After nearly two years of pandemic uncertainty, several local residents are gearing up for their upcoming performance with the Me2/Orchestra at Symphony Hall.
The Me2/Orchestra is a New England orchestra “created for musicians living with mental illnesses and the people who support them,” according to a press release from the orchestra.
The upcoming concert on January 23 celebrates the 10th anniversary of Me/2, and is titled “Stigma-Free at Symphony Hall.” The orchestra invites those with mental illnesses and their allies to attend.
Me/2 was founded in 2011 by Ronald Braunstein, who has bipolar disorder. According to Me2/, his “rising career as a world-class conductor was cut short due to the stigma surrounding his bipolar disorder diagnoses,” but he has created this group for musicians like him who live with various mental illnesses to come together in a safe space.
There are multiple Me2/ ensembles in the New England area, including Boston, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, as well as a flute choir in Boston. Each of these ensembles has been rehearsing for the concert and will come together on January 22 for a full rehearsal before the concert on the 23rd.
According to Me2/’s Executive Director Caroline Whiddon, half of the orchestra’s musicians have a mental illness.
“From a social justice and inclusion standpoint, it’s powerful for audience members to be free of traditional expectations at a classical music concert, and to see people like themselves on stage,” she said in a statement.
“We plan to make everyone comfortable at this performance by taking the pressure off the experience of attending a concert,” she continued. “Our philosophy is ‘come any way you can,’ ‘be who you are; and ‘do what you need to do while you’re here.’”
Cynthia Peng is a Back Bay resident and a flute player in the Me2/Orchestra. She moved to Boston during the pandemic in the summer of 2020, and said she heard about the orchestra from a colleague.
She told the Sun that it has “been a blast,” since it’s been a while since she’s played live music. “It’s invigorating to get involved with a group.”
Peng also said she appreciates coming together to make music with people from a variety of “different backgrounds and ages,” as well as abilities. “It’s a very warm and welcoming environment,” she said.
The repertoire for the upcoming concert includes music from classical composers like Beethoven, Herctor Berlioz, and Gioachino Rossini, as well as more contemporary composers like Milad Yousufi, among others.
“Everyone is very COVID safe and aware,” Peng said of the musicians, who currently rehearse at the VietAID in Dorchester.
“After having a weird introduction to the city, it’s so nice to be embraced and accepted and vice versa; getting to embrace and accept other people,” she said, adding that it’s “so huge” having the opportunity to perform at Symphony Hall.
Miles Wilcox, a Jamaica Plain resident who plays the viola, explained how the orchestra’s rehearsals work.
“Every rehearsal starts with a moment of mindfulness,” he said, which includes group breathing to “center ourselves and feel like we’re on the same wavelength. We sort of recognize there are people that are coming to us with all different struggles all day.”
He also praised Braunstein’s leadership qualities. “He knows how to make people their best,” Wilcox said.
“It’s really powerful to be able to bring your whole self; that you don’t have to hide any part of yourself when you’re in rehearsal. In the Me2/Orchestra, it feels really safe,” and people are “allowed to feel anxious.”
Sherry Grossman is also a Jamaica Plain resident and plays both the oboe and the English horn, and also said the orchestra is “very, very supportive.” She said that there are no auditions required to participate, which removes “anxiety” about auditioning that many people have.
“I think the concert’s important because we are working towards mastering these pieces,” she said. “To actually have the concert happen and do it right, we really are at a pinnacle of our growth as a group. It’s been a bit concerning about the surge with omicron; we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Grossman said that in the past, the orchestra has played at various mental health centers, a prison, various congregations, and art museums. “There has been a lot of support for mental health causes,” she said.
She said that there are “Stigma-Free Zone” posters hung up at rehearsals, “and it just really makes a difference in terms of our mental health outlook and working to support one another.”
She added that being a member of this orchestra has been “a very profoundly positive experience. It really has changed my life.”
The January 23 concert is free to all, but reservations are required and can be made at bso.org/events/me2-orchestra.
To ensure an inclusive environment for all, Me2/ said in their release that Symphony Hall staff will help attendees move around during the concert “if staying seated becomes uncomfortable for them,” and there will also be designated quiet areas for people who need respite from the concert.
Additionally, accessible seating as well as assistive listening devices will be provided to those who need them, and large print and Braille programs will be available as well. Symphony Hall also permits service animals.
“We are a large collection of musicians who range greatly in age and ability,” music director and conductor Ronald Braunstein said in a statement. “I can’t wait to see what happens when we converge at Symphony Hall to play those first few notes. I expect it will be electrifying for us and for our audiences.”
For more information about the Me2/Orchestra, visit me2music.org.