A global opera premiere and new artistic partnerships are the latest in a string of successes pioneered by the chamber orchestra's longtime leader and newly named CEO.
For much of her life, Janet Chen has been on the move.
At age 7, the native of Cincinnati relocated with her family to her parents’ home country of Taiwan. As an adult, she gave up a promising career abroad as a professional flutist to return to Ohio to pursue arts administration—a detour that ultimately led her to ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, where she started off as a director of operations and education in 2003 and was named executive director three years later.
In September, after 13 years as the organization’s top administrator, Chen received a new title: CEO. It’s the latest unexpected twist in a life that’s been chock-full of them. “It was honestly a surprise to me,” Chen says of her new role. “I had no idea that discussions were happening.”
For members of ProMusica’s board of directors, though, the decision was an obvious one: Chen has long been functioning as a CEO, says board president Lee Shackelford, but the organization never had such a title until now. “This was the right time,” Shackelford says. “The organization has to support the title, and the person in the position has to be worthy, so both of those things have come together nicely for us.
“She can walk a path that is not paved, and that means the ability to be consistently visionary and consistently pushing the envelope,” Shackelford says. “That’s what inspired us to give her a title that we had sort of been assuming.”Stay up to date with the region’s thriving business scene. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.
The appointment is also an acknowledgment of Chen’s part in growing ProMusica, which has long been a stalwart in the Central Ohio performing-arts community but has seen its reach grow in recent years thanks to education programs, additional concerts outside of its usual venue of the Southern Theatre and a 2017 tour to Chicago.
“She’s never stagnant,” says Opera Columbus General and Artistic Director Peggy Kriha Dye, whose company collaborated with ProMusica on the opera The Flood. “She’s always pushing herself, whether it be artistically or positioning her company in the community. She’s always finding new ways to be relevant.”
Co-founded in 1978 by former music director Timothy Russell and Richard Early, ProMusica is a classical-music ensemble that distinguishes itself from the Columbus Symphony for its compact roster (37 musicians in contrast to the symphony’s average of around 75) and distinctive repertoire.
During her tenure, Chen has managed an era of significant change at the organization, including the hiring of Russell’s successor, current music director David Danzmayr, and an increase in its budget. This year, ProMusica enjoys a budget of $2 million, a figure that has doubled since seven years ago, and its full-time staff has gone from five to eight. Subscriptions to the orchestra’s concerts have grown by 37 percent over the last five years, and its musicians, who live all over the country, are supported by outside sponsors who help cover their pay.
“The founder had given us great bones and great structure on which to create a sustainable organization, but Janet took those to another level,” Shackelford says. “The partnership between David Danzmayr and Janet is extraordinary—they complete each other’s sentences.”
For his part, Danzmayr points to Chen’s background as a working musician to explain her success in running the orchestra. “As great as she is in management, her first reflexes are that of a musician,” Danzmayr says. “I think more people in the music business should have that—you know, music first, experience of the audience first. That’s why we are there: Not to glorify yourself and look good, but actually to give the audience a really great experience.”
Born in Cincinnati because her parents—her mother is a pianist; her late father, a physiologist—were then studying at the University of Cincinnati, Chen was encouraged to play the piano from an early age. But in an act of rebellion, Chen, the eldest of two siblings, took up the flute when she was in third grade.
“I decided that I was tired of my mother telling me what to do,” Chen says. “I thought, if I played the flute, then she wouldn’t know that I could get away with certain things, which was certainly not the case.”
First moving from Cincinnati to Massachusetts and then from Massachusetts to Taiwan, Chen had few constants in her young life. “I didn’t speak the language,” she says of relocating overseas. “I very vividly remember how traumatic it was to leave, as a 7-year-old, things that are [in my] comfort zone—so, cartoons, McDonald’s, all of that—and move to a country that had none of that.”
Yet music-making provided Chen with a measure of continuity. “Having had music all my life, I think, has really helped me be able to adapt to wherever I was at that moment, adapt to people, to cultures, to thinking,” Chen says. “Now, obviously, our world is such an international platform that all of that comes into play.”
Coming back to Ohio to finish her studies—she received degrees in flute performance from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 1998 and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in 2000—Chen wanted to make a profession out of her passion, but she wasn’t sure what shape it might take.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to became an orchestral player,” she says. “I didn’t know if I wanted to be teaching.”
In 2000, Chen returned to Taiwan to join the Taipei Symphony Orchestra. Even as she was enjoying success on the stage, though, the flutist had an itch to make one more move. “I really wanted to come back to the United States,” she says. “There’s an idea of the American dream, as a child of immigrants and all that, [that] is something that’s always been on the mind.”
In 2002, Chen called the orchestra quits and decided to set up shop in Cleveland. There, the musician freelanced, taking jobs teaching and performing, before hearing about an opening at ProMusica from former Oberlin classmate Michael LaMattina, a ProMusica musician. The title of the position intrigued her: director of operations and education.
“I had always had this kind of wonderment about management,” Chen says. “I was always curious about: ‘When I go to a concert and I look at the program book and there are all these people’s names—and what does that mean?’ ”
In 2003, Chen joined ProMusica in a job that called for her to run the orchestra’s education programming and help produce its concerts. Although she was new to such work, leaders within the organization took notice of the novice. “There was strong board leadership at the time who recognized Janet’s talent,” Shackelford says.
In 2006, after Chen had decided to leave ProMusica for a job at Oberlin, several board members asked her to remain at the orchestra—in fact, to entertain the idea of becoming its executive director (a position for which a search was then being conducted). Chen was unsure about the prospect—she says today that she felt underqualified to oversee budgets, fundraising and other business operations—but she was comfortable enough with the orchestra to decide to jump in.
“I eventually decided that if I were ever going to have an opportunity to just take a risk and take a leap of faith in myself, in a space that I knew where I had trusted people around me, that this would be it,” Chen says. “I changed my mind on the Oberlin thing.”
Early in her tenure, Chen navigated ProMusica through the recession of the late 2000s, from which the orchestra emerged intact and primed to grow. “We had a couple of rough years there in ’08, ’09,” Chen says. “We’ve still been able to manage balanced budgets consecutively ever since ’09.”
In 2013, music director Danzmayr was hired along with a creative partner and principal guest artist, Ukrainian violinist Vadim Gluzman, giving the orchestra a uniquely international flavor. “The three of us always like to talk about how we each are culturally coming from very different backgrounds,” Chen says. “Because we’re all musicians, we are able to very quickly connect to each other and connect our music to everybody around us.”
Danzmayr, who along with Gluzman is tasked with charting the orchestra’s artistic course, praises Chen for what he describes as her selfless dedication to the organization. “She’s incredibly intelligent, she’s very good with the community—all of these qualities are on display all the time,” Danzmayr says. “But I think one quality that I see, in comparison in the business and that is not always the case, is that it’s not about her.”
As ProMusica’s budget has grown, its programming has spread beyond the Southern Theatre. Each August, the orchestra takes over the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens for a festival of free outdoor performances. Since this past fall, orchestra musicians have been offering laid-back concerts in such venues as the Brothers Drake Meadery and Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza as part of its “ProMusica Sessions” series.
“I’ve been to those performances,” Shackelford says. “You just feel the energy of people feeling something new from the familiar.”
Educational programs initiated during Chen’s tenure include “Naked Classics”—in which the orchestra offers an analysis of a masterwork prior to playing it—and “Play Us Forward,” in which music instruction and instruments are made available free of charge to area students.
“These are kids coming from the most economically challenging and highest crime-rate neighborhoods,” Chen says. “We started with 60 students, and now we’re going into our fifth year, and we have served over 120 students.”
She’s also excelled at establishing collaborations with other arts organizations, including BalletMet, Shadowbox Live! and Opera Columbus, which co-commissioned with ProMusica an original opera, “The Flood.” The all-new work, centered on the impact of the Great Flood of 1913, featured members of the orchestra accompanying singers retained by the opera. It earned strong reviews, including a rave in the Wall Street Journal.
“It was an opera, so this was not something that ProMusica had been involved with before,” Dye says. “It might have been easy for her, and certainly understandable for her, not to be as involved as she was. But her hands were completely dirty in this project.”
Chen’s open, outgoing nature is noted by those in the wider Central Ohio arts community. “You’re completely drawn to her,” says Tom Katzenmeyer, president and CEO of the Greater Columbus Arts Council. “She has an infectious personality. You want to work with her—she’s fun, she’s incredibly creative.”
In fact, Shackelford attributes the remarkable growth of ProMusica’s endowment—which as recently as 2014 stood at $1.4 million but is now $2.3 million—to the impact of Chen’s personality on donors. “She is lovely with people,” the board president says. “The endowment has been built on relationships that Janet has forged and maintained.”
Chen, who lives in Upper Arlington with her husband, commercial photographer Rick Buchanan, is reluctant to plan too far into her own future. She says that each time she planned on being one place, she ended up somewhere else, but she adds: “I love Columbus; I obviously love ProMusica.”
If there’s a lesson in the flutist-turned-executive-director-turned-CEO’s life so far, maybe it’s that inspiration can be found anywhere—whether in Taiwan, Oberlin or right here in the capital city.
“I try to find my pockets of escape,” Chen says, speaking of how she spends her time away from work. “It can be reading; it can be walking; it can be hiking. You get inspired by things around you. It’s just part of who I am.”
Janet Chen has faced challenges in leading ProMusica. She explains how she’s handled them.
Was it an overwhelming task to hire the second music director, following Timothy Russell?
It was a huge responsibility, and I knew that we had big shoes to fill. ProMusica owes Tim just huge gratitude for all that he accomplished. Tim and ProMusica were very tied together, and as the organization was growing, it was also important that we kind of broaden our reach. I would say that the advantage of having led that transition was that I knew, and know, the musicians very well. In my first three years in that job, I mainly dealt with all the musicians and kind of understood what moved them and what inspired them from an artistic perspective. That was very helpful, in those conversations … with the search committee and the board about: “What would the next music director look like?”
Why did you feel that ProMusica was ready to double its budget?
Why we do what we do quite well is that we aspire, but we do it to scale. It wasn’t like overnight. We went from $1 [million] to $1.2 to $1.4 to $ 1.6 [millon], so this is over the course of five to seven years that we made this very strategic, conscious effort that we wanted to grow the budget. I will have to give credit to David [Danzmayr] and Vadim [Gluzman]. … A lot of it was a combination of dreaming, but somebody at the end of the day has to put it into a strategy and a plan.
Where does your passion for community outreach come from?
I’m very fortunate that I had music in my life since day one, my mother being a pianist. I, up to this day, don’t have a day … where I [don’t] have some kind of music around, and I look at the opportunities it has brought me: The ability to connect people, the ability to use music as a universal language for whatever is going around us. I’ve just been very privileged in that way, and I recognize, especially in America, that is not the case. Music is getting cut from schools ... but I believe firsthand that having access to music, whether you’re young or at whatever age in your life, offers something. As a young kid, it provides building blocks—teamwork, discipline, accountability, commitment—that serve you into adulthood.
Peter Tonguette is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.