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.

Welcome to my blog!

Antonia_Brico_1940My Muse, Antonia Brico

Antonia Brico, the first American to graduate from the Master School of Conducting in Berlin in 1930, is my muse.

Antonia broke barriers for women in the field of orchestral conducting. She was the first woman to conduct many major orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the  New York Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. She regularly consulted with the composer Jean Sibelius and traveled to Finland to guest conduct his works. She also had a close working relationship with Albert Schweitzer, known among other things, as an expert on J.S. Bach interpretation.

With sheer determination, Antonia escaped an unhappy childhood and forged a career that lasted into her eighties. Sadly, Antonia never enjoyed the continued limelight that her male counterparts did. Women in Antonia’s time were not allowed to be permanent leaders of the world’s greatest orchestras. But Antonia let discouraging words from almost everyone in her life go “in one ear and out the other.” Antonia found opportunities to practice her art, even if it meant guest conducting great orchestras, and permanently leading her own orchestra, the Denver Businessmen’s Orchestra (later renamed the Brico Symphony in her honor.)

In 1982, I was a shy violinist growing up in Denver, Colorado. My teacher, Barbara Thiele, brought me to play in the Brico Symphony. The first thing I noticed about Dr. Brico was her splash of gray hair, tucked neatly with a headband. I soon saw beyond her striking silver swath of hair to her stern demeanor. On the podium, Dr. Brico conducted with razor-sharp focus. Nothing escaped her ears.

Antonia had the stamina of a conductor half her age. She was in her 80s when I knew her. With energy and vigor, she introduced me to challenging symphonic repertoire. I played Principal 2nd violin, right under her nose and baton. Antonia always had a flask of  lemon water on stage during rehearsals. My mother teased me, saying that there was something stronger than lemon water in her flask, but that wasn’t true.

I knew nothing about Dr. Brico when I was a teenager, yet I sensed greatness. She was always focused on the music, and never boasted or talked about herself. She was all business. All the time.  On one occasion,  she pointed her baton directly at me and said, “Young lady, you are sitting in a very important chair!” Her gruffness made me a better musician. I tried harder. I practiced more.

Judy Collins (international folk singer and former piano student of Antonia’s) and Jill Godmilow made a documentary about Antonia’s life. In 1974, the documentary was nominated for an Academy Award. I recently discovered this documentary. It is such a wonderful film, as Antonia herself tells the story of the frustration of trying to break into a male dominated field.

Lance Christensen, an Antonia Brico scholar, has since contributed important research about Dr. Brico’s life with his thesis I Will Not Be Deflected From My Course: The Life of Antonia Brico. (copyright 2000 by Lance Eugene Christensen, University of Colorado at Denver.)

Two of today’s leading orchestral conductors, JoAnn Falletta ( Buffalo Philharmonic) and Marin Alsop ( Baltimore Symphony, Sao Paulo Symphony, Vienna Radio Symphony) both started careers in Denver shortly after Dr. Brico’s passing.

Today’s women conductors stand on Antonia Brico’s shoulders, as they lead the world’s greatest orchestras.