ronald braunstein

‘Orchestrating Change’: healing music

Riveting new documentary tells the story of an orchestra of musicians with mental illness — and a Portland affiliate

One day a couple years ago, filmmaker Margie Friedman got a phone call from a woman in Vermont who wanted to buy a DVD of a documentary she’d made that aired on PBS, Conducting Hope, about the only men’s prison choir in the United States to perform outside prison walls. Catherine Whiddon wanted to screen it for an orchestra she’d recently co-founded that also performed in prisons and other non-traditional venues. The orchestra, she explained, was composed primarily of musicians with mental illness. 

Come again? As Whiddon described the orchestra’s mission and history, Friedman thought: “this is amazing!” And it sounded perfect for a collaboration with another Los Angeles-based filmmaker she’d been wanting to work with, Barbara Multer-Wellins, who shared her interest in stories about social justice topics. Though both veteran directors had won Emmys and other awards and produced films and TV shows for many channels and series (from Independent Lens to HBO, Discovery, National Geographic and many more), they’d never before worked together on an independent documentary. Both realized they’d found a powerful story that they just had to tell. 

Ronald Braunstein conducts Me2/Orchestra.

Just released this fall, their moving new documentary, Orchestrating Change, streaming on PBS (and airing at 11 AM this Sunday, October 25, on Oregon Public Broadcasting) spotlights Me2/Orchestra, which has performed dozens of concerts in concert halls and rehab centers, prisons and schools, medical conferences, parks, and other non-traditional settings — including a memorable show, documented in the film, in a Boston subway station.

Based in Burlington and Boston, Me2 has spawned affiliates — including one right here in Oregon. Its story turned out to be a lot more dramatic and thrilling than even the filmmakers expected.