Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman. A Review (Review #1822)



The list of famous conductors known to the general public is probably small. People may know Gustavo Dudamel, Zubin Mehta, the now disgraced James Levine. We could go further into the past with Leopold Stokowski or Arturo Toscanini. Maybe Leonard Bernstein is the one conductor most people, classical music fans and non, can readily recall. Now we look at a rarity among conductors: a female conductor. Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman gives this strong, capable woman her moment, revealing a great truth about how the world loses when artificial barriers are placed.

Using the Brico Symphony, a Denver-based nonprofit semi-professional community orchestra, as a bookend, Antonia looks at the life and career of Antonia Brico. Born in Rotterdam, Brico moves to California as a child with her foster parents. Her musical career began thanks to her fingernails. Advised that piano playing would end her nail biting, Antonia found a passion in music. "That's one reason why it's everything in my life," she observes, "because the music was one thing that saved my reason, my sanity".

Brico shifted from the piano to conducting. She is aware that as a woman, the doors are if not shut at least extremely hard to pry open. Undaunted, she forges her own path. Brico creates her own all-female orchestra: the Women's Symphony Orchestra. She openly challenges men to have play-offs against her own members, with a blindfolded audience deciding which player is the best. While she continues teaching and conducting whenever she is invited, the frustration is clear. Brico is adamant that she can conduct five times a month rather than the five times a year she manages. 

Despite her professional frustrations, she is still full of life. Brico recalls her work with Dr. Albert Schweitzer and reminisces of composers and conductors she has known and admired. Among them is Stokowski, whom she holds as being in a class of his own. There is also Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, who heard her conduct his work and welcomed her conducting.

Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman reveals a woman who is aware of the burdens against her but who opted to do what she could versus waiting for opportunities to present themselves. She did, up to a point, have to rely on others to champion her. However, Brico decided the best way to make needed change was to make the changes herself. It was a stroke of genius to create an all-female orchestra to show that women were capable players. Later, she opted to make it a mixed orchestra, arguing that art is sexless. 

The frustration and joy of Brico's life and career come through. She at one point is angry that opportunities for conducting are few and far between. She compares herself to a Russian woman who conducts on a more regular basis. Brico insists that the orchestra is her instrument and that she is all but forbidden to play it.

However, she is also upbeat and optimistic, ending A Portrait of the Woman by playing a little ragtime. Brico delights in serving as mentor and educator to new generations, primarily young women. The love she has for conducting is clear, comparing it to painting. She also speaks fondly of her work with Dr. Schweitzer, though we do not get much information on that.

One curious moment is an animated sequence providing an imagined battle of tympany players, one male, one female. Brico had issued that challenge to have a member of her all-female orchestra against men, but I do not think there were takers. As imagined, the female tympanist won handily, the male exhausted and soundly defeated. I get the message behind that sequence. However, someone being a better musician because that player is a woman is no less sexist than saying that a man is a better musician by virtue of him being a man.

Curiously, Brico observes that it has been women who have been the ones who have blocked her more than men. However, that statement is not expanded on. 

The title is accurate, as it is A Portrait, not The Portrait. Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman gives us Brico's life and work, the passion for conducting, and reminds us of a truth: that art truly is sexless. One hopes that Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman exposes more people, particularly females, that imposed limitations need not be obeyed. 



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