Jung-Ho Pak Talks About Resigning From Orchestra Nova
When Jung-Ho Pak resigned as Orchestra Nova’s conductor and artistic director, it set off a domino effect.
Pak resigned within days of the season opening concerts, which were subsequently canceled. Last week, the entire season was canceled.
Nova and the local musicians union reached an impasse in September after six months of labor negotiations. That led to Pak's departure.
Speaking by phone from his home in Monterey, CA, Pak said he left because the orchestra could not move forward given the stalled talks and he wanted to spend more time with his family.
Pak also said he doesn't feel responsible for the cancellation of the season or the orchestra's uncertain future. "I don’t...I was very acutely aware of the ramifications. All of these things keep you up at night and you wonder if there's ever a good time to leave. It just didn’t look like it was going to be logistically possible to move the orchestra forward. That’s when I felt it was time for me to step aside."
Talks with the musicians union broke down over contracts. Pak didn’t want to offer the standard annual contract to the same musicians. He wanted to pick and choose union musicians who could perform with expression. He wants them to emote. Perform with passion. I asked him to be more specific.
"Well, it’s kind of like talking about the nature of music or the nature of emotion. It’s kind of ephemeral and I sometimes hate to define it and describe it. It really is most powerful when you see it and experience it yourself. It’s kind of like that Supreme Court quote, 'If it’s pornography, you know it when you see it.'"
It’s easy to see how Pak’s vision could be frustrating for musicians. There’s not a recipe for how to perform the way Pak wants. The musicians won their contracts through competitive auditions based on their ability to play music.
"There are artistic dismissal procedures in place if anyone wasn't cutting it and Jung-Ho never chose to use those," says Andrea Altona, president of the local musicians union and a violinist with Orchestra Nova. She says the collective bargaining process is not the place to begin dismissing musicians.
Performing with emotion is not all that's driving the contract dispute. Musicians, even if they've signed an annual contract with Orchestra Nova, can opt out of a Nova performance for a better paying opportunity. The orchestra is left to find replacement musicians. "What’s happened over the last year or two is more and more players have taken advantage of that" said Pak. "To the point where there were concerts in which our audiences didn’t even recognize the players on stage."
Roughly one third of Nova's musicians are full-time employees of the San Diego Symphony. Since Nova schedules some of their concerts on the same weekends as Symphony concerts, those musicians have to opt out, explained Pat Pfiffner, a member of the musicians union and a percussionist with Orchestra Nova. Presumably, if Nova would schedule around the Symphony schedule, the opting out would be less of a problem.
Pak said he remembers a different, more collegial relationship with the musicians, when he first joined Nova six years ago. He shared his vision with them. "I said if you can trust me on this and we can release our energy together and have a heck of a good time on stage, you will see our audiences grow."
And audiences did grow. Nova sold out many of their concerts last year. Nova often cites those sell-out concerts as evidence of the success of Pak's vision. But that success also suggests the musicians were performing with the emotion Pak wanted. I asked the conductor why he needed different musicians if concerts were selling out.
It’s not that I ever fired or hired a musician based on how much they move or based on their facial expression. But if a player simply doesn’t buy into this strategy of reaching out into an audience and risking - and that risk can be more than just emotion. It could be, 'Let’s try moving on stage for this one piece.' If a player doesn’t want to do that, what options are there for that organization? I think that’s what’s at the heart of these discussions.
According to Pak, he and the musicians once trusted each other. "We've given some fabulous concerts. And we knew it when we walked off the stage and gave each other hugs. We knew we'd created magic. I conducted my heart out and had fun and encouraged them to do the same. And many times they stepped up to it."
He blames the erosion of that mutual trust on labor negotiations. "The thing that actually effected that trust in such a short amount of time is this ritual of negotiation that’s played out in orchestras around the country," said Pak. "It’s why I despise it so."
The conductor says he values the union, but wishes he could work with the musicians he wants.
I asked Pak why he couldn’t stick it out and find a way to make it work with the musicians. "I really survive off of hope, off of enthusiasm from the audience, enthusiasm from the musicians. There’s a point where I have to preserve that enthusiasm. When it becomes only about struggle or disagreement, my reservoir to fight against cynicism or the naysayers is only finite."
The musicians remain hopeful a resolution can still be found. "We agreed to play the opening concert once Jung-Ho stepped down," said Altona via email. "We felt certain that we could reach agreement with any other conductor as well. We offered a very talented and well-respected replacement, to which they (Nova staff) said 'No.'"
When I asked Pak what his hopes are for the future of Orchestra Nova, he took a long pause. "The mission of Orchestra Nova was to inspire beauty and joy through great music. For all the people who appreciated and supported Orchestra Nova, I hope they continue to search for that and that they find it from time to time."
Orchestra Nova hasn’t announced a plan for the future. Jung-Ho Pak says he’ll focus on leading the Cape Cod Symphony in Massachusetts, where he’s served as conductor and artistic director since 2007.