Standing on the Shoulders of Antonia Brico

Photo by Herbert Mitchell, New York / Public domain

82 years ago today, on July 25, 1938, Antonia Brico became the first woman to step upon the podium at Lewisohn Stadium to lead the New York Philharmonic. Trained at the best conducting school in the world, the Berlin Master School of Conducting under Karl Muck, Antonia heard the same phrase from everyone she met :

No woman would ever conduct a major orchestra.

Antonia proved everyone wrong. With grit and gusto, she led the then all-male New York Philharmonic in a rousing performance of the Lenore Overture no. 3 by Beethoven and the Sibelius Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39.

Although Antonia never realized her dream of being a permanent conductor of a major orchestra, she never gave up on her passion. She guest conducted numerous orchestras around the world, including the Berlin Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic. Rave reviews followed her performances, yet no one would hire her as a permanent conductor.

Ever persistent, Antonia forged a close friendship with the composer Jean Sibelius, who invited her to Finland to conduct his works. In an interview by Charles Thomas on May 7, 1972, Antonia spoke about her close working relationship with the famous composer, whom she called “Pappa.”

Several times a week I went there for dinner and stayed overnight…and slept in what is known as the ‘Seventh Symphony Room,’ where he composed the Seventh Symphony. And I used to lie in bed in the mornings (I woke up very early) and I would by studying my score at five o’clock in the morning, and suddenly I woke up and thought, “Heavenly days, Jean Sibelius is sleeping downstairs; and here I am studying the works of the great and famous composer and here he is downstairs-very alive.”

Antonia collaborated closely with Jean Sibelius and traveled frequently to conduct his concerts in Finland. In 1947, she earned the Pro-Finlandia gold medal in 1947 for her contributions to classical music. Despite this success, Antonia spent the majority of her conducting career in Denver, Colorado, conducting a semi-professional orchestra, the Denver Businessman’s orchestra. (later known as the Brico Symphony.) This orchestra is now a professional orchestra, The Denver Philharmonic.

On the heels of Antonia’s passing in 1989, two women, Marin Alsop and JoAnn Falletta, began their careers in Denver where Antonia had spent the bulk of her life trying to change attitudes toward women on the podium. Antonia’s efforts were not in vain. Both Alsop and Falletta rose to the the world stage as permanent conductors of major orchestras. Marin Alsop currently conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. JoAnn Falletta leads the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.

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