Posted in: by Claudia Gorbman, Contributors, Documentary, Film Reviews

Review: Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

“My stepmother and I used to go to these … spiritualistic meetings, and get messages from …”—a little hand gesture—”yonder. They went into trances and said that Liszt was standing in back of me.” The 73-year-old reminisces about her childhood in California: receiving piano lessons so that she’d stop biting her nails; finding gratification playing at her stepmother’s séances “because ladies would come up afterwards and hold me in their arms.'” Antonia Brico’s articulate recollections always link music to love, and this documentary, inspired by her former student Judy Collins and put together by Jill Godmilow, communicates from start to finish Antonia’s enormous capacity for both music and love. Her life as a conductor really began in 1930. A Movietone newsreel presents her as she performed Dvorak’s D minor symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic. A montage of newspaper headlines then illustrates the immense critical success the “American girl” enjoyed—although we learn that security in success would never grace her career. Back in the United States, despite resistance on the part of the male-dominated musical establishment, Antonia recounts how she managed to conduct two concerts in New York. More rave reviews. But the third never occurred because the male soloist poutishly declared that he would never sing under a female’s direction. Only slightly daunted, Brico’s next claim to fame was the founding of the Brico Symphony Orchestra, the all-women enterprise that made headlines for a couple of years and sparked a raging, publicity-studded controversy between Brico and Jose Iturbi on the relative competence of men and women musicians. A silly but endearing animated entr’acte invades the screen: “The Great Kettledrum Contest of 1937,” a grueling cartoon duel between a barrel-chested maestro and a demure young maestra. Guess who outplays whom.

Back to reality, the battle won and her point proven, Brico decided to integrate her orchestra in the late Thirties. “The novelty wore off,” Antonia sighs: going coed meant going broke. In her blue and white frame house in Denver, sometimes over brunch, sometimes in the living room beside the piano and surrounded by mementoes of past greatness, she continues her story. Artur Rubinstein, Bruno Walter, and a third, “you know, the Yugoslav man who was married to … Borden’s Milk” (probably the pianist and activist Zlatko Blokovic), heard her and sent glowing recommendations to Sibelius, who arranged a European tour for her in the Forties. Then she recalls her meeting with Albert Schweitzer, and memories of great musicians she knew. The story winds down, leaving behind a trail of hopes, successes, and mostly frustrations. A rehearsal and a concert with her amateur Brico Symphony in Denver shows how their respectful goodwill and Antonia’s fine sense of musical shaping—and sheer patience—almost compensates for problems of intonation, resonance, and general professionalism.

Music fills the film everywhere: Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Bach, even ”After You’ve Gone” and “Whispering.” Appropriately, it’s all Antonia’s (except for Schweitzer’s Bach), whether from old records in her livingroom or the new Brico Orchestra’s concert. Editor Godmilow, fortunately as sensitive to music as to film, gives the movie its flow. Here’s one sequence: Antonia’s young student practices the first movement of Schumann’s piano concerto. Cut to her playing the next few measures on stage, in concert. On the soundtrack, piano music of the previous shot has dissolved with perfect continuity into the piano and orchestra performance. If the sequence is built on this principle of visual intercutting and auditory dissolving, it was Brico and Godmilow who saw beforehand that Antonia would have to rehearse her pianist exactly at concert tempo. Thanks to her internal metronome, a rare and mysterious a gift as perfect pitch, the two scenes were possible to shoot three weeks apart. More innocuous appearances of this magic a little later: Antonia explains the origin of the 1930s Brico Orchestra, as we watch footage of her rehearsing the mostly female first violin section of her present orchestra. When she says that one day in the Thirties she was directing an ensemble of nine women and realized “why not ninety?” the thin sound of the amateur violins dissolves into the original recording of the symphony as played by her first orchestra. The effect is subtle and beautifully conceived. Antonia: Portrait of the Woman thus marks the angers and joys of this remarkable woman’s career. At the end, one sincerely wants to know how she’s doing. The answer is encouraging: Collins/Godmilow’s gentle but forceful film has already gotten her several guest-conducting engagements with some of the country’s finest symphony orchestras.

Direction: Judy Collins, Jill Godmilow. Cinematography: Coulter Wall. Editing: Jill Godmilow. A Rocky Mountain Production.

Copyright © 1975 Claudia Gorbman