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TWO CONDUCTORS: ANTONIA BRICO and MARIN ALSOP
Antonia Brico (1902 - 1989)
Conductor, pianist, teacher
The first female conductor to achieve
"You're either born a musician or you're born not a musician. It has nothing to do with gender."
-- Antonia Brico
Marin Alsop (1956 -- )
The first woman appointed Music Director
of a major U.S. orchestra (Baltimore Symphony)
"Marin Alsop is one of the finest conductors on the planet." -- British music critic
EARLY ASPIRATIONS: ANTONIA BRICO 1902 - 1919
Antonia Louisa Brico was born in Rotterdam, Holland in 1902. Little is known about her birth parents, Johannes and Antonia (Shaaken) Brico, who died when she was two. Mr. and Mrs. John Wolthuis (mother’s first name unknown) became her foster parents. In 1907, she immigrated with them to Oakland, CA, attending school as Wilhelmina Wolthuis, the name they had given her. [1A]
The Wolthuis home was not a happy environment. Antonia later said: “I’d dream about having an automobile accident in front of someone’s house just so they’d pick me up and be affectionate.” [5A]
She began piano lessons at age 10 after a doctor suggested this remedy to overcome her nail biting. Soon she was performing at local churches and club meetings. Her original ambition to become a concert pianist changed when she attended a park concert conducted by Paul Steindorff. Rather than limit herself to one instrument, she decided to become a conductor. She later said: “The orchestra to me is the greatest instrument. It is to the musician what the palette is to a painter.” [1A]
After her high school graduation in 1919, Mr. and Mrs. Wolthuis revealed for the first time that they were not her birth parents. Antonia immediately moved out and had no further contact with them. [1A]
Bread: .05/loaf Milk: .31/gallon
Car: $500 Gas: ??
Average Income: $897/year
President Theodore Roosevelt
Hot toy: Teddy Bear
Top Books: The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton; The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad
Classical Music Premiers: Briggs Fair (Frederick Delius); Symphony of a Thousand--#8 (Gustav Mahler); Pomp and Circumstance (Sir Edward Elgar)
Amy Marcy Beach recognized as a serious composer after the Boston Symphony premiered her Gaelic Symphony (1896); and Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor, (1899) with Beach as soloist.
BORN WITH A JOB: MARIN ALSOP 1956 - 1973
Marin Alsop was born in New York City. Her parents are professional musicians: Ruth and LaMar Alsop. LaMar is violinist/concertmaster of the NYC Ballet Orchestra. Ruth plays cello in the same orchestra.
“I was born with a job!” Marin says. “My parents ... could never imagine a life for their child that was not filled with music!” [1M]
She began piano lessons at age 2 and violin studies at 5. At age 7 she entered the Pre College Division at Julliard. For a time during her teens she studied classical guitar. When she was 9, her father took her to a Leonard Bernstein Young People’s concert. It changed her life.
“That was it for me,” she says. “I absolutely knew that I wanted to become a conductor and never changed my mind.” [1M]. Her music teachers discouraged her. Her parents gave her a set of homemade batons. Her father has made all her batons ever since. [2M]
She entered high school at 12 (The Masters School) and in 1972, at the age of 16, she matriculated at Yale University (class of 1977). In 1975 she transferred to Julliard, majoring in violin performance. [1M]
Top Books: Under the Net, Iris Murdoch; Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin
Classical Music Premiers: Candide, Leonard Bernstein; New England Tryptych, William H. Schumann; The Ballad of Baby Doe, Douglas Moore
Bebe Barron and her husband Louis composed the first electronic film musical score: MGM's Forbidden Planet (1956) [7M]
A PASSION TO CONDUCT: ANTONIA BRICO's EARLY YEARS 1919 -- 1932
Antonia enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley. As luck would have it, Paul Steindorff, who had inspired her conducting ambitions, was director of music and, more importantly, director of the San Francisco Opera. Antonia became his assistant. [2A] When she received a B.A. with honors in music in 1923, people advised her to teach; a position awaited her, and conducting was no job for a woman. But her ambition never wavered. [8A] She officially reclaimed her birth name, Antonia Brico, moved to New York City and studied piano with Sigismond Stojowski for two years.
In 1926 she moved to Hamburg, Germany, where the legendary Karl Muck, former conductor of the Boston Symphony, led the Hamburg Philharmonic. Armed with a letter of introduction, she persuaded him to become her mentor. She served as his apprentice for four years, the only student he ever accepted. At the same time she attended the conducting master class at the Berlin State Academy of Music, and became its first American graduate in 1927. [1A]
In 1930 she made her conducting debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, the first woman ever to lead that orchestra. Of her performance, the Allgemeine Zeitung critic said: “Miss Brico displayed unmistakable and outstanding gifts as a conductor. She possesses more ability, cleverness and musicianship than certain of her male colleagues who bore us in Berlin." [2A]
Later that year, she guest-conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony. Then, after a two-year tour of Europe conducting concerts with orchestras in Germany, Latvia and Poland, she returned to the United States in 1932 and settled in New York City.
EARLY CAREER: MARIN ALSOP 1975 - 1990
After earning a Bachelor of Music Degree in 1977 and a Master’s Degree in 1978 from Julliard, both in violin performance, Marin freelanced as a violinist. She performed with the NY Philharmonic, the NYC Ballet, NY Chamber Symphony, and the American Composers Orchestra. She also played Broadway shows (Sweeney Todd, Show Boat) and record dates, playing film scores, pop albums and TV commercials, all of which gave her a deep familiarity with American popular music.
In 1979 she began conducting studies with Carl Bamberger. Eager to explore all types of music, in 1981 she organized a 10 piece string swing band, String Fever, a group that still plays together. In 1984 she founded the Concordia Orchestra, which performs jazz and contemporary repertoire in the New York City area. She feels that playing jazz "has been tremendous for my conducting."
She continued her conducting studies with Harold Farberman in 1985. Three years later, in 1988 her hard work paid off: an appointment to Associate Conductor of the Richmond (VA) Symphony. She won a Leonard Bernstein Conducting Fellowship to Tanglewood, where she studied with Leonard Bernstein, Gustav Meier and Seiji Ozawa. She was also a prize winner in the Stokowski Conducting Competition with the American Symphony Orchestra in NYC. [1M]
In 1989 she was appointed Music Director of the Eugene (Oregon) Symphony and the Long Island Philharmonic, posts she held for seven years. Returning to Tanglewood in 1989, she was awarded, at age 23, the Koussevitsky Conducting Prize, the first and only woman awarded that honor. In 1990 she guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. [1M]
BORN 50 YEARS TOO SOON! ANTONIA AT MID-CAREER: 1932 -- 1947
In January 1933 Antonia made her NYC conducting debut with the Musicians’ Symphony Orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera House. The Pictorial Review critic wrote: “With only three rehearsals Miss Brico made that orchestra play as it had never played before.” [2A] She was hired to conduct a second concert, but was denied a third when the tenor soloist, John Charles Thomas, refused to perform with a woman conductor, fearing this would take attention away from him. [5A]
In 1934 she founded the New York Women’s Symphony “... to prove that women could play in any part of the symphony--they can play equally well the trombone, the flute, the oboe or the French horn.” [7A] With support from Eleanor Roosevelt and NYC Mayor LaGuardia, they played their first season in 1935, garnering excellent reviews.
Renamed the Brico Symphony Orchestra for its 1938-1939 season, the group added male musicians but disbanded after one season due to financial difficulties. Photo at right: Antonia in 1938
with Mayor LaGuardia (left) and San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi (right)
In 1938 Antonia became the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert at Lewisohn Stadium. The NY Times critic praised her interpretation of the Sibelius Symphony #1, which “. . . brought one of the most spontaneous and sustained outbursts of approval of the Stadium season.” The review went on to praise the “life, color and sanity of her readings [which were] expressed with effective verve and intensity.” [6A]
Despite such positive reviews, she was unable to obtain a conducting post with an established orchestra. A comment made to her before her NY Philharmonic debut is telling: Mrs. Charles Guggenheimer, doyenne of Lewisohn Stadium, told her: "It's a disgrace that a woman is conducting this venerable orchestra." [3A] Arthur Judson, then manager of the NY Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, told her: "All those females in the audience want to see a male conducting. Brico, you were born 50 years too soon." [3A]
In 1942 she moved to Denver, taught piano and took whatever guest conducting jobs she was offered. In 1945 she applied for, but was denied, the Denver Civic Orchestra conducting job. Europe was more appreciative of her talents. After WW II ended in 1946, she conducted concerts in Sweden, Austria and Holland. At Sir Adrian Bolt's invitation, she led the London Philharmonic in a Royal Albert Hall concert. Composer Jan Sebelius deemed her "a conductor of flame and fire" and invited her to conduct an all-Sibelius concert in Helsinki, Finland. [1A]
But a permanent conducting job in the United States continued to elude her.
HONORS AND ACCOLADES: MARIN ALSOP 1992 -- 2004
In 1992 Marin was appointed Music Director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music (Santa Cruz, CA). Under her direction, the festival won the ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music.
Her European debut came in 1993 at the Schleswig Holstein Music Festival, conducting the music of her mentor, Leonard Bernstein. That year she was appointed Music Director of the Colorado Symphony. Under her direction, the CSO won ASCAP’s first prize for programming in 1996/97 and 1999/2000.
In 1999 she became Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Glasgow) and began recording the complete works of Samuel Barber (a 6-CD series) for Naxos. [1M]
A new century brought more honors. She became a major star in England when the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra appointed her Principal Conductor for the 2002/03 season. The London Times said of her conducting: “Alsop ... made her orchestra play like there was no tomorrow.” In 2003 she won Gramophone Magazine’s Artist of the Year award and the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Conductor Award, the first artist ever to win both major awards in one year.
In 2004 she began recording a Brahms cycle for Naxos with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. She also led the first major US revival of Adam’s Nixon in China with the Opera Theater of St. Louis, and a semi-staged production of Bernstein’s Candide with the NY Philharmonic.
Watch Marin Alsop conduct Candide, with the NY Philharmonic: What a day!
A WOMAN WITHOUT AN INSTRUMENT
AFTER YEARS OF OBSCURITY,
BRIEF SHINING MOMENTS
1947 -- 1989
Rt: Antoina conducts the Brico Symphony (Denver) in 1974
In 1947 a group of amateur musicians invited her to lead the Denver Businessmen’s Orchestra, the only permanent conducting post she ever held. From 1947 until 1981, she led the orchestra in five performances each year. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s she toiled in obscurity in Denver. In 1967 the musicians renamed the orchestra the Brico Symphony in her honor.
A turning point came in 1971 when folk singer Judy Collins decided to film a documentary about Antonia. As a teenager in Denver, Collins had studied piano with her and in 1952 performed as piano soloist with Brico’s Denver Businessman's Orchestra. Although Collins' later success came in a non-classical area of music, the two women remained close. [5A]
“Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman,” co-produced by Collins and Jill Godmilow, was released in 1974. Critic Marjorie Rosen called it "an extraordinary portrait of an extraordinary woman ... a pioneer female orchestra conductor ... an artist and feminist. ... [The film is] a vision of optimism and courage [that defines] a life of brilliant but thwarted promise. [It] is disturbing because it details brilliance misused; brilliance regarded as novelty. But ultimately it's uplifting because optimism and commitment and courage ... have a way of renewing and intoxicating us." [5A]
The film demonstrates Brico’s indomitable will, unshakable determination and sense of humor, but in one poignant scene she laments: “I have five performances a year, but I’m strong enough to have five a month! It’s like giving a starving person a piece of bread.” [5A]
The film won critical acclaim and an Academy Award nomination, and briefly revitalized Brico’s career. During the 1975-76 season she conducted two concerts at the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York City, her only performances preserved on record (see discography). She guest-conducted concerts with the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center, the Denver and Seattle symphonies, the American Symphony Orchestra, and concerts in Manila and Halifax. [3A] Her last New York appearances were in 1977 with the Brooklyn Philharmonia. [9A]
In 1981 Antonia Brico, then 79, retired from conducting, but continued to teach. In 1988 she broke her hip in a fall. She died in a Denver nursing home on 3 August 1989 at age 87. [1A]
2005: A BANNER YEAR ENDS ON A SOUR NOTE
In 2005, Marin Alsop won a Grammy nomination for her Colorado Symphony recording of Daugherty’s UFO, featuring percussion soloist Evelyn Glennie. She won the Classical BRIT Female Artist of the Year award. She was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship Prize. [1M]
She also made history as the first woman appointed Music Director of a major U.S. orchestra: The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a position to begin in 2007. The day after management made the announcement, a very public controversy ensued. The players' committee issued a statement expressing their disappointment at the "premature conclusion of the music-director search process." The Baltimore players were consulted but overruled, and they clearly didn't like it. [4M]
At that time the orchestra was mired in debt, had not issued a new recording in almost a decade and often played to half-empty houses. [2M] Articles in the New York Times and Washington Post, while praising Marin Alsop's accomplishments with other orchestras in the US and Europe, raised the gender issue. Marin declined to be interviewed but released a statement: "We've had a wonderful time performing these past few years, and I look forward to making music with the exceptional musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra." [4M] She then called for a private meeting with the orchestra and flew to Baltimore. At a rehearsal she presented her vision for the future. The musicians were intrigued by her ambitious plans to reinvigorate the orchestra. [2M]
SUCCESS: ONWARD AND UPWARD
In 2007 her inaugural concert as Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony, broadcast live on XM satellite radio, won glowing reviews. Her innovative approach of telling concert-goers about the composition to be played and inviting prominent composers to discuss their music won her enthusiastic audiences. [2M]
She now has a good rapport with the Baltimore musicians, who find her energy and enthusiasm contagious. Their first Alsop-led CD hit the top of the Billboard Classical Music chart when it was released in 2007. [2M]
That year the Baltimore Symphony announced a 16% increase in new subscription sales over the previous year, and a more than 40% increase over 2005. [1M] As committed to new technology as she is to new music, Marin makes audio pod-casts of her rehearsals available on iTunes.
She does video webcast commentaries to supplement the concert program notes. In 2006, she inaugurated “Marin on Music” on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Saturday show. [2M] That year she conducted the US premier of Nicholas Maw’s opera, Sophie’s Choice, anddebuted with the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich, the Royal Concertgebow Orchestra (Amsterdam) and the Washington National Opera.
In 2007 she recorded her 25th CD for Naxos, Bartok’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle, conducted the London Philharmonic to re-open the newly renovated Royal Festival Hall, and won a European Women of Achievement Award. Naxos released the final CD in her Brahms Symphony cycle with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In October 2008 Marin Alsop made her Carnegie Hall Debut with the Baltimore Symphony. Visit her website for her current schedule.
OBSTACLES: During Antonia Brico’s lifetime, symphonic conducting was a male preserve. Early in her career Brico mastered the standard orchestral repertoire and won the support of conductors Karl Muck, Sir Adrian Bolt and composer Jan Sibelius; reviews of her concerts were overwhelmingly positive. Even so, after an auspicious start, she sank into obscurity, regaining brief prominence only in the twilight of her years. Arthur Judson believed she was ahead of her time, born fifty years too soon. Note: Marin Alsop, born 54 years after Brico, received her first conducting post in 1988.
For Marin, obstacles still existed, but by the time she entered Julliard in the 1970s the climate was changing. She also had supportive parents, who were professional musicians. Both women followed similar paths: performance on their instruments, intense conducting studies prior to their public performances as conductors; both established their own orchestras to gain conducting opportunites. Both had similar qualities: high intelligence, innate musical talent, a passion for music, great determination and above all a capacity for hard work.
GENDER BIAS: Antonia felt the bias came from management, not musicians. “If the leader knows her business,” she said in a 1975 interview, “the orchestra doesn’t care whether it is a man or a woman.” [3A] In 1976, she said, "The only sexists in the concert world today are women in the audience and most of the critics--they want only men on the podium." [4A] She promoted the cause of women composers, including the premier of Elinor Remick Warren's The Harp Weaver in 1936. In an interview she stated that more women would land orchestral jobs if auditions were held behind a screen to conceal their gender, an idea that did not take root until the 1970s.
Marin prefers not to dwell on the issue, attributing some of her success "to the fact that I never interpreted any rejections as gender-based, even if I could have done so." Yet she also notes that "There are more [opportunities for women] now than ever before, but it would be naive not to notice that there are no women music directors of any major orchestras in the world. [1M] In 2002 she started a fellowship for female conductors, the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship; every year one exceptionally talented woman is selected to work with Alsop and her orchestras. [1M]
IMAGE: Concious of her image, Brico said in 1976, "Publicity is a strategic part of gaining some note for yourself." [4A] In 1975, she told a Newsweek interviewer, "Do you have to put in my age? When a man's gray, he's interesting. When a woman's gray, she's old." [3A]
Alsop said in 2007: "A woman has to really think about how she gets sound out of the orchestra. If you want a really big dynamic range, you have to make a different gesture from a man, because otherwise people think you're trying to be this huge person and they get scared of that. You're a woman possessed. Or a bitch. Whereas in a man it's seen as strong." [6M]
ROLE MODELS and MENTORS: Antonia Brico remains an inspiration for aspiring women conductors. Her mentors included Paul Steindorff, Karl Muck, Sir Adrian Bolt, and Jan Sibelius. Her spiritual mentor was Albert Schweitzer, with whom she studied Bach during the 1950s. Two prominent women became friends and supporters: Eleanor Roosevelt in the 30's; later, Judy Collins, her piano student and lifelong friend, paid tribute to her in a documentary film about her.
Marin's parents were her greatest influence and encouraged her musical ambitions. Her mentor and hero was Leonard Bernstein. "He inspired me to become a conductor, became my mentor and teacher, and more than a hero could ever be!" She considers it an honor to be a role model for aspiring female musicians. "I am in a position to create opportunities for the next generation of women and I take that responsibility very seriously." [1M] She brings student groups onstage to perform with the Baltimore Symphony: a children's chorus, a university dance group, an inner-city high school drum corps. She also wants to bring music to Baltimore's impoverished school system. "I think art has the capacity to bring people together ... I think it can completely change the world in some way." [2M]
LEGACY: Antonia Brico remains a towering figure, making her mark as the best known and most acclaimed female conductor of the early 20th century. In the 21st century, that torch has been passed to Marin Alsop, who continues to make musical news, thanks to her hard work, extraordinary talent and her passion to bring music to wider audiences young and old.
DISCOGRAPHY: ANTONIA BRICO:
Film: Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman,
directed by Judy Collins and Jill Godmilow, 1974
Sony CD: Mozart Overtures, Divertimento, K. 131; Symphony # 28, 3/4/97
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