Interview by Sarah Shumick
By her own admission, Janet Chen often “thinks” in Mandarin, but in her day-to-day life, she speaks a more universal language: the language of music. Janet’s biggest passion is connecting people through music, and her role as executive director of ProMusica Chamber Orchestra allows her to do just that. As a former flutist with the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, Janet put down her instrument professionally, transferring her talents to arts administration, which is how she came to Columbus. ProMusica Chamber Orchestra operates out of the Southern Theatre and impacts approximately 16,800 lives each season through efforts in learning and outreach.
Give us a brief overview of your organization: ProMusica is currently celebrating our 40th season. Led by our Music Director David Danzmayr, and our Creative Partner, violinist Vadim Gluzman, we are a chamber orchestra of 37 musicians who come from Columbus and all over the country, who choose to make this city their musical home. As the resident orchestra at the Southern Theatre, we present classical works, champion bold new commissions, and innovate through crossover collaborations. Deeply rooted in our city’s cultural fabric, ProMusica’s community outreach programs impact approximately 16,800 lives each season. Musicians travel to local schools, senior citizens attend live rehearsals, and under-served youth are given life-changing opportunities with the power of music. Our mission is to deliver a world-class chamber orchestra experience through innovative programming, audience intimacy, exceptional talent, and artistic excellence.
How is your organization making an impact in Columbus? For 40 years ProMusica has been committed to creating and leading a musical movement through adventurous programs and world-class performances. We believe our music has made, and continues to make an impact by serving as a universal language, strengthening our community to become even more richly vibrant. For seven years we have offered free summer concerts to the community at Franklin Park Conservatory, and our “Play Us Forward” program serves approximately 100 middle-school students from our most underserved neighborhoods, putting violins and music directly into their hands during the school day. Most recently, our collaboration with Opera Columbus premiere a new chamber opera, garnered critical acclaim by The Wall Street Journal. ProMusica is intentional about serving Columbus through every musical experience we provide.
What makes your organization thrive? ProMusica thrives on the joy that our music brings to all sectors in our community. This is joy that is experienced by our audiences and participants at our home in the Southern Theatre, or at the neighborhood library branches, retirement communities, or our 20+ partner schools. We also thrive on making music at the highest level – constantly taking artistic risks that contribute to the future of our industry.
As a leader, how do you come up with innovative ideas, and what helps put those ideas into action? I am fortunate to work with brilliant artists and musicians, including our artistic leaders, David and Vadim. Together, we dream up creative and innovative projects – we look at how we can stretch the orchestra artistically, and how to challenge the industry “norm”. We also look at how partnerships can also serve to further and deepen our impact.
Give us a snapshot of your career path—what is your background, and what led you to work in the nonprofit sector? I was a flute player in my former life – with degrees in flute performance from Oberlin and the Cincinnati-Cnservatory Music. I spent some years onstage performing as Assistant Principal Flute with the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, as well as teaching and freelancing. The orchestral world is extremely competitive, and ultimately recognized that with my background and performing experience, I could transfer my passions from being on the stage, to working off the stage. ProMusica brought me to Columbus and gave me my first job in arts administration, working in the area of music education and concert operations — and ultimately transitioning into my current role.
What is the one thing you are most passionate about? I am passionate about connecting people through the universal language of music. I am also passionate about ensuring all children and youth have access to experience music and the arts.
Who inspires you? There are many people in my life who have inspired, and continue to inspire me. In particular, my grandmother who lived to be 106 and lived life to its fullest. But I find strongest sources of inspiration by being in the moment – whether it’s words in a book, a conversation, or being in nature.
How do you stay motivated? What drives you to take things to the next level? Seeing the impact that live musical experiences can bring to audiences keeps me motivated. Additionally, there are very few high quality, professional chamber orchestras in the country, and I firmly believe ProMusica is one of the top in the nation. We are constantly creating new and innovative works, having commissioned 67 new compositions and presented over 110 premieres. All of these combined are key ingredients to drive us further and forward.
Why do you think people should care about innovative nonprofits? Nonprofits are so important to the betterment of our communities. To me, nonprofit work is about blood, sweat, laughter, and soul – it is service-based work and missions move the needle and galvanize a City for the greater good.
What might others be surprised to know about you? I grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, and speak three languages. I often “think” in mandarin, which sometimes results in me speaking to my dogs and husband in a language they cannot understand.
How can others in the Columbus community get involved with your organization? We always welcome volunteers to be part of our musical experience at our concerts, education events, or on a committee! We encourage anyone and everyone of all ages and walks of life to join us at a concert or event – whether you are looking to dip your toes into the world of music, or a seasoned aficionado – we have something for everyone. ProMusica is a great place to meet new people, or escape the fast pace of daily life – come as you are, enjoy a glass of wine, be part of the musical moment. We would love to welcome you to the ProMusica family.
If someone were to ask you what the “pulse” of Columbus is, what would you tell them? Columbus is a city that is not afraid to ask the hard questions, and then do something about it! We are vibrant and moving on all cylinders full steam ahead.