Story: Brian VanOchten
Photos: Tim Motley
GRAND RAPIDS – Upon graduation from college, Cathy Holbrook started down an extraordinary career path that she never guessed would’ve ended up with her returning home and becoming the executive director of St. Cecilia Music Center, a proud 129-year-old cultural landmark here.
Yet, life has come full circle for the Forest Hills Central High School graduate.
Holbrook left Miami of Ohio with a degree in mass communications in the mid-1980s and embarked on a long and winding road that began with a public relations firm in San Diego and has included stops in New York, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, Calif., where she formed important relationships with some of the nation’s elite musicians, conductors, composers and artistic directors. Those relationships ultimately helped her land her current position at St. Cecilia and helped her strike a deal with the Lincoln Center in New York to bring some of chamber music’s finest performers to Grand Rapids.
The 2012-13 NYC2GR series is part of a three-year partnership between St. Cecilia and the acclaimed Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center that continues tonight inside Royce Auditorium at 24 Ransom Ave. SE.
“The response from the audience was pretty amazing,” Holbrook said of the Nov. 29 opening performance in the NYC2GR series that featured famed cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han. “They could clearly tell they were seeing music at its best. The Lincoln Center has partnerships like this with just five organizations around the country – one in Boston, one in Chicago, one in the south, one in New Jersey and Grand Rapids. It’s such a coup for Grand Rapids and for St. Cecilia Music Center that we are being talked about on a national level. It goes beyond that we’re just bringing people in from New York.”
Tickets for the “Grand Statements” concert at 7:30 p.m. are $35, $30 and $10 for students.
The third and final performance of the inaugural season of the NYC2GR series is scheduled for April 11.
The story of how St. Cecilia and Lincoln Center got together begins with Holbrook’s extraordinary career path that has been full of ironic twists of fate and long-lasting relationships, and which even led her to a chance meeting with a former high school classmate who is now her husband.
It’s a path that has come full circle, indeed.
Her musical foundation
The start of Holbrook’s musical career occurred at home.
She took piano lessons from her mother and later played French horn in the FHC marching band. In college, she gave up the French horn and didn’t pursue a music major, but she did play piano on her own and continued her lifelong love affair with music while preparing for a life in the business world.
“I did have a musical background, but now I joke that I play the computer,” the smiling Holbrook said from her office at St. Cecilia Music Center. “It’s all business now. I’m around all these professional musicians.
“My mom was a piano teacher. I grew up, every day, 3 o’clock, somebody was playing the piano at my house. Students came to her. She was the neighborhood piano teacher. She taught them the fundamentals and how to read music. My mom did teach me, and, in retrospect, we both agree I probably should’ve been taught by someone else. It’s so much easier to argue with your mom about practicing.
“I played the piano growing up, but I wasn’t great. I played the French horn in the high school band. I started playing French horn in fifth grade and all the way through high school. I was first chair and pretty good.”
She set out for California upon earning her degree from Miami.
It was the beginning of a romantic journey that brought her to the Hollywood Bowl, an apprenticeship under acclaimed composer, conductor and pianist Andre Previn, and also the unexpected love of her life.
Her first job was an entry-level position at a public relations outfit that didn’t last.
“I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life,” Holbrook said of a business career. “I went to work for a PR firm in San Diego right out of college. I liked it, but it was all about you made a copy and you charged it to a company. I remember when I first landed a job with a music organization, I felt like that was home.”
Her first big break almost happened as an accident.
She attended a Gospel choir concert at the University of California-Santa Barbara and felt inspired to make contact with a woman in the school’s music department who had introduced the group performing that night.
“I was out of work because I got laid off from the PR firm. I went to this concert by myself,” she recalled. “I’m in San Diego by myself, I’ve got no family or friends there. The woman that got up to introduce the group said she had some role in the music department, and I called her the next day and told her I would love to get involved in the music business. I told her, ‘You don’t know me from Adam, but would you meet with me?’
“She brought me to her office, she bought me lunch, she looked at my resume and gave me some tips. She told me, ‘I think the La Jolla Chamber Music Society is looking for someone right now.’ And that was that.”
Holbrook applied for the job in La Jolla, Calif., and got it.
“I got that job on a whim. That first job was the turning point in my career” she said. “I was only there for two years, but it really set me on that path. It’s where I first met David Finckel and Wu Han, when they came to SummerFest. That’s where I met (Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra Music Director and conductor) Heiichiro Ohyama. That’s where I met Andre Previn. That’s where I met all of these chamber musicians.”
The path just kept getting more and more interesting after that.
A unique opportunity
Her relationship with Previn turned into a stunning job offer.
Previn, married to actress Mia Farrow, hired Holbrook to serve as his personal assistant, handling all of his personal affairs and traveling to Europe as part of her duties for one unforgettable year.
“I felt like I had found my niche,” Holbrook said of her job in La Jolla. “I didn’t know where that was going to take me at the time. I was having a good time living in California working for an arts organization. It had a summer festival. In my first year, Andre Previn played there. He was going to do his first live jazz performance in about 30 years. He had not played jazz in forever. At the time, he’s a famous conductor, but he started out playing jazz. It was going to be recorded and be a benefit the La Jolla Music Society.
“I did all the PR and marketing around that concert. We hit it off right away. He’s just the smartest, funniest, coolest guy. He came back the following year and he ended up offering me a job. I knew it was only going to be for a year because he had a planned sabbatical,” she added, “but that was fine with me. I thought this is a great opportunity. I’m going to travel with him and live in New York, this is great.
“You’re like his secretary, but I didn’t necessarily want to be a secretary. I wanted to do more than that, but the opportunity to hang out with him for a year and doing things with the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center was great. I was hanging out with these musicians who were the crème de la crème of that world.”
It opened up Holbrook’s eyes to a much wider musical universe.
“I got to go to Vienna, and when he goes to Vienna, it’s like you’re traveling with Bon Jovi. He’s a rock star there. So, wherever you go, it’s ‘maestro, maestro.’ I worked with these musicians in La Jolla, and then I worked for Andre in 1993. You cross paths with them and see these musicians again and again.”
A return trip to California
Holbrook kept crossing paths with earlier acquaintances in her next two jobs.
She returned from her time spent with Previn and found a job with the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra. The allure of that position was being involved with the Hollywood Bowl.
“I was looking for work again and I ended up getting a job at the L.A. Philharmonic. It was a low-position job, but the L.A. Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl are part of the same organization. What I really wanted was to work at the Hollywood Bowl and I ended up getting transferred there,” she said.
“I worked there for about a year. It was a ton of fun because it was the Hollywood Bowl and there were all these famous people, but I did not like L.A. at all. Day-to-day life there is really hard. Your whole day it based upon what time is it and how long will it take me to get there. It was only 12 miles from the Hollywood Bowl to my apartment, and it would take me 45 minutes at least every day,” she lamented. “That’s a short commute there. I wasn’t in love with L.A., so I really couldn’t see myself being there long term. It’s just this sprawling metropolis. It’s a parking lot. I knew that was not going to be my residence forever.”
Again, prior connections helped Holbrook land her next job.
“Heiichiro Ohyama, the artistic director for SummerFest, also was the director for a chamber music organization in Santa Barbara. He had kind of been wooing for me for that job, but, at the time, it was a part-time job and Santa Barbara is expensive,” she recalled. “So, when Andre came knocking, I picked door No. 1. But I kept in touch with Ohyama the whole time. I told him I can’t imagine living in New York forever.”
A year later, Ohyama informed her the Santa Barbara position would be a full-time gig.
“I had this brutal interview that lasted four hours with five people. You would’ve thought I was going to run the world or something. I remember thinking, ‘If I get this, whatever.’ I spent the next day in Santa Barbara and then thought, ‘I hope I get this job because it’s just so gorgeous.’ And I did, I got the job,” she said. “My dalmatian and I moved up to Santa Barbara, which is a completely different universe from L.A. I loved it. I ran the chamber orchestra there for 11 years. I just adored that job and loved living there.”
All her dreams coming true
Changes in her personal life prompted Holbrook to seek a fresh start.
She had no definite plans about what she wanted to pursue, but she decided to come home to Grand Rapids and start contemplating the next steps along the path, both personally and professionally.
A series of life-changing moments all happened within a few months.
Holbrook returned home in December 2005 just in time for her 20th anniversary high school reunion, where, ironically, she reconnected with a former classmate. She had hardly interacted with Jim Holbrook at FH Central, but their chance encounter two decades later ended with a trip down the aisle and marriage.
“I moved back to Grand Rapids and attended my 20th anniversary high school reunion. That’s where I met my husband. We knew who each other were, but we really weren’t friends in high school,” Holbrook recalled with a laugh. “At our 20th high school reunion, we just connected. I was in the process of moving when I went to the reunion. The house that we live in now, I had just looked at the day before the reunion.
“I needed to make some decisions about where I was going and what I wanted to do,” she added. “I met Jim at the reunion and there were sparks there. About a year and a half later, we were married.”
At the same time Holbrook returned home, the executive director’s job had opened up at St. Cecilia. The board conducted a national search and found the perfect candidate had just returned to her roots.
“I move back to Grand Rapids and start dating my future husband and, basically, this job opened. It opened while I was in the midst of moving. It open up November or December and I moved in January, but I hadn’t really applied for the job,” she said. “I had met with a board member. I officially applied for it when I got here.
“I’ll always remember the date I started here, March 20th, because it’s my husband’s birthday. I moved here the beginning of January with no job prospects, honestly, and I was working a few months later.”
In seven years at St. Cecilia, she has led a thriving organization.
It was through Holbrook’s impressive career connections that she was able to get Finckel and Han to serve as St. Cecilia’s co-artistic directors of the chamber music programming for the next three seasons.
The collaboration between them resulted in the popular NYC2GR series.
“It’s all about those connections clearly,” Holbrook said. “You get to work with those people that you end up realizing you have a similar vision or there’s something there that you make happen.”
It’s all part of a fateful and blessed path that has led her right back where she belongs.