By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
part 2 of 2
Operating on a shoestring, the Brico Symphony could afford to give only four to six performances a year. Most of its members were housewives or professionals who had full lives apart from the orchestra, and the quality of their work varied greatly. Yet in Brico's hands, the orchestra became the most astonishing, often inspiring, group of overachievers on the Colorado music scene.
"She was very courageous," concedes Ann Papp. "She played Mahler and other composers who were difficult for both the audience and the orchestra. They weren't always good performances; many times, I thought she attempted things that were beyond her group. Her dreams were better than her players."
While the Denver Symphony muddled along under the direction of Caston and then Brian Priestman, Brico was tackling Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony, the Verdi Requiem, Beethoven's Ninth and the Missa Solemnis--huge productions requiring a sea of voices (often enlisted from high school choirs) and consummate musicianship. They didn't always work, but when they did, the results transcended anything the DSO was doing. Yet even when she was at her best, the Denver commissars of culture tended to hedge about Brico, faulting her unflashy style or her deliberate, Germanic tempi--so fashionable in Berlin in the 1920s, so foreign to Colorado in the 1950s.
"I don't think any of the critics in Denver had any idea of what a fantastic musician she was," fumes Wes Blomster, who discovered Brico in the early 1960s and never missed a concert for the next decade. "Everyone panned the woman. If I had a million dollars, I would have hired an orchestra and had her record all of Bruckner and Mahler, because she did their work the way they would have done it. She was an anachronism."
"Her tempos were slower," agrees Dan Frantz, who studied conducting with Brico. "But it doesn't take anything on the part of a conductor to go faster. Antonia said the biggest crime in playing Bach was to play it so fast you couldn't hear the notes. Bach himself couldn't have played it that fast. Her interpretation, like that of Schweitzer and Casals and the others she studied with, was stately, never racing."
"She had the juice," says the Reverend Bob Dallenbach, whose wife, Pauline, played in Brico's orchestra. Dallenbach taped every concert, took pictures, served on the symphony's board and provided the old Pillar of Fire auditorium on Champa Street for rehearsals. "In a sense, she was a coat-tailer. She'd have a big concert in honor of Sibelius and bring in admirers of his. But she was also a master teacher, and she'd build programs around her best students."
Not content with only six concerts a year, Brico hungrily sought out other assignments. At one point or another she was associated with an orchestra in Westminster, the Boulder Philharmonic, various short-lived opera groups and even the Baca County Chorus. For years Brico took the train twice a month to southeastern Colorado, where she gave piano lessons to the children of wheat farmers and was treated like royalty.
She mounted serious music in small-town high school auditoriums. In 1952 the town of Springfield was treated to a stunning Brahms concerto featuring Brico's latest star soloist, thirteen-year-old Judy Collins; the year before, Lamar witnessed the world premiere of a cantata by Brico's college friend, New York composer Joyce Barthelson. Nampa, Idaho, got Mozart's Requiem.
Add to that the full schedule of piano lessons she held in her house on South Pennsylvania--neighbors hauling out their lawn chairs to enjoy the music wafting over the backyards on summer evenings, people huddled on the stairs for recitals and master classes. "There was a time when she had sixty or eighty piano students," says Harry Heskett, shaking his head. "And if you didn't shape up, she fired you."
In the summer Brico would take her favorite students to hear opera in San Francisco or on cruises to Europe. Several times she traveled alone to French Equatorial Africa in order to see Schweitzer at his hospital for lepers. She had first sought out the good doctor, known not only for his humanitarian efforts but for being the ne plus ultra of Bach scholarship, at the Goethe Bicentennial Festival in Aspen in 1949. Schweitzer invited her to visit him and talk Bach--little suspecting, perhaps, how readily she'd take him up on the offer, enduring heat exhaustion and dysentery to pore over the St. Matthew Passion by candlelight, surrounded by Schweitzer's pet antelope and monkeys.
None of this frenzy of activity would have been possible if Brico hadn't gathered a core of supporters around her in Denver--Donna Ellis, the Dallenbachs, Violette McCarthy, a neighbor who provided backrubs to relieve chronic pain in her shoulders, Harry Heskett and several others--to take care of various aspects of her business and personal affairs. Brico was a "horrid prima donna," Blomster notes, who drove many fine musicians away from her. Yet her greatest feat of conducting may have been in directing the loyal cadre of people who ran her errands, looked after her dog, Satu, and kept her orchestra afloat, often with little recompense or thanks.