IN 1930 Antonia Brico made her conducting debut with the Berlin Philharmonic. She was 28 years old, and the first woman ever to secure that honor--the stuff of which dreams are made. The 40 years that followed have been, for Brico, mostly a story of dreams deferred. Aside from a handful of guest-conducting engagements at the Metropolitan Opera, Lewisohn Stadium and the New York Philharmonic, she has been unable to crack one of the few remaining exclusively male fields.
In 1934, she formed an all-woman symphony in New York, to demonstrate to a dubious world that women can not only play in every seat in an orchestra, but also conduct one--and not so incidentally, to give herself an opportunity to do just that. In 1939, having made her point, she saw no reason to belabor it, and so opened the orchestra to men as well. Unfortunately, with its novelty thus lost, the interest it had generated was lost as well--and shortly thereafter, the orchestra disbanded.
The ensuing decades have brought lean years for Brico, who has labored in obscurity. She has fed her artistic soul on the scant fare of four or five concerts a year with the Denver Businessmen's Orchestra--and has fed her body by teaching piano. But if one waits long enough, the worm will sometimes turn. Twenty-odd years ago, one Judy Collins, age 10, landed in Brico's lap for piano lessons. Today, Collins is in a position to return part of the gift of this most gifted woman. She and Jill Godmilow have produced a documentary on Brico's life and work, entitled Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman: The film has just begun an indefinite run at the Orson Welles. It is a remarkable portrait of an equally remarkable woman.
Collins, Godmilow and a technical crew spent several days filming Brico in her Denver home. The rest of the footage shows Brico's Denver Symphony in rehearsal and performance, as well as her 1930 Berlin debut. Brico is on-camera almost the entire time; in response to Collins's questions, she talks with direct simplicity about her music, her friendship with Albert Schweitzer, her colleagues, and (one senses for the first time) the heartbreak that is a conductor's lot when deprived of an orchestra.
It is inevitable that a film like Antonia will be asked to carry more weight than just its immediate subject. Brico is only one in a generation of women who have paid with their lives for a key their daughters may yet live to use. Since most of us lack the means to repay that generational debt, films like Antonia must do it for us. But Collins and Godmilow avoid the temptation to use the film as a political vehicle. It is, from beginning to end, a study of the life and work of one woman, on whom the eye is trained unfailingly. That is the most fitting tribute they can pay to someone who, in 60 years of struggle, has never lost sight of her real objective--to make music as long as her hands and ears will do her bidding.
COLLINS AND GODMILOW were both present at the opening night screening of Antonia at the Boston Center for the Arts, and spoke more on this point. They said that while they were filming, they tried to lead Brico to say that yes, she was gratified to have pioneered a trail for other women to follow. Brico's answer came back crystal clear--"I would have given up that odious distinction to have conducted more." That is perhaps a hard thing for us to hear. We would rather think our martyrs find a comfort in their roles. But Brico is first and last an artist--and implicit in the film is the loss we have all incurred by sending a musician in to do a revolutionary's dirty work.
The film deals with this loss largely through indirection, and it gains much eloquence in the understatement. Rather than dwell at length on the frustrated promise of Brico's early career, Antonia shows us Brico at work today. A memorable sequence of shots has Brico coaching a young woman for her piano debut with Brico's symphony, culminating in that debut itself. The young woman strides out on the stage, amid Brico's tears of pride, with the glowing energy of youth for whom all things are still possible. There could be no more moving account of Brico's life than the piercing lyricism of that moment.
But the film has an irrepressible optimism, caught no doubt from its subject. Brico is not one to suck on the bitter fruit of "might have beens." At age 72, clearly not all things are still possible for Antonia Brico--but many are. As Brico says simply, "I have a habit of living in the present." And not the least of this film's achievements lies in its making real some of those possibilities. As a result of the exposure the film has given her, Brico has received one firm, and several tentative, offers of conducting engagements. For Antonia Brico to be given back her podium after so many hungry years would be justice of the most poetic sort.