Updated 11:19 p.m.
“Hopefully this comes back easily,” Kim Diehnelt said, as she readied her baton for the first time in 15 months, preparing to conduct Burlington’s Me2/ Orchestra.
“Let’s make music,” she said as the group prepared to play.
And music they made.
The 25 or so musicians, divided into sections of strings, horns, percussion and more, seemingly picked up where they left off when the Covid-19 pandemic largely ground their music-making to a halt in March 2020.
Thursday evening’s rehearsal in the Miller Community and Recreation Center was the first time the orchestra was able to perform as a group as the pandemic subsides. Chittenden County has registered only a handful of Covid-19 cases in the past few weeks as vaccination rates have risen.
“There’ll be some good chaos,” Diehnelt told VTDigger a day before the rehearsal. “Loads of people will just be happy and elated.”
Me2/ isn’t your typical orchestra. A sign outside the community room, where the group practices, states: “You are entering a stigma free zone,” a kind of mantra for the organization.
Me2/ was founded by Ronald Braunstein in 2011 after he was experiencing stigma and discrimination in the music industry because of his bipolar disorder, Caroline Whiddon told VTDigger; she’s Me2/’s executive director and Braunstein’s wife. He wanted a space where he could produce music around people who also know what it’s like to live with a mental illness, she said.
The concept of marrying classical music and mental health destigmatization has resonated with so many people that Me2/ now has orchestras in Burlington, Boston and Manchester, New Hampshire. Braunstein currently is the conductor for the Boston chapter.
The organization rejects the typically stressful and competitive culture of classical music, Whiddon said. No auditions are needed to join Me2/.
“People are really, really excited to be able to get back together,” Whiddon said. “It’s so easy to take for granted the fact that you get to interact with people once a week and make great music. And you don’t realize how much you rely on that for your mental well-being until it’s not there.”
“And especially in this group,” Whiddon added. “Because about half of our members are living with a mental health diagnosis. Playing in this orchestra becomes part of their wellness plan.”
Diehnelt was hired in 2019 to lead the Burlington Me/2 Orchestra, but squeezed in only four months of conducting before the pandemic hit, Whiddon said. Beyond leading a few outdoor sessions with the string section of the orchestra, Diehnelt has spent the last 15 months largely working on composing. Whiddon said the organization was able to stay afloat during the pandemic courtesy of a PPP loan and help from donors.
Diehnelt came to Burlington after working around the world as a conductor. She has worked in Finland and Switzerland and across the United States, conducting for organizations such as the Southwest Minnesota Orchestra, South Loop Symphony, Chicago Reading Orchestra and the Northwest Symphony Orchestra.
In 2015, Diehnelt was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. She said she began to think that conducting shouldn’t be her primary focus and shifted to composing.
“Composing was much easier, in a sense that no one needs to know what you look like,” she said. “They don’t really care who you are. You’re sort of anonymous.”
But then, a conducting job with the Burlington Me2/ Orchestra opened up. She remembers saying to herself: “Wait, this orchestra with their mission of being stigma-free, allowing for neurodiversity, this could be a place where I could offer my talents.”
On the podium, Diehnelt doesn’t critique; she encourages. She reminds the musicians that they’re awakening their musical muscles as a group for the first time in almost a year and a half. She cracks jokes during breaks in the music.
“I put a ring on for the first time in 15 months,” she told musicians from the podium as she waved her arms, baton in hand. “I thought someone might be looking at my hand today.”
Kim Danziger has been playing the violin since she was a child. She’s performed in the Vermont Youth Orchestra and the Vermont Philharmonic, but found the environments daunting. And after just completing nursing school, she wanted to perform with a group, but in a stress-free environment.
“I just wanted music in my life,” Danziger said. “Because it really is a form of relaxation and meditation and, you know, just joy.”
Danziger had joined Me2/ in the early stages of the pandemic, and Thursday evening’s rehearsal was her first with the entire orchestra.
“Music is a universal language,” Danziger said. “Whether or not you have mental illness, I mean, everybody needs that extra joy.”
Laura Frangipane has been playing the French horn since she was a child. Not only was she excited to see her fellow musicians, but she said coming back together to perform at the Miller Recreation Center is a bit of a relief — her instrument is far too loud to play casually at her condo by herself.
Frangipane said the last 15 months have been challenging for her. As a teacher, she had to innovate teaching styles while keeping her students safe. At times, the pandemic-related stress even made her lose interest in her passion for music.
“And I kind of was like, I think I’m sad even listening to music because I can’t play in a group right now,” Frangipane said.
“That piece of my life I’m excited to have back today.”