New England–based Me2/ (“me, too”), a classical music organization created for musicians living with mental illnesses and the people who support them, will bring together 100 of its regional players for “Stigma-Free at Symphony Hall,” a concert for audience members with mental illnesses and their allies that is open to all. The concert, which will be performed on January 23 at Boston’s Symphony Hall, marks Me2/’s 10th year and is free to all. Reservations can be made at bso.org/events/me2-orchestra.
The players will come from Me2/ outposts in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont and include Malden musician Victoria Wang playing the violin. Some players will share onstage personal stories of navigating their illness, and their musical journeys.
Me2/ Cofounder/Executive Director Caroline Whiddon says a more welcoming approach to people with mental illness is timely, considering psychological impacts of the pandemic and the broader conversation it raised about acknowledging mental health needs in America. Whiddon said half of Me2/’s musicians live with a diagnosis: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, trauma, depression, addiction or anxiety.
“From a social justice and inclusion standpoint,” she said. “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.”
Whiddon said the group works to create stigma-free zones in its own rehearsals, backstage and at other gatherings, so offering the same for audience members was a natural step. She notes that some people living with mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, PTSD or addiction, might have anxiety about the expectations around attending classical music performances. “We plan to make everyone comfortable at this performance by taking the pressure off the experience of attending a concert,” Whiddon said. “Our philosophy is ‘come any way you can,’ ‘be who you are’ and ‘do what you need to do while you’re here.’”
Among the accommodations planned for the performance: Ushers, volunteers and audience service staff at Symphony Hall will assist people to move about if staying seated becomes uncomfortable for them. Quiet locations will be designated throughout the facility for visitors who need a break from the music or the crowd. For audience members needing advance preparation, Me2/ will provide social narrative materials a few days before the event.
Me2/ and Symphony Hall are committed to full physical accessibility, too. On-site accessible seating and assistive listening devices are available. Information about large-print and Braille programs will be sent to ticket holders in advance. Service animals are welcomed in Symphony Hall.
Me2/ operates several performing ensembles, including orchestras in Boston, Burlington, Vt., Manchester, N.H., and Portland, Maine, and a Boston-based flute choir. Each group will rehearse for the January concert separately; the ensembles will meet in Boston the day before the show for a full-group rehearsal with Me2/ Cofounder/Music Director Ronald Braunstein. The performance will include music by Grieg, Yousufi, Rossini, Berlioz, Elgar and Beethoven
“We are a large collection of musicians who range greatly in age and ability,” Braunstein said. “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.”