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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Behind the baton

Apr 04, 2023 02:12PM ● By Stacey Ryan

Since 1970, the Valley Symphony Association (VSA) Orchestra has been bringing classical music to life on the Western Slope. In the midst of the first conductor search in almost three decades, the VSA has taken a look back on the conductors who have put their musical stamp on the organization.

While some may find it surprising that our corner of Colorado attracts so much musical talent within the ranks of our volunteer musicians, even more surprising is a particular guest conductor under whose baton briefly marshaled VSA talent early in its history.

Perhaps the VSA’s most noted conductor was Antonia Brico. Born in the Netherlands, she emigrated to the U.S. in 1908 and settled in California. By the time she left high school, she was already a noted pianist with conducting experience. 

Brico attended the University of California, Berkeley, and worked as an assistant director at the San Francisco Opera. She then attended the Berlin State Academy of Music and graduated from its master class in conducting. She was the first American to do so.

Brico went on to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Hamburg Philharmonic, and won plaudits from critics and the public. She was appointed conductor of a newly founded Women’s Symphony Orchestra in 1939, which soon became the Brico Symphony Orchestra. She was the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic.

She settled in Denver in 1942, founded the Bach Society and the Women’s String Ensemble, and conducted the Denver Businessmen’s Orchestra (which also became the Brico Symphony Orchestra). She was the conductor of the Denver Philharmonic, the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, and made hundreds of guest conductor appearances throughout the rest of her life, including a stop on the Western Slope in November of 1978 during the VSA’s eighth season.

Overcoming barriers

In the 1974 documentary, “Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman”, Brico candidly described her career-long struggle with gender bias that kept her from conducting more frequently. The documentary was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Dutch director Maria Peters’ movie “De Dirigent” (“The Conductor”) about the life of Brico, starring Christanne de Bruijn, was released in 2018. 

A children’s picture book, “In One Ear And Out The Other: Antonia Brico And Her Amazingly Musical Life” by Diane Worthey and illustrated by Morgana Wallace, was published in 2020. The book is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection.

Brico died in 1989 in Denver at the age of 87. History Colorado holds a large collection of her personal papers. She was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 1986.

Concluding the search

To an organization like the VSA, the search for a new conductor is, well, instrumental. 

Last summer, before the start of the VSA’s 51st season, the search committee met for the first time. They narrowed the field to three finalists from throughout the U.S. and Europe. Two of the three finalists, Troy Raper from Grand Junction and Charlotte Ruth Harrison from Orem, Utah, have both excited VSA audiences at the December “Christmas By Candlelight” and February “Young Composers” concerts. The last finalist, Steven Aguiló Arbues from Denver, will conduct the April 22 and 23 “Pop Stars & Superheroes” concerts.

“The transition from one conductor to another is a great opportunity for the community to evaluate its musical priorities, and choose the person to best take the VSA from where it is to where we want it to be in the future,” said Charles Latshaw, conductor search committee chair.

Part of the selection process has been encouraging and receiving audience input immediately following each performance. 

“Frankly, we’ve been both surprised and thrilled by how many people are filling out the surveys,” Board President Hartland Clubb said. “It’s great to know our music lovers care.”

As an incentive for audience members to participate, a beautiful hand-painted violin will be awarded as the prize in a drawing after the final concert. The violin was painted by the VSA’s own Kaitlynn Hurford, a member of the chorus since 2018, and a professional painter who’s been developing her own painting style since graduating from college. 

To learn more about VSA, including upcoming concerts, visit or call 970-765-8323.