ORCHESTRATING CHANGE reveals the Me2/ musicians’ individual battles living with mental illness as conductor, Ronald Braunstein, first prepares Me2/Burlington for an intimate performance at a local mental health facility and then combines the Burlington and Boston orchestras for a major concert at a renowned concert hall. The film captures the doubts, determination and excitement as Ronald and the musicians overcome tremendous personal challenges to mount this ambitious concert. Me2/Orchestra was created when conductor, Ronald Braunstein, was on the brink of destitution, his professional conducting career over.
A graduate of the Juilliard School of Music, Ronald was the first American to win the prestigious Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition. His conducting career skyrocketed. He was on a trajectory to fame as a great maestro, leading major orchestras around the world including the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Tokyo and San Francisco Symphonies. But, alternating periods of depression and mania often interrupted Ronald’s professional triumphs. In 1985, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. As knowledge of Ronald’s illness became public, his manager dropped him and the classical music community abandoned him. Ronald’s once meteoric career plummeted.
Then, Ronald met and married Caroline Whiddon, a career orchestra administrator. Ronald dreamed of creating a place where he and others like him could create music in a supportive and caring atmosphere that fosters acceptance and patience. Together, they launched Me2/Orchestra in Burlington, Vermont, in 2011. Caroline runs the non-profit organization and also plays French horn in the brass section. The Burlington orchestra currently has about 45 musicians ranging in age from 13 to 89. A second Me2/Orchestra was launched in the fall of 2014 in Boston. Their goal is establish at least twenty Me2/Orchestras in major cities across the country that, like the Gay Men’s Chorus movement, will spread compassion and understanding with every performance.
The challenges of making music with a group so diverse are many. The level of musicianship varies greatly from player to player. There are no auditions and no fees. Anyone can join Me2/. Several have returned to playing after long lapses due to their mental illness or in retreat from the highly competitive atmosphere of other orchestras. Ronald and many of the musicians face the realities of living with mental illness, experiencing relapses, and bad days. What happens when someone drops out? Or, when Ronald himself is having a difficult day and doesn’t feel like showing up for rehearsal? Or, when someone is disruptive? Despite the unpredictable difficulties, the music and fellowship created by Me2/are truly transformational.
The bond that has formed among these musicians is evident at each rehearsal. Whether they are laughing together during the break or acknowledging a fellow musician who needs to take a “time out” in the middle of rehearsal. For the musicians, the orchestra is a lifeline and Ronald and Caroline’s mentorship is an inspiration. These relationships go far beyond music. When one musician recently had a breakdown and wound up in a local mental hospital, Caroline and Ronald were there by her side.
In ORCHESTRATING CHANGE the musicians courageously disclose how they cope with the many difficulties of daily life including, devastating discrimination. They interact with friends, family, co-workers, and each other while rehearsing once a week with the orchestra and working towards the big performance. Some must make mandated appearances at Mental Health Court. Others are living at halfway houses or sober residences. Some, unable to work, are barely eking by on disability income. For many, just getting to rehearsal every week can be a major obstacle.
Throughout the year, the Me2/Orchestras perform at local concert venues, at prison facilities, rehabilitation centers, mental health facilities and events and veteran’s hospitals where many in the audience also suffer from mental illnesses. After each performance, the musicians engage in a dialogue with the audience, answering questions about living with mental illness and often, their instruments. For the audience and the orchestra, it’s a rare opportunity to talk openly about mental illness in a completely stigma-free environment
While these smaller concerts are still cause for anxiety for some of the musicians, most of them can only imagine performing at a major concert hall and for Ronald it will be the first time in many years. This is Caroline’s dream come true– to see her brilliant husband standing at an important podium after being shunned by the international music community. As they travel together to the venue, the anticipation and nerves are palpable.
ORCHESTRATING CHANGE portrays the poignant and powerful ways Me2/Orchestra has transformed the lives of Ronald and his musicians. Me2/ has enabled them to come out of the shadows and be heard. While performing exhilarating music, they break down stereotypes, reconnect with society, foster acceptance, friendships and most important, realize their own abilities. The final performance will be an emotional triumph not just for the musicians but for the audience as well.
ORCHESTRATING CHANGE reveals compelling personal stories and culminates in a performance that shows the extraordinary power of music to change lives.