San Luis Obispo Symphony celebrates anniversary

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

San Luis Obispo Symphony conductor Michael Nowak

30 years of Pops!

It was the summer of 1983. Michael Jackson’s Thriller was on its way to becoming the all-time best-selling album worldwide. The “moonwalk” dance had fans in hys- terics. Songs like “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” blared from boom boxes. And another Michael—the young conductor Michael Nowak—hair and goatee jet black, eyes bright with curiosity, wandered into
the sleepy little town of San Luis Obispo.

Ten years earlier, the young mu- sician had moved to Los Angeles after studying at Indiana Univer- sity under the legendary violist, William Primrose, and completing his first professional stint as As- sistant Conductor with the Dallas Symphony. He had taken the helm at LA’s YMF Debut Orchestra from 1973 to 1975, and was a mem-

ber of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra until 1980, when he began traveling and recording with Helmuth Rilling and the Stuttgart Bach Collegium.

He had quite a career under his belt. But now, a unique opportunity presented itself: The chance to build something from the ground, up.

“I got a call from the people at the San Luis Obispo Symphony saying, ‘We’d like you to audition for our job of conductor,’” Nowak recalls. “Luckily, I was chosen.”

Nowak remembers seeing the opportunity as the perfect fit for the kind of situation he was looking for. “It seemed like there was a lot of possibility and potential here. We could really make a lot of progress, and could also do some fantastic innovative ideas.”

The young, fresh-thinking conductor immediately infused youth and vigor into the program (which had started in 1954) by in- augurating the SLO Pops by the Sea concert. A fun, accessible concert highlighting popular songs of the day in a symphony style, Pops was his way to introduce classical music to the masses, and it was a hit.

Also wishing to expose the symphony to the enriching experiences of traveling and recording, he soon introduced touring to  the program, leading the symphony to Spain in 1996, New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2001, the Sydney Opera House in 2006 and Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2008, and recording six albums.

In all, Nowak has been responsible for bringing symphony music to over 16,000 adults and children in SLO each year, transforming the local arts scene in time with the cultural transition that has brought ever more tourists and residents to the county in the last three decades.

“I think that’s it,” Nowak says thoughtfully of what has kept him so enchanted with his work. “I had the chance to make an imprint on the musical life of San Luis Obispo.”

And that imprint goes beyond concert halls. Nowak says the Youth Symphony, also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and programs like Strings in the Schools that pro- vide children with a crucial window to the world of music, have meant the most to him.

“A long time ago, before they cut it, you could go to school during the day and take a string class and learn to play violin in school. When I was a kid, that’s where I learned,” Nowak says sadly of the system that has since cut music out, as a result of Proposition 13. He notes proudly that the SLO Youth Symphony

has worked hard to overcome the challenges and to bring music education back to local kids. “It’s great to see the children go through the program and come through on the other side as part of the adult symphony,” he says, listing several such former students-turned-pro- fessional musicians.

And though his tenure has lasted long enough to watch el- ementary kids blossom into soloists and recording artists, he has no notion of slowing down, nor has he lost that fresh approach to music.
“I like whatever I’m doing,” he says simply: classical, pops, you name it. “I love being here. I love this orchestra and this community. As long as I’m standing, I’d love to be standing in front of them.”

And stand he will at this year’s 30th Birthday Pops Concert in Avi- la, on Labor Day, which will have an ’80s theme—reprising hits like “Thriller”—while also featuring the sounds of Café Musique, a unique band characterized by gypsy, wild classical, tango and folk influences. The beachside concert, Nowak says, will close with a booming rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “1812” featuring the Cuesta Chamber Singers under the direction of John Knutson.

The 2013-2014 symphony season will also feature a number of orchestra, chamber, and youth events, culminating in the 50th an- niversary Youth Symphony blowout in May 2014. Find details on the whole season’s lineup and buy tickets at, and

— By Jamie Relth

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