It's all about removing the stigma. They inspired people around the country to get together and support each other. —French horn player Caroline Whiddon
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 said, 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 said. 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 said is based on her scouring of the Internet. "I can't find anyone online doing anything close to what we're doing," she said.
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 2-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 said. So when Me2/orchestra applied, it was a perfect fit.
"It really goes to the core of our mission," Ayers said.
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 give the public less fear and more awareness of mental illness.
They said 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 said, later adding, "They inspired people around the country to get together and support each other."
Braunstein, 58, said he 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 said. "I really do get to the highs and lows, extremely far apart."
Braunstein said that his favorite composer is Beethoven — and that 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 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 modeled after the annual celebration in Vienna with the Radetzky March and Blue Danube Waltz.
Braunstein worked with the players on phrasing, articulation and other technical aspects. During the first hour of rehearsal, the improvements were obvious.
"You're following me too much," he told a timpanist he thought was not keeping up with the beat.
"Can you do the four bars in one breath?" he asked the horn players.
Double bassist Christa Mordoff, a youth counselor at the juvenile detention center, said during a rehearsal break that her interest was piqued in part by the upcoming concert at her workplace.Comment on this story
She said she was trying to take a realistic view of how classical music would be received at the youth detention center. "Some people are going to love it, and there are some people who are really negative no matter what," she said.
But as he sat and waited for the rehearsal to resume, there was no negativity getting to Jake Belcher. Belcher, 23, a violinist and math student at the University of Vermont, said he was diagnosed 18 months ago with anxiety and depression but took comfort in music.
The orchestra, he said, is "just an unspoken, nonjudgmental zone where you can relax and know you're among good people."