The Board deserves nothing but our scorn and before they ask for our support; even through their Orchestra Leader proxies, they need to ask for our forgiveness.

And if by supporting the Board, the orchestra ends up with a new music director that doesn’t have that same patience, perseverance, and compassion to assemble only local musicians, and instead end up with one that prefers the ease of hiring road musicians. Then our musicians, our orchestra, will be discarded just like their Maestro and our Symphony will truly cease to be. If the musicians want to have their cake and eat it too, go ahead and play for the SLO Symphony, and their former Maestro, and all the other musical groups, fine; but don’t expect to not be criticized for it and don’t expect our outrage when it all goes wrong.

We don’t need no education

We don’t need no thought control

No dark sarcasm in the board room

Directors leave Michael alone

Hey! Directors! Leave Michael alone!

All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.

All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.

We don’t need no education

We don’t need no thought control

No dark sarcasm in the board room

Directors leave Michael alone

Hey! Directors! Leave Michael alone!

All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.

All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.

“Wrong, Do it again!”

“If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you

have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?”

Just like in the world of Politics, most people won’t really fight for their convictions but would rather take the easy path. This is what a squishy “moderate” looks like. Where getting along and moving on trumps all else the results often favor those who’s crisis consultants tell them to just hunker down and weather the storm, knowing that the villagers with pitchforks will eventually go back to their lives and let you win by default.

In the end, we are all “at will” employees. Let’s move on.

Best analysis that I have seen.

Unless they are union members or in County or City Government….then you can’t touch them!

Well, you can touch ’em…and even “let them go”…but THEN you gotta pay ’em a lot which really stinks for the taxpayers.

I wish the Trib would’ve printed the 40 unnamed symphony members who also signed that letter. Just curious.