By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
part 1 of 2
Dan Frantz remembers The Gaze--that piercing, dark-eyed stare that made prodigies tremble and old tenors sing their lungs out. The Gaze is as vivid to him now as it was three decades ago, the first time he saw Antonia Brico.
Frantz was twelve or thirteen years old, a student at Manning Junior High. He'd gone to Phipps Auditorium to hear his band teacher play in something called the Brico Symphony. A short yet imposing woman walked onto the stage clutching a baton, and Frantz was transfixed. He had never seen a woman conduct an orchestra before.
"She wore this huge, black, flowing velvet gown," recalls Frantz, now conductor of the Greeley Chamber Orchestra. "It just absorbed light and drew your attention right to her. And she had this stern look on her face that could have melted parts of Greenland."
Shirley White, who sang in many Brico productions, remembers the doll collection, the fondness for parties and Sesame Street. Harry Heskett, who played horn in Brico's orchestra for twenty years, remembers the wheedling, the disturbing mix of genius and juvenile behavior.
"She was a child, an absolute child, in every respect except music," says Heskett. "Yet she was also calculating. She knew how to maneuver people--`Would you do this just for me? If you loved me, you would do such-and-such.' You knew you were being maneuvered, but you did it anyway."
Donna Hopkins Ellis still remembers the angry letter she wrote to Brico back in '54, after she and her husband toiled for weeks hauling Brico's papers, scores, music memorabilia and two grand pianos from her downtown studio to her new house on South Pennsylvania Street. Brico wasn't around to help with the move, of course; she was out of the country, studying Bach with Albert Schweitzer.
"I wrote that I hoped she would learn something from Schweitzer besides music," says Ellis, whose daughter Bobbie was one of Brico's star pianists. "My family got a lot from Brico. I loved that lady tremendously, but sometimes I could have wrung her neck."
Wes Blomster tells of a Sunday afternoon free concert in 1967, Brico's first opportunity to conduct the Denver Symphony Orchestra since being thoroughly snubbed by the symphony board twenty years before. Brico had devoted most of her rehearsal time to a Mozart double piano concerto, designed to showcase two of her most outstanding pupils; yet after intermission, she still managed to deliver a reading of Beethoven's thunderous Third Symphony--the "Eroica"--that swept Blomster out of his chair.
"That was one of the greatest Beethoven performances I've ever heard," says Blomster, who now reviews classical music for the Boulder Daily Camera. But when Blomster went backstage, he was astonished to discover that the musicians didn't share his opinion of the concert; in fact, some DSO members later circulated a petition demanding that Brico never be allowed to conduct their orchestra again. "The orchestra hated her. Their minds were made up."
For Elizabeth Jans, Brico's housekeeper/secretary and her closest companion in her final years, what stands out is not The Gaze, the childishness, the cunning or even the talent, but rather the maestro's iron-willed determination. "She was very tenacious," Jans says. "If she wanted something, she went after it--even if she had to go to Finland or Africa or whatever. And if you said to her, `Antonia, you can't do this,' then she would be even more determined."
Tenacity took Brico a long way--farther, perhaps, than even she could have imagined. What she called her "Dutch stubbornness" enabled her to overcome a multitude of hardships and to pursue the impossible. While still in her twenties, Brico became the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic and several other major orchestras. Undeterred by a mocking public and mutinous soloists, she founded the New York Women's Symphony, an all-female ensemble that flourished for several years during the Depression, and broke bread with the likes of Schweitzer, Eleanor Roosevelt, Greta Garbo, Arturo Toscanini, Jean Sibelius and Anais Nin. She seemed destined for greatness. Then she made the move to Denver, and tenacity was no longer enough.
Denver was Brico's slough of despond, the scene of her most bitter disappointments. She came here in the early 1940s, full of expectations; by the time she passed away in a Denver nursing home--on August 3, 1989, at age 87--she'd already been buried, professionally speaking, for years.
Brico's last stab at greatness came in 1973, when filmmaker Jill Godmilow and one of Brico's former proteges, singer Judy Collins, produced a documentary about her life. Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman is an affectionate tribute to a gifted artist who never attained a permanent conducting job with a professional orchestra. The film struck a chord with feminists and briefly revived international interest in the 71-year-old conductor, launching her on lecture and concert tours that stretched from Manila to Halifax. Suddenly Brico, who'd always resisted being pigeonholed as a "lady conductor," found herself being celebrated--not for her musical gifts, but for the same reason she'd been denied orchestral appointments a generation earlier: because she was a woman.