“The orchestra is to the musician what the palette is to a painter”
Antonia Brico was born in Holland in 1902 and migrated to California at the age of 5. At the age of 10, her adoptive parents sent her to piano lessons as a remedy to keep her from biting her fingernails. A practical solution became a passion and she was soon performing at local events. But her desire to become a concert pianist was overcome after experiencing a concert conducted by Paul Steindorff. It was then when she decided that one instrument was not enough, and she would become a conductor.
Antonia enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, where precisely Paul Steindorff was director of music as well as director of the San Francisco Opera. She became his assistant and after finishing her bachelor moved to New York City to study piano with Sigismond Stojowski for two years.
n 1926 she moved to Hamburg, Germany, where she convinced Karl Muck, who led the Hamburg Philharmonic, to become her mentor for four years, being the only student he would ever accept. Her debut as a conductor was made in 1930 with the Berlin Philharmonic, being the first woman to lead that orchestra. “Yankee Girl Startles Berlin Critics”, was the triumphant (although still patronizing) headline of an article in the New York Times.
After directing the Berlin Philharmonic, she twice conducted the Metropolitan Opera. Even having been a great success, a third concert was denied because John Charles Thomas, the baritone, rejected to work with a woman. Again, in 1933, after two triumphs with the Musicians’ Symphony Orchestra in NYC, tenor soloist, a third one was denied as John Charles Thomas, refused to perform with a woman conductor, for fear it would take attention away from him.
At the time, Spanish conductor Jose Iturbi was heard saying that “women are temperamentally limited and unable to attain the same standards of musical performance as men”.
Antonia’s opinion was that “art is sexless”, and kept pushing to do what was a natural gift and life mission. In 1934 she founded the New York Women’s Symphony, as a point to prove that women could play in any part of the symphony. She later included males but the group dissolved soon due to financial difficulties.
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. Antonia Brico remains a towering figure, making her mark as the best known and most acclaimed female conductor of the early 20th century.
”I do not call myself a woman conductor,” she said in interviews. ”I call myself a conductor who happens to be a woman.”