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


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...
Share this:
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.

"Ironic, isn't it?" asks Jans. "Antonia always said that she should have been born a man, that a woman musician had to be ten times better than a man to get any recognition. She said she was born fifty years too early."

Today a woman named Marin Alsop conducts the Colorado Symphony, and nobody makes a fuss. According to figures compiled by the American Symphony Orchestra League, 174 women now have upper-level conducting positions with more than 850 orchestras nationwide--a situation due in no small part to the struggles and sacrifices of Brico and a handful of other trailblazers.

Yet there was a great deal more to Brico's quarrel with fate--and with Denver--than her gender. What's missing from the documentary's portrait of her is the in-between and the aftermath, the story behind her sharp rise, her fall from grace and her long struggle against oblivion. Six years after her death, that story is only now coming to light, through the revelations found in a staggering collection of letters, scrapbooks, audio recordings and other items from Brico's estate that were donated to the Colorado Historical Society.

The Brico who emerges from the state archives--and in the reminiscences of her longtime friends--is a far more complex, flawed and ultimately more tragic figure than her public image as a feminist role model. Obsessed with the need to conduct, Brico took the international music world by storm and failed abysmally in the cowtown capital of the West. Then she transformed the wreckage of her career into her greatest triumph.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American lives. He never met Antonia Brico.

In all the years she worked for Brico, Elizabeth Jans never actually had an argument with the woman. Brico didn't like to confront people, Jans says; if she had a disagreement with someone, she would write a long letter to the offender expressing her displeasure. Then she would dispatch some emissary--usually Elizabeth Jans--to patch things up.

Jans herself received several of Brico's "how you hurt me" letters. She always threw them away, much to Brico's dismay. "Those letters are going to be worth money some day," Brico said.

But Jans remembers the letters well enough. "They all started and ended the same way, reminding you about her terrible childhood and her high blood pressure," she says. "If she couldn't get her way, she always came back to this sad story about her childhood."

Brico's childhood was more than sad; despite her harping on it, even her closest Denver friends had only inklings of how bizarre and miserable it must have been. Yet it was typical of Brico that she used the tale, not as an excuse for failure, but as leverage. She built a legend around herself, the legend of a loveless child who found salvation through music.

The facts were strange enough. Antonia Louisa Brico was born in Rotterdam in 1902, the illegitimate child of a Dutch Catholic teenager and an Italian pianist. Abandoned by her lover and ostracized by her family, Brico's mother put the baby in the care of foster parents. When she tried to get the child back a few months later, the foster parents fled to California. Until she was almost an adult, Antonia was known as Wilhelmina Wolthius.

Wilhelmina was a clumsy, nervous girl, a condition made worse by her foster mother's frequent beatings and scoldings. A doctor suggested piano lessons to cure her habitual nail-biting, and before long she was playing at seances and theosophy meetings in the Oakland area. (The Wolthiuses had a strong spiritualist bent.) Although she learned quickly and was found to have absolute pitch--rare even among conductors--her foster mother opposed her desire to pursue a career in music. After numerous confrontations, Mrs. Wolthius informed thirteen-year-old Wilhelmina that she wasn't her daughter anyway.

"Then relations really got worse," Brico recalled in an unpublished interview in 1971. "It was open warfare between us all the time."

At seventeen she was cast out of the Wolthius house for good; her crime, she later said, was enrolling in college. Over the next few years she stayed with friends, worked in shops, taught piano and played jazz in clubs to eke out a living while earning a degree in music at the University of California. She also pieced together her own past--her parents, she learned, were both dead--and reclaimed the name Antonia Brico.

She had no money to finance her career, but she had something better: a talent for acquiring mentors. At the university, she made the connections necessary to secure a scholarship to study with pianist Sigismund Stojowski in New York. From Stojowski she extracted a letter of introduction to Karl Muck, one of the foremost conductors of his time and director of Germany's renowned Wagner Festival. Several people tried to dissuade her from a conducting career, but Muck was sufficiently impressed with her intensity and grasp of the great composers to accept her as his sole pupil for almost five years. She graduated from the Berlin State Academy of Music's master school of conducting--the first woman and the first American ever to have been admitted--and moved into the role of an assistant to Muck and Siegfried Wagner, son of the composer.

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.

By training, experience and sheer talent, "Brico was far better qualified than Caston," says Ann Papp, who reviewed Brico's first concerts in Denver for the Rocky Mountain News. "But personality was a factor, too. She was extremely intelligent and had a wonderful sense of humor, but she was abrasive and--well, let's say, dictatorial in some ways. She forgot to be deferential and conciliatory."

"Antonia wasn't very tactful, and that got her into a lot of difficulties," agrees Violette McCarthy, a singer who became one of Brico's first Denver pupils. Now ninety, McCarthy remembers trying to drill some fashion sense into the maestro (away from the podium, Brico might wear anything from a Tyrolean hiking outfit to a gaudy, rhinestone-studded gown), as well as the patience not to push her cause too aggressively.

In her later years, Brico's version of her rejection by the DSO was that the town fathers didn't want a conductor who couldn't be admitted to the Cactus Club, an all-male bastion of closed-door deal-making; besides, Saul Caston "looked good in a tux." But her longtime friends say that while sexism was certainly a factor, Brico's own imperious attitude probably did her more damage--particularly with the women she expected to champion her cause.

"Her worst enemies were women," says Harry Heskett. "She told me that the reason she didn't get the job was that it was women who sat on the board, and the women wanted to see a man up there."

Shortly after her arrival in Denver, Brico apparently alienated Florence Lamont Hinman, founder of the University of Denver's Lamont School of Music. Hinman greeted her warmly at first, Brico claimed in an unpublished interview, but came to regard the conductor as a threat to her position as Denver's first lady of music after Brico passed over one of Hinman's singers for a concert. Although Margaret Davis remained loyal to her, Brico soon lost the support of Margaret Phipps and others, too.

"She was her own worst enemy," Donna Ellis insists. "She turned people off by demanding so much. She had to have this, had to have that. Margaret Phipps just quit her. And Margaret Phipps ran the symphony."

Having gambled everything on the move to Denver, losing the symphony appointment was a devastating blow to Brico, financially and professionally. "She told me it was the greatest disappointment in her life," says violinist Pauline Dallenbach.

"I think she was bitter about it till she died," adds Jans. "She knew it wasn't because of her music."

But Brico wasn't about to give up. "She always told you not to say, `I could have'--if you could have, you would have," recalls Billie Hopkins Furuichi, one of Donna Ellis's daughters. "I don't think she held resentments for long; she just wanted to get on with it."

In 1946 Brico persuaded the building manager to let her rent Carnegie Hall for $25 for a two-hour rehearsal. She hired sixty musicians and convinced Arthur Rubinstein, Bruno Walter and a few other heavyweights to come to her "command performance" of Brahms's Second Symphony-- all in order to secure a few endorsements from musicians who'd never seen her conduct. The odd session earned her a few more guest-conducting opportunities, but before long she was back in Denver, where she earned a pittance directing a black Baptist choir and the choir at Trinity Methodist Church downtown.

Her life in music might have ended at that point except for two developments. Her growing reputation as a piano teacher and voice coach attracted a trickle, and eventually a flood, of students, some as young as six. And, at her most desperate, she accepted an invitation to assume the helm of a new community orchestra consisting entirely of volunteers.

Founded in 1948, the Denver Businessmen's Orchestra was probably the only amateur ensemble to kick off its first concert not only with a packed auditorium but with a telegram from Sibelius, wishing them good luck. The group, later renamed the Brico Symphony, became Brico's extended family for the next 36 years. At the debut, she prepared a statement stressing the need for "an outlet for [those] who have music as their avocation."

The statement had its personal side, too. "Many of these people are of symphonic stature," she wrote, "with no place to play."

end of part 1

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.