Sweet music: St. Cecilia’s celebrates 130 years


The nonprofit St. Cecilia Music Center in downtown Grand Rapids features the 630-seat Royce Auditorium.

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) St. Cecilia Music Center is the oldest arts organization in the region, celebrating its 130-year anniversary this year.

The organization, founded by a group of nine Grand Rapids women with the mission of creating a place for music, has retained its original goal throughout several incarnations that have allowed it to remain relevant and an integral, thriving part of the city’s arts community.

In its 2007-2008 season, St. Cecilia’s began yet another transformation to help it retain its place in the community. It introduced two new presenting series: the Chamber Music Series and the Jazz Series. It has since added a Folk Series, as well as a School of Music outreach program focused on bringing chamber music to Grand Rapids Public Schools students at their schools. Its Chamber Music Series also gained a prominent partner, New York’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Executive Director Cathy Holbrook said there are three prominent arms to St. Cecilia’s that equally contribute to its longevity and sustainability: its successful, high quality music offerings; its educational programming; and its historic building and 630-seat concert hall.

“I think it is a very special venue for music,” Holbrook said. “The intimacy of the hall is something special. It went in a direction where there were all these sort of stadium-type venues. This has stayed small, so it’s very intimate. The acoustics are insanely good. The performers who come here — that is half the reason that we have this new partnership with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center people — it’s that the hall just blew them away.”

St. Cecilia’s owns its building, which at one point was facing demolition.

“The building was slated for destruction in the 1960s during that urban renewal phase down here. . . . They were going to get rid of it and just have Jefferson run all the way through,” Holbrook said. “Members of the community stepped up and petitioned against that. So I think the building in and of itself has given us a bit of an anchor that some organizations might close up and just pack up the office and go.”

The partnership with Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is one of only five in the nation, providing Grand Rapids audiences with a unique opportunity to see and hear performers and repertoires they otherwise might not have.

“David Finckel and Wu Han, who are the (Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center) artistic directors, are now the artistic directors for our series,” Holbrook said. “They are the ones choosing what we are going to see and hear.”

For those less familiar with chamber music, Holbrook compared Finckel and Han to the “Bono” of the genre, so it is a very big deal to have this partnership.

“The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center — that in and of itself is putting us on the map.”

In addition to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center series, the jazz and folk series have been important additions that are bringing in completely new audiences to St. Cecilia’s.

“We definitely felt like a whole new audience came in for the folk stuff. That was fun, to see so many new faces in the crowd,” she said.

St. Cecilia’s always has included an educational or music appreciation component, but in recent years its School of Music programs have expanded beyond its building.

“In the strategic planning sessions that we were doing at the time, the School of Music and its reach was a big topic of conversation for us.”

Now, in addition to its tuition-based programs, which include three youth orchestras, a youth band and three summer camps focused on rock, piano and string instruments, the School of Music also is bringing music to GRPS students at their schools.

“We provide the instruments, instructions and the music,” Holbrook said. “Our goal is that we start a beginning string class that happens after school — it’s for third, fourth and fifth graders — and then the next year we start an intermediate class so that some of those kids can move up and then new kids can start.”

The outreach program costs St. Cecilia $20,000 per school, but it hopes to secure funding to be able to expand the program by one new school per year. It’s currently working with Dickinson and Harrison Park elementary schools.

“Our goal for St. Cecilia is to be more integral to the community, to serve more people, to have more people touched by the programs,” Holbrook said.

She expects previous leadership felt the same way, and that is how they continued to help the organization grow and thrive.

To celebrate its 130th anniversary, St. Cecilia’s will host its Great Artists Gala with jazz artists David Sanborn and Bob James Oct. 24.

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