By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Her training in the Germanic conducting tradition was impeccable, but it came at a tremendous emotional price. While under Muck's tutelage, she'd gone to Holland to be reunited with her mother's family and had promptly fallen in love with an uncle who was only nine years her senior. Their affair ended scandalously, with the guilt-ridden uncle returning to his suicidal ex-wife and Brico left almost destitute. Judging from Brico's diaries and unpublished interviews, one of the principal hurdles in their romance was Brico's single-minded obsession with conducting. Other youthful flings with a deaf sculptor in Finland, a motorcyclist in Latvia--and, apparently, with women as well, an aspect of her sexuality that Brico admitted to very few people--had to take a backseat to her career.
According to a new biography of Anais Nin by Deirdre Bair, at one point Brico sought out the novelist for some amateur psychoanalysis--which Nin provided, while privately scorning Brico as a kind of sexual predator. But in light of Nin's own neurotic eroticism and penchant for experimentation, it remains an open question as to who was preying on whom.
Donna Ellis recalls coming across letters--since lost--from Nin to Brico while moving Brico's papers in the 1950s. "Antonia probably destroyed them because they were very, very private," Ellis says. "I should not have read them, but I found them when I was cleaning out the attic. They were very traumatic letters."
Pressed for details, Ellis says, "They were just--traumatic. I guess it's a good thing I've forgotten them."
In 1930 Brico made her world debut as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, followed by an American debut at the Hollywood Bowl before an audience of 30,000 people. Both concerts were enormous critical successes, but the entrenched resistance to women in the field was formidable. After New York baritone John Charles Thomas refused to perform with a female conductor, Brico was abruptly replaced in the middle of a series of concerts at the Met.
Brico's solution to sexism was to band together with other underemployed female musicians in what became known as the New York Women's Symphony. The 86-piece orchestra made its debut in 1935 and was an instant sensation, drawing support from society matrons and even Eleanor Roosevelt. There were other women's symphonies in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and a few other cities, but under Brico's direction, the New York ensemble outclassed them all, earning a reputation as an ambitious interpreter of romantic and early modern composers, including, most notably, Sibelius, the most popular living composer of the time.
Like Muck before him and Schweitzer in years to come, Sibelius was another Brico mentor. She had sought him out at his isolated home in a Finnish forest, arriving unannounced, in the middle of a downpour, with no knowledge of the language. Her devotion to his work eventually led Sibelius to describe her as his "sixth daughter," the only conductor who interpreted his work the way he intended it to be performed. Brico was one of the few visitors Sibelius welcomed in his reclusive later years, and the pair engaged in a lengthy correspondence that endured until the composer's death in 1957.
Brico's orchestra didn't last nearly as long. An all-female ensemble, she realized, was a trap, a novelty item. To be taken seriously, she had to be able to audition the best player for each position, regardless of gender, but when she added a few male musicians for one concert, the feminists who'd supported her felt betrayed. SHE NEEDED MEN, hissed the headline in the New York Mirror.
After four seasons Brico decided to integrate the whole orchestra. Subscriptions declined dramatically, and the renamed "Brico Symphony" folded that year.
"I am not a feminist. I am a musician. Music and art have no sex," Brico defiantly told reporters. But when it came time to pay the bills, sex mattered.
Brico visited Denver for the first time in the spring of 1940. Jean Cranmer, wife of the man who carved out Denver's mountain parks system, took her on a tour of Red Rocks; the Denver Post ran a huge photo of her on the front page, pleading for (the caption said) A CHANCE FOR WOMEN. The thin, clean air agreed with her sinuses, which had become hypersensitive to Manhattan's soot and smoke; the publicity agreed with her, too.
She returned later that year to guest-conduct the Denver Symphony Orchestra. A few months after that, she was back in town directing Brahms's "German Requiem" and had spent her savings to move her music studio to Lincoln Street, with an apartment around the corner. It was a dramatic break from her life in New York, but Brico believed she had made the necessary contacts in Denver--influential society women such as Jean Cranmer, Margaret Phipps and Margaret Evans Davis, of the powerful Evans clan--to win a permanent post with the DSO.
At the time, the Denver symphony was in the process of shedding its quasi-amateur status and searching for a full-time conductor. Brico had every expectation of taking the podium; leaving nothing to chance, she made a point of letting her new friends know about her ties to Sibelius and Muck, her fabled meetings with Igor Stravinsky and Richard Strauss, her privileged status as one of the few people who could breeze into a Toscanini rehearsal at will. But in 1945, after months of flirting with guest conductors, the symphony board gave the job to Saul Caston, first trumpet and associate conductor of the Philadelphia Symphony under Eugene Ormandy.