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Despite Collins's good intentions, the opportunities created by the film subsided quickly. Struggling with the ravages of age, Brico cut back on her teaching duties and travels. Frantz, one of her last students, insists she remained an impressive teacher almost until the end of her life, capable of instantly transposing complex operatic scores to the piano and singing one of the solo parts to boot. "She scared the hell out of me sometimes," he says. "I just know she died without teaching me everything."
Yet by the early 1980s, the Brico Symphony was falling apart. Afflicted with osteoporosis, Brico conducted at an ever slower and more painful pace. Rehearsals dragged on for hours as the maestro lingered over the same old stories about Muck and Sibelius. Musicians deserted in droves, and the gulf widened between the music Brico heard in her head and what she produced.
"Good Lord, one of the last concerts I went to, she did the `Prelude and Love Death' from Wagner's Tristan with one bass violin," says Blomster. "You can't even do Mozart like that."
The symphony board asked Elizabeth Jans to intercede. She refused. A delegation of three requested a meeting with Brico to discuss a change in leadership. She agreed to see only one: Bob Dallenbach.
"I think she figured she could persuade me to back off," says Dallenbach. "She just wouldn't accept the notion of stepping down. Finally, she offered to resign. She didn't want anyone to think she had been dismissed. The orchestra was her life, and we took it away from her."
Harry Heskett, who'd been ill when his fellow boardmembers made their decision, received a telephone call from Brico. "She said, `Harry, do you know what they've done?' And she went on to tell me, essentially, that she'd been fired. I remember thinking that it was a blessing that I wasn't party to that. I would rather have seen the orchestra go into a quiet dormancy than to have hurt her."
The Brico Symphony finished its 1984 season under a guest conductor and faded from the scene. (Several members still play for the Centennial Philharmonic--the only surviving community orchestra in Denver County, now in its tenth season under the baton of Julius Glaihengauz.) Losing her orchestra left Brico "profoundly depressed," Frantz says, but within weeks the 83-year-old conductor announced plans to stage one of her favorite works--a concert opera version of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," which she'd performed successfully in the 1960s.
Brico paid $20,000 out of her own pocket to rent the Paramount Theater for two performances in November 1985 and to hire musicians from the Denver Symphony at union scale. "She didn't care about the money," says Jans. "She said, `I want to do this, for once in my life, with professional musicians.'"
By all accounts, the affair was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. Brico had difficulty keeping to the tight rehearsal schedules of union musicians and was troubled with back pains. In mid-performance she appeared to become disoriented and called out for Elizabeth. She never performed again.
In January 1988, on her way home from a Judy Collins concert, she slipped on the ice and broke her hip. She spent weeks in the hospital, then months in a nursing home. Friends who visited her there say she seemed lucid but said little, as if she were deliberately withdrawing from the world. In the end, she refused to eat.
"I make my living trying to figure out people," says Frantz, who, when he's not conducting, is the director of a mental health clinic at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Denver. "I couldn't figure her out. She didn't say more than ten words to me in the last year of her life."
One day in August 1989, Donna Ellis and Magdalena Boratgis put Brico on the phone with one of her oldest friends, author Norman Cousins. She seemed to revive briefly and talked about her fervent belief in reincarnation, inspired by her 1930s association with the Hindu mystic Swami Yogananda. The next day Elizabeth Jans came to see her and found her asleep in a chair, the television tuned to Sesame Street. By the time Jans got home, Brico had passed away.
"She always said it was her karma, that she didn't get the Denver Symphony," says Shirley White. "She was sure that next time around she would come back as a man."
By the usual standards of evaluating great conductors, Brico's legacy is a troubling one. She left behind no mighty orchestral tradition--her orchestra didn't even survive her--and only one notable commercial recording, a 1975 performance of Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony at New York's Mostly Mozart Festival. The number of her students who achieved prominence in the music world can be counted on one hand.
"She taught a lot of kids who probably would not have gotten instruction of that caliber without her," says Blomster. "But as for a legacy, I don't think there is one. There's no monument."
Actually, there is a monument of sorts. In 1993, Jans, executor of Brico's estate, invited a small circle of Brico's admirers to her gravesite in Littleton for the unveiling of a marble statue of Brico gripping a baton. The inscription includes Brico's oft-cited motto: DO NOT BE DEFLECTED FROM YOUR COURSE.