In 1883, a group of nine exceptional women founded the St. Cecilia Music Society — today known as the St. Cecilia Music Center — and 135 years later, the organization is ready to party.
Yes, that makes it the oldest arts organization in Grand Rapids and West Michigan. Add in the fact that it was founded by nine women — Ella Matthews Peirce, Mrs. F.M. Davis, Mrs. Robert Merrill, Mrs. Lyman Patten, Mrs. D.B. Shedd, Mrs. Annie McLaren, Miss Mary Atwater, Miss Louise Nelson, and Miss Gertrude Baars — and it’s easy to see why current Executive Director Cathy Holbrook sounds so excited when talking about her job.
“Sometimes, I’m just dumbfounded by it,the fact that we’ve been a continuous operation for 135 years and we’re still upholding the original mission that the ladies put together,” said Holbrook, who has held the position since 2006.
This season, the SCMC has honored its roots through many special events, including two in March. First was an education outreach performance for Grand Rapids Schools from JazzReach, the other was the first Helen DeVos Legacy Award Dinner. The latter will become annual, each year selecting a new woman to receive the award in honor of DeVos, a huge arts supporter and former SCMC board member.
And while they have stayed true and honored the SCMC’s original mission, Holbrook has made sure to move the organization forward as well, letting it thrive in the 21st century and expand its audience.
That starts with changing the music being performed.
The SCMC is no longer just home to classical music, although it does still host plenty of that. In recent years, St. Cecilia's has added a chamber music series, as well as jazz and folk series, to its line-up.
“There have been a couple of folk shows that have been pretty rocking. We just wonder sometimes, are the ladies rolling over in their graves?” Holbrook laughed. “Or are they really psyched that we’ve moved with the times and continue to be a really relevant, important, cultural entity in the city, and that we’re bringing in these different types of music?”
It’s likely the latter.
Holbrook has made other changes during her tenure, including more programs for kids and the name change from “society” to “center,” done in hopes of sounding less like a private club where you need a membership, which at one point was true. This, like many changes Holbrook has made, was done to help people understand that SCMC is a place for everyone. It’s a safe haven for all who love live performances.
“I know there are many great organizations, but there is a sense of closeness and kindness and a sense of real commitment with all the people that I have experienced working with at SCMC, which is very different,” said Wu Han, one of the co-directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which has a partnership with SCMC involving three shows per year. “They are a group of very passionate people who care deeply about the culture in Grand Rapids.”
The commitment to community has been vital to the Grand Rapids arts scene since SCMC’s inception. The Grand Rapids Symphony, Opera Grand Rapids and Civic Theater can all trace their beginnings to programs originated at SCMC, which has been in the same building since the 1890s. (Said building is also on the National Register of Historic Places.)
Holbrook said the venue is something special. With seating for only 600, artists and audiences can connect and play off one another during shows.
“The proportion of the hall and the sound in that hall are extraordinary, and it’s very unusual to have such a treasured hall,” Han said. “It’s high quality that all musicians dream of playing.”
A high-quality venue leads to high-quality musicians, which leads to an audience eager to fill seats and furthers Holbrook's mission to make SCMC a place for everyone, including first-time guests.
Holbrook said there was one concert during the folk series last season where she asked the audience how many people had never been there before. Half the audience raised their hands.
For some, that would have been disheartening, but for Holbrook, it’s motivation.
“I love it,” she said. “Then the challenges become, OK, I don’t want this to be a one-off show for them. So, how do I get them to come back? What kind of experience do they have here so that they might try some of the other shows we have?”
The ideas for how to grow SCMC seem to never stop for Holbrook. It looks like
SCMC’s legacy of being run by exceptional women isn’t ending any time soon.
“I think for Cathy, this is not just a simple job, it’s much more of a lifelong work. Her devotion is extraordinary,” Han said. “She keeps improving things. … She took initiative and made things happen, which is so fantastic. I wish I had more artistic leaders like that in the community.”
Cathy Holbrook. Courtesy Photo