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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The speculation and theatrics on this matter are getting tiresome. I think I’m going to look into SB Symphony tickets as well.


All this drama, all this heat without light: does anyone beside Nowak and the Board know exactly why he was fired by a majority vote? As they cannot divulge personnel data, why doesn’t Nowak come out and tell us his version? Perhaps it doesn’t show him in a good light?


I know a few people close to the situation that claim Nowak to be such a perfectionist and demanding that the extreme push in front of others is unreasonable and more than what some people can handle. If that’s the case-fine. Just allow everything to come out so people can settle in where they may.


I should qualify my statement that the zero tolerance for perfection is bestowed on people other than the musicians. I know somebody who says the walls are way too thin for the things that goes on.


The tail is wagging the dog and playing all of you. This situation can be relieved if Mr. Nowak allows the board to lift the gag and allows them to confess to what the reason is for his release. The board has responded to some rumors by saying “…no this isn’t the reason and here is why…”. Mr Nowak please level the playing field, lift the gag and let this situation unwind. Allow the board to say what the reason is so that everybody knows where everybody can go.


There is no gag here. Michael said clearly on my radio show in May that he is a contract employee and not subject to the confidentiality restrictions. Either way, he was more than willing to have the board explain their reasons, since they never did to him. I suspect the board is hiding behind that so that they don’t have to give their reasons for dismissal.


There is no such thing as a “contract employee.” Either you are a contractor or an employee. Any statement that they make, in any case, opens them up to liability. What Mr. Nowak needs to do is find another job and go away. If he is a contractor, no reason is needed. If he is an employee, he can be terminated at will. There are too many reports about his temper for it to be dismissed as rumor. Talent doesn’t excuse boorish behavior, and, I am guessing they got tired on being on the receiving end. The Board is not “hiding behind” anything, just exercising good discretion which is part of their responsibilities.

Jorge Estrada

Understandably Dave may best serve the public by selectivily avoiding lengthy differences and just chair the forum for pubic opinion. Not having a potential conflicts of interest, my opinion will stand in support of Nowak, his talents and the art they provide. In my opinion, a spontaneous vote of the board, to trump Nowak’s will, is an act of a mean spirited leadership.


What does “trumping his will” mean? Insisting that he conduct his professional affairs in a professional manner?


Thanks for stepping up Dave. I get more news here than anywhere else, except maybe the local watering holes. Haven’t subscribed to “The Glib” in over five years.


People lose jobs all the time. Their coworkers rarely quit in mass. It also seems to me that more than one person noted that Nowak was at a minimum loud and disagreeable with the Executive Director. I don’t believe that appropriate if they were peers or if Nowak reported to the Executive Director. If those reports are true, Nowak deserves no support. If he were one of the unpopular local persons of contempt that are regularly targeted on this site there would be loud applause for his dismissal with such actions.


Guess what, Apple fired Steve Jobs for basically the same reasons you cited and we all know how that turned out…


Because I am friends with someone in the symphony, and have heard rave reviews about Nowak through the years from her, I back him. She has decided not to continue with this new group and she stands strong next to Nowak.

Micheal you held strong to your principals and I like a person who can do that. I may not go and listen to your type of music, but it is music and it soothes the soul. May you continue to work to bring a group back together and play your music for the people once again.


My wife and I drive to Santa Barbara to support their symphony. Admittedly tickets are more expensive, but the concerts are consistently first rate.

Hope Nowak starts up his own group. Don’t know the man, but he deserved better.


Can someone please post the link to the symphony’s letter in The Glib please?


That is the article. Not sure if it will work for everyone.

I just don’t get it to be honest, so the musicians didn’t explain this situation well. After 31 years working with a conductor who they themselves describe as “musically gifted”, a “friend”, saying “we loved playing for him.” Did I miss something? I need someone to explain this to me, because after 31 years, if some board of directors fired my friend who was amazing, I would be ready to move on alright; just not with the SLO symphony.


So where do you move on to and continue to live locally, if that is your preference?


I don’t know, but as you have reminded other calcoast posters, this is America, and if people don’t like what they are doing, they are free to do something else.

If it were ME, I would find some financial backers and build a new musical group by slowly building it back up. Hold private performances, paid public events, anything to allow my music played.