THE BRICO REQUIEM | News | Denver | Denver Westword | The Leading Independent News Source in Denver, Colorado


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,...
Share this:
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.

"She'd run your life for you if you let her," says Shirley White, who became the unofficial personnel manager for Brico's opera concerts, rounding up other singers and smoothing over tiffs with the conductor. "I was kept away from her a long time by other musicians in town. She was seen as too pushy, while a man in her position wouldn't have been looked at that way at all."

Donna Ellis recalls how Brico would offer gifted students a "scholarship"--which, in Ellis's case, involved enlisting the student's parents for cooking, cleaning, banking and chauffeur duties. When Donna remarried after the death of her first husband, Brico insisted on an invitation to the wedding. The bride and groom wound up driving her to the ceremony, then rushing her to an orchestra rehearsal, delaying the reception. "She was quite a backseat driver, too," Ellis sighs.

Pianist Magdalena Boratgis, Brico's assistant with the symphony for ten years and a frequent traveling companion, says that people stayed with Brico not only for the music but for the intangibles--her vibrancy, her sense of adventure, her unexpected bursts of generosity. She doted on her favorite students, lobbied on behalf of refugee musicians seeking citizenship and even took in the destitute relative of a former benefactor. "People don't know how giving she was," Boratgis says. "She sponsored not only people in music, but engineers, actors, architects. And she never talked about it."

"She was a little like Wagner--he thought the world owed him a living, and it did," says Bob Dallenbach. "Brico was very consumed with her own career, no question. But she was also a great person. There were casualties along her path, but that's not unusual."

Among the casualties were a procession of housekeepers and cooks, some of whom ran from Brico after only slight exposure. Elizabeth Jans was the last in a long line. Dutch-born and levelheaded, Jans came into Brico's life in 1966 and wound up staying longer than either of them expected.

"I wanted to walk out the first day," Jans recalls. "You have to realize, I was an office girl. I'd never done this before. I was supposed to cook and clean, and she had so many demands. She probably wanted to see how much she could get out of me. I just decided I wasn't going to do all that. I did things my own way, and she never questioned me after that."

In time Jans became much more than a housekeeper. She advised Brico on business deals and her wardrobe, managed her finances, attended rehearsals, took lessons herself. It was Jans who offered cookies and comfort to young piano students terrorized by The Gaze; it was Jans who took Brico to the International House of Pancakes after every Brico Symphony concert to discuss the performance, spending long hours away from her husband, Gilly, and her daughter.

"If I said I didn't feel like coming to rehearsal, she'd say, `Elizabeth, you have to be there,'" Jans says. "She didn't have a husband, she didn't have a daughter. She had nobody else. It was kind of sad."

Thanks to the miraculous intercession of her most famous student, the world beat a path to Brico's door, belatedly, in the early 1970s.

Brico had been greatly distressed when Judy Collins broke from her in the 1950s to pursue a career in folk music. Collins was her standout pupil, and Brico thought she should have become a concert pianist. To make amends, Collins returned to Denver with a film crew.

Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman caught Brico with her guard down. Having little notion of the scope of the project, she allowed Collins and Jill Godmilow access to her scrapbooks, her memories and her daily routine. In the film's key scene, Collins managed to goad Brico into an uncharacteristic outburst about how prejudice had warped her career. Conducting only five times a year, she raged, "is like giving a starving person a piece of bread after days of hunger...It's a perpetual heartbreak."

After the filming was over, Brico regretted the angry scene in her kitchen. "She was very upset that she had let go like that," says Jans. "I don't think she realized the impact it would have. Suddenly the phone started ringing, and she went to all these places and got keys to the cities, and she was conducting again in New York and at the Hollywood Bowl."

Antonia was nominated for an Academy Award and catapulted Brico to a level of celebrity she'd never known before. Robert Redford and Gloria Steinem paid her homage; so did Johnny Carson. At 71, the maestro had a chance to show her detractors that she still had the juice.

Dozens of universities and orchestras wanted to book the tough-minded "woman conductor," but Brico wore her new feminist mantle uneasily. When a women's orchestra in San Francisco invited her to guest-conduct a program of female composers, she insisted on adding Beethoven to the program. "This isn't about men and women," she said. "This is about Beethoven."

"She said she'd forgo anything she'd gained as a woman conductor to be a conductor of a professional orchestra," recalls Dan Frantz. "It wasn't the way she wanted to come by her fame."

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.

"That message doesn't bear much analysis," says Heskett. "If at first you don't succeed, well, maybe you should try something else. In her case, she was so completely devoted to music that she could not have done anything else. She was monochromatic, really."

Heskett believes Brico's legacy lies elsewhere, in the lives of the musicians she transformed. He still tears up when he thinks about the Brico Symphony's encounters with the Verdi Requiem. "She provided people like me, who are only on the periphery of professional music--in fact, we don't think of ourselves as professional musicians--she provided the opportunity for us to participate. I think that's probably her major achievement."

What remains of that achievement resides in the 59 boxes of Brico's personal effects at the Colorado Historical Society, the paper and photographic footprints of her undeflected path through Berlin, New York and Denver. Some pieces of the puzzle are missing, destroyed by Brico or parceled out among friends. But enough survives to establish who Brico was, and to hint at what she might have been.

Stan Oliner, the collection's curator, is particularly taken with the photographs of Brico--the woman and The Gaze. "She had a presence that was unreal," Oliner says. "She was Old World in the New West."

The music is there, too, in dozens of reel-to-reel and cassette tapes featuring rehearsals and performances of the Brico Symphony. This audio history still needs to be further catalogued and sorted out, says Oliner, but it's all there--the high notes, the low notes, the miraculously full sound Brico wrought out of part-time musicians.

The music sits in darkness and silence, waiting for the curtain to rise. Again.

end of part 2

Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Westword has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.