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