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Orchestra Nova Artistic Director Resigns, Concerts Canceled

Aired 10/18/12 on KPBS News.

Orchestra Nova artistic director and conductor Jung-Ho Pak has resigned after six years of leadership. The chamber group has canceled this weekend's season opening concerts. Nova is in the midst of a contentious contract dispute with the local musicians union.

Former Orchestra Nova artistic director and conductor Jung-Ho Pak.
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Above: Former Orchestra Nova artistic director and conductor Jung-Ho Pak.

Orchestra Nova artistic director and conductor Jung-Ho Pak's sudden resignation came as a surprise to many, including local musicians.

The organization is at an impasse in contract negotiations with the local musicians union after six months of talks.

Orchestra Nova canceled this weekend's season opening concerts shortly after Pak's resignation was announced.

Nova CEO Beverly Lambert says Pak resigned because he wasn’t able to realize his vision with negotiations so far from resolution.

Pak has led Orchestra Nova's artistic vision for six years, implementing the signature Nova Experience, which involved theme-based activities at each concert.

In the statement, Pak said of his tenure: "Our single purpose was to connect people with great music in an entertaining and surprising way. By bringing to life the unexpected relationships between beautiful classical music and things they enjoy in their everyday lives — like movies, technology and food — we gave people a new way to inspire their senses. I want to thank the musicians for sharing some very special moments with me onstage."

The labor dispute stems, in large part, from Pak's vision for performing classical music with what he has described as emotion, passion and movement.

Orchestra Nova wants to issue employment contracts on a concert-by-concert basis, hiring musicians from within the union who can perform expressively. Pak has a larger mission to rejuvenate orchestras and draw more audiences to classical music, which he believes will keep groups like Orchestra Nova financially stable.

The local musicians union is insisting on the industry standard: annual renewable contracts. They say they're willing to play with emotion and have successfully done so in the past. Last season's concerts sold out with the very musicians whose performance style is under scrutiny. The union says they can't agree to a contract that allows the orchestra to "fire musicians for something that has never been a part of their formal training.” You can read more about their position here.

Stage presence, similar to what an actor or rock star might possess, is not a priority in the rigorous training musicians go through. "That’s not what conservatories have thought was their business," says Eric Booth, a consultant for seven out of the 10 major orchestras in the U.S. He's also taught at The Julliard School. "They haven’t attended to training their musicians to be concerned about stage persona."

Booth says that historically, classical musicians were discouraged from showing a lot of expression while performing. "The notion of formality and sublimating the expression through the body was considered high quality and a lot of moving around was considered indulgent or idiosyncratic."

Musicians generally want to focus on what they're trained to do: play music. "We concentrate on musical training and getting the music out," says John Stubbs, a violinist with the San Diego Symphony for over 35 years. "When you start talking about movement, you’re talking about choreography. When you’re talking about acting, you’re talking about taking acting lessons. I don’t know of anybody who has the time, when they’re studying music, to take acting classes."

"I think we have to respect the music," adds Stubbs. "We don't need to put mustaches on the 'Mona Lisa.'"

With orchestras around the country struggling and so many free entertainment options available to audiences, one begins to wonder if a mustache or two is necessary. "Increasingly, people want their entertainment when they want it, where they want it," says Booth. "And orchestras still say you’ll look at it at our timetable and you’ll adhere to our conventions."

Nova CEO Lambert says that Pak, the Nova staff and the Board of Directors didn't see any way forward in negotiations with the musicians union. "We have a vision to present classical music to people in a new and engaging way. It became very apparent that with the contracts the union wanted us to sign, we would not be able to realize that vision."

Andrea Altona, president of the musicians union and a violinist with Nova, says she was very surprised to hear of Pak's resignation. "We were hoping to come to resolution on this." She says the musicians were planning to perform at this weekend's concerts. "In fact, we'd like to still fulfill the audience members' tickets if there's a way to do that."

But Lambert says a strike this weekend is exactly what worried the staff. Nova recently proposed a no-lockout commitment in exchange for a no-strike commitment from the musicians. The musicians union declined the offer.

"Knowing that the AFM union recently called a strike against the Chicago Symphony just two hours before a concert, leaving ticket holders in a hall with no concert, we realized we were vulnerable to the same action," says Lambert.

Symphonies and musicians around the country have been fighting over salaries. The dispute between Nova and the local musicians is about salaries and contracts, but it’s also about Pak’s vision.

Booth says the conductor has to think about his future, and that also may have led to his resignation. "If you’re out ahead of the field, the field is not going to welcome you. Even if many of them would tell you, 'Yes, that’s definitely a direction we were evolving in.' But if you’re out ahead of the comfort zone and you start to have blood on the tracks around you, other orchestra musicians are not going be positive towards your coming into their orchestra."

Pak has been Orchestra Nova’s evangelical leader on a mission to save classical music. Now the orchestra has to move forward without him and his successes.

The musicians are left without jobs and a stage to play. In the end, nobody wins, including the audience.

For more on Jung-Ho Pak's career in San Diego, you can read James Chute's story in the U-T San Diego.

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Avatar for user 'olinhyde'

olinhyde | October 18, 2012 at 9:51 a.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

Unbelievable! The unions are killing the only classical music company that is selling out, growing and innovating... because they didn't learn how to play with passion?

The unions don't want to innovate.

Anyone that loves classical music knows that the audiences are dying -- literally. Most orchestras survive on big foundation grants and public subsidies. Not Orchestra Nova. They were thriving by bringing new life to an old art form.

Pak did things differently. The audiences love it.

But the unions didn't. Why? Because the union is a dinosaur that refuses to adapt to the new competitive pressures. They would rather die than change.

The days of learning all the job skills you needed in school are a long gone. Yes, it is quaint to think that professors can teach you what you need to know for work... but that doesn't apply in a world where knowledge doubles every five years. We all must constantly learn... or die. Just ask the steel workers or the people who worked in manufacturing...

It is good to let this union suffer. The union members have a choice of not working and being replaced by non-union talent OR changing their incompetent, Luddite leadership.

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Avatar for user 'livemusic'

livemusic | October 18, 2012 at 1:55 p.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

Musician's Union Local 325, of which I am a life member, is right on this one. Like it or not, the musicians are equal partners in this endeavor and must not cede all power to the musical director. We have already fought those battles. The history of unions is certainly checkered but overall have produced living wages and better and safer working conditions.
As for Mr. Pak's "vision" for the orchestra, it is misguided and leaves out the primary reason for the existence of the orchestra, and that is the music! What he demands is superficial to that purpose.
Pak's statement:
“Bottom line is what happens on stage needs to be as electric as Mick Jagger on stage or Lady Gaga because that’s essentially who we’re competing against,” Really?
Yikes, have you seen the "Stones" lately. Keith Richards supposedly smoked his fathers ashes. Perhaps the entire orchestra should just get stoned before every concert! Gotta' keep up.
Seriously, soloists can emote as they see fit, with a group it is the cohesiveness of the ensemble that is important and individuals should not distract from what is most important - the music. Chamber music is some of the most beautiful music produced on earth and can stand on its own merit if performed well.
I am sorry Mr. Pak but you are not Toscanini nor George Szell. They were tyrants but only to the extent that they wanted to produce the most beautiful music possible. Does Itzhak Perlman lack emotion and passion because of his limits of movement? Of course not, because the music is a reflections of what is in his heart and soul. Heart and soul is what is taught in every musical institution worth it's salt along with technique, sound production, phrasing and other important musical tools. How far one can jump out of a chair with every forte or by a wearing a clown costume or playing while using hula hoops is only cosmetic.
What are the limits? Apparently Mr. Pak doesn't want any. Perhaps just pre recorded music with dancers and actors? Perhaps, dancing pigs in tutus for Carnival of the Animals?
Unfortunately, it ended being his way or the highway. He chose the highway. Play the concerts and find a serious conductor.

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Avatar for user 'whimbrel'

whimbrel | October 18, 2012 at 2:44 p.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

Music lover, especially of live music, here. We subscribed to San Diego Chamber Orchestra almost from the beginning, and to Orchestra Nova. I feel that it is up to the conductor to shape the music to convey the emotions he or she wants expressed. I don't need to see beaming violinists, or sad-faced cellists, in order to feel emotion from music. The food, the costumed actors, the intermission singers and dancers, are irrelevant to me - I generally ignore much of this. I come for the music, and I want to hear a good variety. Sometimes it seems that the programs are tending toward high-class Pops concerts - mostly bonbons, when we also need our protein and vegetables for a healthy musical diet!

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Avatar for user 'Woody619'

Woody619 | October 18, 2012 at 4:03 p.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

@ olinhyde: which non-union talent are you talking about?

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Avatar for user 'Christian_Hertzog'

Christian_Hertzog | October 18, 2012 at 6:20 p.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

The community might have a better idea of what Orchestra Nova was up to if Jung Ho Pak allowed music critics to review Orchestra Nova's concerts. Several years ago, there was an embargo on all reviews due to a mildly critical review in the Union-Tribune. I know, I was one of the critics (writing for at the time) who was told that Orchestra Nova would no longer provide press comps.

There isn't a major orchestra in the country where the conductor can fire players at will. Pak requested something that he knew very well the Nova musicians would not concede.

Every conductor has to work with the available musicians in the orchestra. A performance of a symphony rarely flows straight from a conductor's neurons through his or her arm and into the souls of the musician. Conducting an orchestra is a collaborative process, and even a conductor with the most demanding vision of a work has to accept that there are limitations between that ideal realization in their mind and what 50 to 100 musicians can jointly produce. With his resignation, Pak has clearly demonstrated that he is not interested in collaboration.

Here's a proposal, and it's not modest. It will take an investment of time and energy on the players involved, but it could produce a better chamber symphony for San Diego. Why not play without a conductor, like Orpheus or the Australian Chamber Orchestra? Programming decisions could be made by a player's committee, and the concertmaster could act as the leader of the ensemble. If anything, the musicians in the San Diego Chamber Orchestra and Orchestra Nova have been held back by their conductors. Music lovers always knew that the musicians were capable of better performances than Donald Barra or Jung Ho Pak ever produced. The board will save money on the conductor's salary. We've seen what other collectives such as Art of Elan can achieve. Why not let the musicians pick their own projects and perform without a conductor? Find a niche in San Diego programming that the San Diego Symphony and Mainly Mozart do not fill, and give San Diegans something they cannot otherwise obtain in the community. That, combined with well-rehearsed performances, will bring people to concerts more than any talks or video presentations--as Art of Elan has so ably demonstrated.

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Avatar for user 'violina'

violina | October 19, 2012 at 5:30 p.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

@olinhyde: It's difficult to justify your statement that "unions don't want to innovate" when you realize that those same AFM musicians were in fact on-board with Pak's vision during his tenure. Want two items of proof? Item #1: Nova sold out most of its concerts last season, and Pak didn't do that alone. Item #2: Nova's AFM musicians agreed to start this season without a contract, which shows they wanted to continue on the success of last season. I don't know why in the world an organization's management wouldn't want to continue a system that has proven a success in ticket sales. In other words, I don't know why Nova wouldn't want to keep the musicians who helped turn last season into a success. It's so sad because the real losers in this situation are ticket holders.

Note, I say this as a non-union musician, though watching this Nova saga unfold has made me think about my union stance.

@Woody619: I hope you don't mean to imply that union membership equates to talent. There is no audition requirement for AFM membership that I know of.

@Christian_Hertzog: Amen. I love the Australian Chamber Orchestra vibe. They stand instead of sit, which generates more movement, and therefore more excitement, in an authentic way. I love watching the non-verbal communication within the section, between sections and with the concertmaster. That's where the real electricity lies in live ensemble music. A funny little man hopping about in front of them is only going to distract from that. I say leave the conductors and their big egos to the big orchestras.

And I wasn't aware that Nova seemed to discourage peer review of their work, that's very interesting. Thank you!

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Avatar for user 'obbass'

obbass | October 19, 2012 at 11:41 p.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

Something that has come up often in the discussion of Nova is that the musicians were being asked to do something that they weren't trained to do. I went to the same conservatory as such dynamic soloists as Lang Lang, Leila Josefowicz, Hilary Hahn and others. I was definitely taught to emote, it is one of the core principles of instrumental playing. One is taught and repeatedly told to EXAGGERATE things such as dynamics and phrasing so that they are heard clearly by- as most teachers would say "the person in the very last row of the hall!"

Movement was never discouraged. If a player in conservatory moved when they played, that was their choice and their style.

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