Finding a suitable niche

By Robin L. Flanigan

Conductor Ronald Braunstein’s amazing splash on the international music stage at a mere 23 years of age was a sign of things to come—in more ways than one.

In September 1979, Braunstein became the first American to win the Karajan International Conducting Competition, beating roughly 600 entrants from around the world. That launched a career that brought him work with orchestras in Europe, Israel, Australia, Taiwan, Tokyo and elsewhere abroad, as well as in America. However, the manic behaviours and depressive sloughs of bipolar disorder travelled along, too.

Both musical calling and psychiatric symptoms manifested in Braunstein’s early teens. He remembers his dad taking him to a psychiatrist who “said I just have ‘bad nerves’ and gave me some pills. I didn’t take them for long.” When Braunstein was diagnosed with Bipolar I (BP-I) in 1985, he kept it to himself. “I always hid it,” he says. “And I hid it very well, even to my physician.”

For many years, Braunstein’s career flourished despite mood episodes and occasional extreme behaviour—like the time he climbed onto a tin roof after a performance and told the musicians he was with that he could fly. (They persuaded him not to try.)

In addition to guest-conducting gigs, Braunstein served as music director of the Texas Chamber Orchestra, and later for student orchestras at Juilliard and the Mannes College of Performing Arts—highly sought-after positions in a highly competitive field. He also joined the conducting staff at the American Opera Center.

What goes up must come down—and in May 2003, Braunstein fell hard. He pinpoints a moment, just after conducting Dvorak’s New World Symphony with the Mannes Preparatory Division Orchestra: “It ended at such a high point of energy and passion that I knew absolutely I had to crash down then. It was all over and I had to spend a year in bed.” Having resurfaced from his depressive episode, he spent the next few years focusing more on design work and not doing much conducting. Eventually he began sending out job applications to dozens of orchestras, though it “took a lot of energy just to get the right cover letter into the right envelope.” When he was hired as music director of the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association in 2010, he was elated.

It was still a struggle to manage episodes of depression and mania, however, and working with a new psychiatrist to adjust his medication. He thrived on the podium, but in other ways his eccentric behaviour—in reality, manic symptoms—began to worry others. After only a few months on the job, Braunstein disclosed his diagnosis to the association’s board. Shortly afterward, he was fired. Braunstein sued for libel, slander and discrimination. The lawsuit settled out of court in 2011.

As awful as it was, that experience wound up propelling him in new directions that have been healing for him and a positive force on countless other lives. He met his future wife, Caroline Whiddon, with whom he soon after co-founded Me2/—the world’s only classical music organization created for individuals living with mental health issues and the people who support them. Braunstein has found his niche as music director and conductor for the organization’s Vermont-based ensemble, Me2/Orchestra, which rehearses weekly and performs 3-4 times annually in traditional concert venues, inside correctional and rehabilitation facilities, and for mental health events.

For his part, the maestro surrounds himself with good friends and talented, caring physicians. “All my orchestra members support me every day. Sometimes I don’t feel like going to work, but as soon as I get there, I feel so great.”. It further helps that Braunstein is more consistent about taking his meds and has been in talk therapy steadily for the past six years. Naturally, he feels liberated by not having to hide his bipolar condition anymore. “I’ve come out and I don’t have to worry about it anymore,” he says. “My best 25 years are coming…
I’m just getting warmed up.”

Excerpted with permission from bp Magazine, Winter 2017 edition (bphope.com). To read the full article, visit bphope.com/ronald-braunstein-making-music-fighting-stigma.

Robin L. Flanigan is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in People Magazine, US Airways Magazine and other national and regional publications. She lives in Rochester, New York.