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Orchestra aims for acceptance, not perfection

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The Me2/Orchestra, an organization for musicians with mental illness,  rehearses for an upcoming pefromance.

JOHN SIDDLE PHOTO Enlarge Image

The Me2/Orchestra, an organization for musicians with mental illness, rehearses for an upcoming pefromance.

 

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. -- Ronald Braunstein's career as a musical conductor got off to a brilliant start. He attended The Juilliard School, performed as a guest with top orchestras, including the San Francisco Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic, and won the prestigious Herbert von Karajan conducting competition in 1979.

But bipolar disorder slowed what might have been an explosive career, including three five-year periods when, he says, he had trouble merely getting out of bed.

 

He met his wife, french horn player Caroline Whiddon, when she was working as manager of the Vermont Youth Orchestra and Braunstein was hired as its music director. She had struggled with anxiety and depression.

Braunstein's bipolar disorder was a factor in his firing from the youth orchestra in 2011, they say. They responded by forming the Me2/orchestra -- Me2, or "me, too," as in the shared struggles of its musicians.

It's billed as "the world's only classical music organization for individuals with mental illness and the people who support them," a claim Whiddon says is based on her scouring of the Internet. "I can't find anyone online doing anything close to what we're doing," she says.

They're hoping a performance as part of First Night Burlington, an annual New Year's Eve arts festival in Vermont's largest city, will bring some attention to the two-year-old ensemble.

Part of First Night's mission is to make arts accessible and open for participation to a broad swath of the community, executive director Tom Ayers says. So when Me2/orchestra applied, it was a perfect fit.

"It really goes to the core of our mission," Ayers says.

That kind of exposure is what Whiddon, the orchestra's 44-year-old executive director, and Braunstein are looking for as they try to use the group to take away the public's fear of mental illness and promote awareness.

They took some of their inspiration from the Gay Men's Chorus movement, which has singing groups in cities around the country. What those groups did for gay men they want to do for people struggling with mental illness.

"It's all about removing the stigma," Whiddon says, later adding, "They inspired people around the country to get together and support each other."

Braunstein, 58, sees his own illness as a key part of his gift.

"I feel better able to hook into the grandiosity, the excitement, the profoundness and the depths, more than a person who is without bipolar," he says. "I really do get to the highs and lows, extremely far apart."

Braunstein's favourite composer is Beethoven -- and he feels a kinship with the 20th-century orchestra leader Otto Klemperer. Both Beethoven and Klemperer are believed to have had bipolar disorder.

Just one of the manifestations of his bipolar disorder: he once got lost on his way to conducting a recent rehearsal in a room where he had worked with the group a dozen times before.

But among the players in the Me2/orchestra, that was OK. Acceptance, more than perfection, is the reason for the group's existence. And the musicians get to play for a conductor of high stature.

At a recent rehearsal, the orchestra was preparing for concerts at Vermont's Woodside Juvenile Detention Center and the First Night celebration on New Year's Eve in Burlington -- the latter modelled after the annual celebration in Vienna with the Radetzky March and Blue Danube Waltz.

Braunstein works with the players on phrasing, articulation and other technical aspects. During the first hour of rehearsal, the improvements are obvious.

"You're following me too much," he tells a timpanist he thinks is not keeping up with the beat.

"Can you do the four bars in one breath?" he asks the horn players.

Double bassist Christa Mordoff, a youth counsellor at the juvenile detention centre, says her interest was piqued in part by the upcoming concert at her workplace.

She says she was trying to take a realistic view of how classical music would be received at the youth detention centre. "Some people are going to love it, and there are some people who are really negative no matter what," she says.

There was no negativity getting to Jake Belcher. Belcher, 23, a violinist and math student at the University of Vermont, says he was diagnosed 18 months ago with anxiety and depression but took comfort in music.

The orchestra, he says is "just an unspoken, non-judgmental zone where you can relax and know you're among good people."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 30, 2013 D3

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