The Sounds of Magic at St. Cecilia
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Photo courtesy of St. Cecilia Music Center


On Thursday, April 18, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will bring to the stage String Magic, an evening of music ranging over 140 years and demonstrating the enduring beauty of the art form.

Since 2012, the society has partnered with St. Cecilia Music Center in Grand Rapids. “It’s an amazing partnership,” said Cathy Holbrook, Executive and Artistic Director of St. Cecilia. “This is the most important organization of its kind in the United States.”

Holbrook works directly with Wu Han and David Finckel, co-artistic director of the chamber music society. “They have connections with all the best chamber musicians in the world,” Holbrook said. She emphasizing the fact that, in attending one of these shows, audience members are seeing–and, more to the point, hearing–something fresh. “You’re not hearing a string quartet on tour for a year with that same program.”

Although often associated with the kind of classical music played by symphonies, chamber music is very much a distinct art form. Often played by only a handful of musicians, chamber music is music in which there is only one instrument per part; rather than a wall of sound, you hear individual instruments. There is no conductor, and, often, no amplification. Audience members are often close enough to see facial expressions, and to sense how the musicians are wordlessly communicating with each other as they play. The result is a supremely intimate experience.

St. Cecilia Music Center’s Royce Auditorium, which Wu Han herself described as a “little Carnegie Hall,” was built specifically for unamplified music. “It’s one of the best chamber music halls in the world,” Holbrook said. And on April 18th, it will host five world-class musicians, two on violin, two on viola, and one on cello.

The program for String Magic consists of works by four composers: Beethoven, Françaix, Bridge, and Mendelssohn. The Beethoven piece is Trio in E-flat major for Violin, Viola and Cello, Op. 3. We no longer know when it was written, or where, only that it predates the 19th century. His first string trio, it’s gorgeous, lyrical, and light.

“Trio for Violin, Viola, and Cello” by Françaix follows. A twentieth-century composer, Françaix in some ways rejected his own time. He eschewed atonality and what he perceived to be aimless wanderings. His trio is typical of his work in its classical rigor and beauty.

Bridge’s slow, stately “Lament For Two Violas” has been described as an elegy and a search for spiritual consolation after the horrors of World War I. Bridge, an Englishman and a pacifist, seems to have dipped his pen into ink composed of deep uneasiness and sadness. To close your eyes and to hear it is to remember how many young men were swallowed up by the earth and how many mothers feared that the worst would come, and were right to have feared it.

Mendelssohn’s “Quintet No. 2 in B-flat major for Two Violins, Two Violas, and Cello, Op. 87” begins in deceptive simplicity but reveals itself, by its end, to be a complex and mature work, one that soars to huge, primary-colored heights.

A bit of lagniappe: after the performance, attendees are invited to attend a post-show celebration upstairs, at which they can meet the performers (this is standard with St. Cecilia’s concerts).

It’s impossible to talk to Holbrook about this evening of music, or any of St. Cecilia’s shows, without hearing her passion. She remains grateful that the organization weathered the pandemic. “I remember saying to Wu Han, ‘What if we can’t have concerts again?’ She said, ‘Listen. There has always been live music. There will always be live music. We will be back.’”

She was right, of course. The patron saint of music, ever generous, never fails to intercede, as should prove more than evident when the musicians behind String Magic take to the stage.

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center: String Magic

St. Cecilia Music Center

24 Ransom NE, Grand Rapids

April 18, 7:30 p.m.