The Art of Arts Management: Pat Zagelow and 30 years at Friends of Chamber Music

An elaborate surprise party celebrates Zagelow's three decades as the music group's top administrator – and the adventurous programs she's brought in.

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On Friday, March 15, 1991, Pat Zagelow was three days away from enjoying the first performances in her tenure as the newly appointed executive director of Portland’s Friends of Chamber Music. The stars, even then recognized as one of the world’s finest ensembles: the Takacs String Quartet. She’d made all the arrangements for the upcoming Monday and Tuesday shows: contracts, travel arranged, hall reserved, programs printed, ushers recruited, and the myriad other details involved in putting together a concert featuring an international group.

Then came the call: one of the members was ill. The group couldn’t come. The concert was off.

Or was it? Zagelow couldn’t abide the thought of canceling her first concerts as head honcho. Plenty of other great chamber ensembles must be available, even on two days’ notice. She looked at the clock. All those performers were represented by management companies based in New York — where offices had closed for the weekend three hours earlier. No cellphones in ’91. What now?

Pat Zagelow with Hermitage Piano Trio (L-R Ilya Kazantsev, Sergey Antonov, Zagelow, Misha Keylin) at Saturday’s surprise celebration. Photo: Karen Johnson.

Zagelow pondered. She remembered that FOCM’s board president Betty Cramer Perkins had a daughter who managed top chamber ensembles. After a few phone calls and a couple days, the Colorado String Quartet was on its way to perform a pair of well-received shows.

 Flash forward thirty years, and Zagelow, now a seasoned veteran as one of the longest-serving arts administrators in Oregon, faced another crisis. The pandemic forced cancellation of a season’s worth of live shows, and a shift to streaming. According to FOCM’s board, she managed the pandemic-propelled cancellation and shift to streaming with similar aplomb. “It’s mind-boggling to think of all the challenges associated with coordinating the negotiation and production of all these streaming concerts,” wrote one board member in her latest performance evaluation, calling the successful pivot “ impossible without Pat’s experience and long-term relationships with the involved organizations.”

In between those crises lay three decades of solid growth, expansion and direction of one of Oregon’s most distinguished art series. Both trials by fire reveal Zagelow’s steadiness and resourcefulness — two qualities urgently needed in nonprofit management in turbulent times. They also demonstrate a willingness to rely on an active board of directors — not the figureheads common in some other organizations, who are merely expected to raise funds and rubber-stamp the ED’s whims. Those traits would guide Zagelow’s stewardship of FOCM for the next three decades — a tenure that offers lessons for anyone engaged in the cat herding that is arts management.

Maybe that’s why this year’s FOCM board president, Ulrich Hardt, arranged yet another surprise for Zagelow — this one far more pleasant  — when Zagelow and her husband headed out to what was supposed to be an intimate dinner with their grown children — only to find themselves in  a full-fledged surprise 30th anniversary celebration at a St. Philip Neri church hall, with more than 100 FOCM supporters serenading her with special lyrics to the tune of Kander & Ebb’s “Cabaret,” written by Kevin Walsh and John Strege, and rehearsed by the group before her arrival. Even though hundreds of people knew about the surprise party for weeks, no one spoiled it. And even they were taken aback by the appearance (known only to the party planners) of the Hermitage Piano Trio, which often performs in Oregon.

The event featured congratulatory letters, video tributes from Kronos Quartet in San Francisco, Calmus vocal ensemble from a Paris rooftop, Tambuco Percussion Ensemble in Mexico City, star pianist Jon Kimura Parker, and more. The last several presidents of the organization’s activist board of directors and other speakers, including Zagelow’s older sister, author Molly Gloss, also offered recollections and kudos.  Zagelow has accumulated and inspired many memories.

Musical Multitasking

Zagelow studied piano from the time she was nine years old. After graduating from Gresham High School, Zagelow worked as a legal secretary, a professional seamstress, a small business founder/owner (Denim Designs, where she and eventually two full time employees designing and sewing original clothing and accessories for children out of their attic), and mom to two young boys. Only then did she enroll at Portland State University, majoring in music and meeting another Oregon arts legend, Prof. Harold Gray, whom she assisted in directing what was then called the PSU Piano Series, which eventually separated from the university and became Portland Piano International. 

By 1991, she found herself managing that series, as well as the then-half-century old FOCM (also then based at PSU) in what were supposed to be two part time jobs, plus another allegedly half time job advising PSU arts and culture student groups, and, after that, helped manage the school’s contemporary dance season. By 1995, she added a third major job: executive director of Portland’s venerable Oregon Repertory Singers. In her three-year stint there, Zagelow was “invaluable to our organization at a time of need in moving us ahead to a higher level of both solid financial footing as well as artistic vision,” wrote emeritus artistic director Gil Seeley in a 30th anniversary tribute. 

Sponsor

After three years in what amounted to three full-time jobs (for which she made a total of $4,000 annually, she recalls), Zagelow left ORS. Then she had to manage the delicate task of extricating the other two organizations from PSU, whose restrictions (as a state entity) sometimes stifled their ambitions. By 2009, her remaining two jobs had grown so much that she was forced to choose one. She picked FOCM.

Onstage and Off

But just keeping the current course wasn’t enough for Zagelow.  In 1999, to attract a broader (and younger) audience, FOCM started its Not So Classic Series, featuring music that ranges beyond the usual 19th century Euroclassics. Classical chamber music can seem like a rather esoteric art form to non-insiders, who often report that they feel (wrongly) that they have to “know something” about classical music to chance a concert. Other organizations around the country have tried similar “crossover” strategies, but many amount to classical-lite, with emphasis on tuneful, familiar standards, or pop song arrangements for classical instruments. 

The NSC series, by contrast, brings solid music from folk or other nonclassical traditions, and in my experience, the audience really eats them up. Both performers and audience members seem a bit more relaxed than at standard classical shows, and the series’ undefined nature (that clunky name does have advantages after all) means it’s open to a wide range of genres and approaches. It’s a consistently impressive series that encourages risk taking for music fans seeking to explore beyond their usual musical hiking trails. 

Six years later, Zagelow added another series, the first of its kind in Portland. While vocal recitals of so-called “art song” tend to draw an even narrower audience, it’s an enthusiastic one, and at the time, hardly any other presenters in Oregon were willing to book them. But FOCM’s Vocal Arts Series has also proved both artistically and, apparently financially, as it continues to offer terrific performances of too-rarely heard repertoire to its many Portland fans. When Chamber Music America presented FOCM its CMAcclaim award in 2013, the national organization specifically cited its music education and appreciation programs and the Vocal Arts Series, without which “it is likely that art song recitals would be extinct in Portland.” 

A third major Zagelow achievement is even more ambitious: festivals featuring complete string quartet cycles of the greatest composers in that medium, Beethoven, Bartok and Shostakovich. Those were risky, especially that last one. Would enough audients show up for multiple concerts spotlighting a formidable 20th century composer who had a reputation for music that reflected the dark time and place of his Soviet homeland? 

They did. The Jerusalem Quartet’s revelatory Shostakovich cycle especially was a triumph that Zagelow calls her proudest moment at FOCM , and the two series so far constitute landmarks in Portland classical music. More are on the way, including a postponed Dvorak festival starring the Martinu Quartet and guests next year.  

While performances at PSU’s Lincoln Hall and the Old Church draw most of the attention, they’re only part of FOCM’s mission, and Zagelow’s work. The visiting performers offer open-to-the public master classes to Portland State students, and often take education outreach programs to Portland public schools. Those community contributions earned Zagelow 30th anniversary kudos from PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, PSU President Stephen Percy, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who also praised the statewide economic and cultural impact of FOCM. 

Her main job has been picking the world-class performers, including those in the main Classic Series, and she researches and narrows the vast list of potential candidates and brings them to a board committee that helps her further research choose that season’s lineup. It can be quite a puzzle to line up dates, touring schedules, budgets, variety and myriad other factors. But she has plenty of help.

Keys to Success

The FOCM’s board’s involvement has been crucial to FOCM’s success. “She was careful to choose board members who would contribute work and dedication,” says ArtsWatch contributor Alice Hardesty, who served on the FOCM board and also on its Ashland counterpart. 

FOCM insists that board members “truly love chamber music and know some things about it,” Hardt explains. “They must be willing to learn, work on committees, and be a team player. Everyone can be on the Artistic Committee that selects all the performers, but everyone must serve on another committee or two: finance, development, education & outreach, diversity, marketing & PR.” Board members must also rotate on and off, and Zagelow and the current board are actively seeking to diversify — essential in a field as historically unrepresentative as classical music. 

Just as important is who they don’t want. “We’re not looking for people who merely want to enhance their resumes,  who would be window dressing or whose only contribution would be deep pockets,” he says.

“The relationship between the board and ED is so critical,” Zagelow says. “Maybe that’s been the secret to our success. They’ve been very cognizant of what their role is but also on not infringing on what the staff should be doing. They’re not trying to choose the color that goes on the brochure! There’s a lot of crossover, but I think we’ve always been clear what our roles are and how they work with each other. They’re supportive, they set policy, they’re very engaged and involved. They’re there when you need them.”

Hardt, now in his second stint as FOCM board president, credits Zagelow’s “magical combination” of traits for her success: “Integrity and honesty, generosity, intelligence (she’s a keen processor of multiple sources of information), patience (I’ve never heard her cut people off with ‘We’ve tried that before…’ ), diplomacy (sensitivity to people’s feelings but determination to maintaining absolute quality of product), unflappability and problem-solving ability (stays cool under pressure, even when an ice storm paralyzes the city), selflessness–her constant focus is on the benefit for the organization. She once told the board who voted to raise her salary, ‘You are being fiscally irresponsible!’”

“Pat Zagelow is a superb writer, successful communicator, and careful explainer of rationale,” Hardt continues. “She is a visionary,  but she does not jump into new things without much examination.”

Zagelow performing with Trillium Quartet in 2018.

It’s not just the board that sings Zagelow’s praises. She creates a welcoming attitude in which the artists, not the director, shine. “Playing on this series is always special to us,” wrote members of frequent FOCM visitors the Pacifica Quartet, “because of the atmosphere you have created, the wonderful audience, and the care and tremendous work that you put into taking care of the smallest details.” 

When the occasional diva requests popped up, like for a one-block limo ride, “they made do with a 20-year-old bordeaux-red Mercedes Benz and a driver who doubled as the ticket seller,” Zagelow wrote on FOCM’s Chat with Pat blog, another way she demystifies classical music for audiences. The contextual programming surrounding festivals is still another.

One reason artists feel so welcome is that Zagelow understands them. She is herself a performing chamber musician, playing piano in the Trillium Quartet (named after the flowers in her garden) she co-founded a decade ago. “Your deep understanding of music and musicians makes us feel valued and utterly at home,” wrote the great pianist Richard Goode.

She’s attentive to the audience, too. Maybe in part because of her background in working outside the academic/arts bubbles, Zagelow always makes even newbies feel welcome. (That’s actually a Portland classical music hallmark; in the hundreds of shows I’ve attended, usually wearing jeans, I’ve rarely if ever encountered the snootiness I’ve seen in other cities.) Shows run crisply; programs are informative; her concert intros are down to earth, genuine — and brief. 

She also puts in the work herself. “When I played a fundraiser for FOCM,” remembers another ArtsWatch contributor, pianist Maria Choban, “Pat was in the kitchen, working and serving, not at the table playing grande dame.” 

Zagelow at FOCM Dinner with Friends 2019. Photo: John Green.

It’s often said of theater directors that they’ve been successful if no one talks about the director. While it’s certainly possible for charismatic leaders — think PICA’s Kristy Edmunds — to ignite arts organizations to glory, Zagelow’s relational,  self-effacing style and no-drama leadership can make it easy to take behind-the-scenes leaders like her for granted.

All those skills were tested in FOCM’s — and the music world’s — most recent crisis. Zagelow called the pandemic, and the separation of PPI and FOCM, the two biggest challenges she faced in her tenure. With live performances canceled (a ginormous task in itself), the organization joined many others in pivoting to streaming performances (and, she insisted, interviews with performers), a new experience for all involved. You can read her extensive explanation of how that went down on her Feb. 21 Chat with Pat.

The result? Audiences nearing 2,000, more than would have seen shows live, and, from the outside at least, as seamless an experience as imaginable.  More comments from her most recent performance evaluations: 

  • “Pat has done an incredible job in adapting our organization to the challenges of Covid.”
  • “Pat had to completely recreate her well seasoned process for presenting a first-class concert series online and has done so graciously and competently.”
  • “When many arts organizations are struggling, it seems Pat has good answers for how to keep music in our lives, musicians paid, and our supporters and audiences still with us.”

Certainly the spotlight — even at ArtsWatch — will almost always be on who’s performing onstage, not the hard-working people behind the scenes who make it possible for them to get there. But the arts can’t succeed without able administrators, and there’s much to learn from an organization that’s run so steadily for so long, while continuing to expand its horizons.

Dream Job

“This is not a retirement party!” insisted current FOCM board president Hardt, chief perpetrator of the surprise celebration, at last Saturday’s surprise party, after a series of speakers had praised Zagelow’s managerial acumen, financial and budgeting prowess, and relationship (including listening) skills. Even though the event featured enough praise for a lifetime, Zagelow insists she’s not ready to move on, even though most of her friends have already preceded her in retirement. 

“It’s still my dream job,” she told ArtsWatch. “I get such great support from the board and I have so much fun! There’s always something new and different. It’s sometimes challenging, but I think that’s what I love about the job. You have to do a lot of different tasks. The main thing that makes it so satisfying is getting to know all the amazing artists. As long as I love it, and I’m having fun, why would I retire?”

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