Conductor creates musical outlet for people with mental illness


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When he was studying at Juilliard, Ronald Braunstein conducted a Mozart symphony with a blue pencil. Mr. Braunstein thought he would be able to paint the colors better with a writing implement than with a conducting baton. 

“I was quite manic to think that, but that was one of my beliefs,” said Mr. Braunstein, who grew up in Pittsburgh, mainly in Squirrel Hill. 

Although he didn’t know it at the time, Mr. Braunstein’s behavior was due to bipolar disorder. Throughout his career, his mental illness has created obstacles or invited stigma. But in recent years, it has become an opportunity.

His experiences inspired him and his wife, Caroline Whiddon, to start the Me2/ Orchestra, a Burlington, Vt.-based ensemble that seeks to ease the stigma around mental illness and “to create a safe work space” for people with mental illness and those who support and love them, Mr. Braunstein, 58, said.  

He has an impressive musical background. In 1979, the conductor won first prize at the Herbert von Karajan conducting competition and was mentored by its namesake conductor, he said. His biography includes appearances with premier orchestras including the San Francisco Symphony and Oslo Philharmonic and training with conductors such as Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa.

Following his diagnosis in 1985, he took lithium but did not stick to the regimen. During the highs, “everything I touched turned to gold,” he said. “And then you lose everything.” 

It created a brutal cycle whereby a stable period led to increased confidence, a feeling of being invincible and then a crash. He had three severe depressive episodes, including two that left him bed-ridden for about a year each. 

His circuitous route led him to experiences as far-reaching as a music directorship in Taiwan and a brief partnership at an oil company in Costa Rica. Mr. Braunstein said he was essentially homeless for a year before he was hired to be music director of the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association, where Ms. Whiddon was executive director. 

His tenure at the youth orchestra lasted less than a year. A public statement from the orchestra association and Mr. Braunstein said that “students were inspired to reach new levels of musical excellence,” but that Mr. Braunstein’s untreated illness affected his job performance. 

Separately, Ms. Whiddon, too, left the organization of her own volition. In 2011, the couple founded the Me2/ Orchestra (as in, “You have a mental illness? Me, too”) and later got married. Ms. Whiddon, who has anxiety disorder and depression, is executive director. 

Following a modest advertising effort, a handful of people showed up at the first rehearsal. Now, a core group of about 25 or 30 people attend the weekly rehearsals, Mr. Braunstein said. Anyone is welcome, and the musicians, ranging in age from 12 to 88, have various skill levels. The group includes people with mental illness, their loved ones, psychiatrists, psychologists, people “from all walks of life,” Mr. Braunstein said. 

“We don’t ask people about their diagnosis. The actual group is a mixture of people with and without mental illness.”

Ms. Whiddon does not know of another orchestra with a similar mission to Me2/ (www.me2orchestra.org), and the couple plans to take the organization’s efforts nationwide. An orchestra in Boston is set for a fall launch, and a choir in Vermont is on the horizon, they said. 

While conducting Me2/ in works by Handel, Brahms, Schubert and Beethoven, Mr. Braunstein has learned to alter his  approach to conducting. Previously, he had focused on musical execution above all.

“We accept each other’s shortcomings. This orchestra’s based on acceptance, not based on technical perfection.

“Still, they knock it out of the park, almost every concert,” he said, “and it’s always shocking.”


Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.

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