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Mentally ill and their backers fill US orchestra

December 26, 2013

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vermont (AP) — 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 just 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 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 the 58-year-old Braunstein are looking for as they try to use the group to give the public 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 U.S. 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 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.

Jake 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.”

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