Question for the SLO Symphony musicians: WTF?
July 23, 2015
OPINION By DAVID CONGALTON
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.
David Congalton is a writer and KVEC radio talk show host who lives in Nipomo.
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