January 4, 2023

University Concerts’ “Stigma-Free Play-Along” is Theme of Returning Annual Chamber Jam

ALL ARE WELCOME: At a Chamber Jam held by Princeton University Concerts a few years ago, amateur musicians of all ages and skill levels joined professionals in a post-performance “play-along.” The upcoming event, focused on the role of music in mental health, will pair local amateurs with members of the Me2/Orchestra in Beethoven’s iconic Fifth Symphony. (Photo by Nick Donnoli for Princeton University Concerts)

By Anne Levin

On Sunday, January 22, Princeton University Concerts’ (PUC) annual Chamber Jam returns for the first time since the pandemic. In the past, amateur musicians were invited to play along with professional musicians they had just heard perform a specific work, on the stage of Richardson Auditorium.

This time, the Chamber Jam — for which more than 100 eager musicians had signed up by press time — is a standalone event. It is the centerpiece of a day devoted to the relationship of music and mental health, including a film screening and discussion as well as a play-along event. The musicians the amateurs will be joining are members of the Me2/Orchestra, the world’s first classical music organization created for individuals with mental illnesses and the people who support them.

PUC, which most recently sponsored a program devoted to music and healing, found the Boston-based ensemble after doing a Google search. “We wanted to do an event about mental health. We stumbled upon them,” said Dasha Koltunyuk, the organization’s outreach manager. “The more we learned about them and talked to them, the more excited we got.”

The story of the orchestra, which is told in the documentary Orchestrating Change, focuses on Ronald Braunstein. “He was on the path to becoming one of the world’s great conductors,” said Koltunyuk. “He had won competitions, and was really on his way. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. When that got out, his career crumbled.”

Braunstein was nearly destitute when he decided to start an orchestra for people like himself. The Me2/Orchestra is “changing the lives of these musicians in ways they never imagined,” reads a press release for the Chamber Jam. “Roughly half the musicians are living with diagnoses or bipolar disorder, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, associative disorder, borderline personality, depression, and addiction. The rest have no diagnoses. And that’s the point. Me2/Orchestra is a groundbreaking, transformative model for erasing mental health stigma where acceptance and understanding are the priority.”

“Everyone is welcome, Koltunyuk said of Braunstein’s ensemble. “There are no auditions. People sign up if they feel this is something they’d enjoy. It is truly open to everyone. It is growing, and has picked up a bit of momentum.”

The first event of the afternoon, at 1 p.m., is the screening of Orchestrating Change, which follows Braunstein and several of his musicians for two years, captures their setbacks and accomplishments, culminating with a joyous concert. The Chamber Jam follows, with Braunstein leading members of the orchestra and the local amateurs in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. “It is such an iconic piece that everyone knows,” said Koltunyuk. “It has that famous opening — those four notes — which is such a dark statement. But the really beautiful thing is that at the end, after all the storminess, it is absolute triumph and joy. It is an incredibly cathartic piece.”

A group conversation facilitated by Braunstein and members of the orchestra, about the role of music within mental health, will follow.

PUC has handled overflowing crowds of ambitious amateur musicians in the past — most recently when famed conductor Gustavo Dudamel spent time at Princeton in 2018. “If it gets too big, we can assign people to specific movements,” Koltunyuk said. “But the more the merrier. And anyone is welcome. People don’t have to disclose whether they struggle with mental illness or not.”

While the event has a specific theme, it follows PUC’s original premise. “The Chamber Jam has always been a stigma-free zone,” said Koltunyuk. “It has been beautiful in the past — you’d have an 8-year-old sitting next to an 88-year-old. This one isn’t that different. But it has the intention of mindfulness.”

Going through the pandemic has broadened music’s relationship to mental health. “We are in this moment when we are so aware of music’s role in making us better,” Koltunyuk said. “This is a kind of celebration of finally being able to come together, and almost say thank you to music.”

Visit concerts.princeton.edu for more information.