- Dan Bolles
- Kim Diehnelt conducting a Me2/Burlington rehearsal
From her podium in front of the Me2/Burlington orchestra, Kim Diehnelt cuts a striking figure. She's tall and lean, and the needle-like baton she wields to guide a recent rehearsal of the community ensemble seems like a natural extension of her six-foot wingspan — the same as that of a great blue heron. Evoking the image of that graceful bird, Diehnelt soars through a section of Franz Schubert's Unfinished Symphony with lithe, rhythmic elegance.
In September, Diehnelt, 55, assumed the role of Me2/Burlington's conductor. She succeeds Ronald Braunstein, who founded the orchestra in 2011 with his wife, Caroline Whiddon. Me2/Burlington — like its newer sister orchestras in Boston and Manchester, N.H. — is composed of musicians living with various mental illnesses and individuals who support them.
Diehnelt's inaugural performance with Me2/Burlington takes place on Thursday, November 21, at Burlington City Hall Auditorium, featuring compositions by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Schubert. Not only is she new to the orchestra, but she brings it a renewed physical dynamism.
With her lanky stature and a short haircut that frames sharp, inquisitive eyes, Diehnelt resembles comedian Tig Notaro. Also like Notaro, Diehnelt is a breast cancer survivor. She was diagnosed earlier this year and underwent a double mastectomy just 12 days before she auditioned for Me2/Burlington.
"I told them at the time that I didn't have quite the same range of motion I normally would," she tells Seven Days.
Diehnelt initially struggled with whether to reveal the cause of her limited physicality. Then she realized, she says, that being open about obstacles is the orchestra's raison d'être — and the reason she was drawn to the position in the first place.
"In my interview with Ronald, he told me that they're trying to create an environment that's safe and healthy," Diehnelt recalls. "And that was already in my tool case. I get it."
Braunstein says the transition to Diehnelt has been "seamless." While he no longer conducts the flagship Burlington orchestra, he and Whiddon continue to oversee the Me2 organization as music director and executive director, respectively.
"I think it has worked because Kim has her own compelling story," Braunstein suggests. "She is only interested in making music with people who are showing up to support each other."
"The two major things I've tried to do with orchestras [are work] so that every person knows and hears and sees how everyone else makes a difference," Diehnelt says. "And then to give them the power, because they're the ones making the music. No one shows up to hear me."
Diehnelt might be considered overqualified to lead a community orchestra. That's no slight to Me2/Burlington, or to any of Vermont's many high-caliber community ensembles, but a testament to her elite background. Diehnelt trained in the U.S. and Europe under renowned teachers and has led orchestras on both continents.
Among the highlights of the Milwaukee-born conductor's career are founding and leading the Helsinki Camerata and directing the Helsinki Community College Orchestra in Finland. Her numerous stateside gigs have included directing the South Loop Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Reading Orchestra and the Northwest Symphony Orchestra in Chicago.
Diehnelt is also an accomplished composer, having most recently served as the KISMET Foundation's 2018 artist-in-residence in Yarmouth, Maine; there she composed Yarmouth Time, a work for violin and cello. As she writes on her website, the composition was inspired by "Maine's natural beauty, dynamic winter climate, and the spirit of the town of Yarmouth, ME." Her latest album, Caprio, featuring seven compositions for mixed chamber ensembles, was released earlier this year.
Yet, not long ago, Diehnelt found herself at a personal and professional crossroads. In 2016, she learned that she has autism spectrum disorder. That diagnosis, she says, led to a severe, prolonged depression. She grappled with whether to continue her conducting career, which, despite her global accomplishments, had never quite picked up the way she'd envisioned.
"When that diagnosis kicked in, it was devastating, but it made a lot of sense," Diehnelt says. "I asked myself, What was I thinking trying to do a career that really is people, politics and power oriented? Which is the stuff I just don't participate in very well, or want to, or have ever felt like 'This is me.'"
Throughout her career, Diehnelt has focused on applying a more intimate, chamber-music-like approach to conducting orchestras — her response to the personal and political pressures that professional orchestra players traditionally face. She cites studies that reveal the low level of job satisfaction among such musicians — lower, even, than that of air traffic controllers.
"I've heard that 85 percent of professional orchestra musicians use beta blockers for anxiety," Diehnelt relates. "That should not be how we make music. Why are we squeezing and terrorizing art out of people? This is not right. All of my conducting career has been reshaping the use of power: How do we make orchestra playing better and healthier?"
Diehnelt realized she shared a mission with Me2/Burlington during her interview for the gig, she recalls. "How many job interviews will you go to where you can tell them that you just had major surgery and that four years ago you were diagnosed with this depressive disorder and have this other disorder, and they say, 'Great. When can you start?'"
Here's something else that Diehnelt and Notaro share: a wry sense of humor. At the beginning of her first rehearsal with Me2/Burlington, the conductor laid all of her cards on the podium, including her cancer and autism diagnoses.
"So you guys are stuck with a flat Aspy," she told the orchestra, referring jokingly to Asperger syndrome. "Sorry about that."
She needn't have apologized.
"Like Ronald, [Kim] brings to Me2 a ridiculously high level of musicianship and understanding of musicianship," Me2/Burlington violinist Gretchen Schimelpfenig says. She has been with the orchestra for two years and served on the committee that hired Diehnelt. "Both her and Ronald are really nerdy about the music, but Kim's introducing us to what she finds important about the music, which is really confirming and unifying," Schimelpfenig adds.
"She's working a lot on making us listen and layering parts, stacking even within sections," observes violinist Richard Gliech, one of the orchestra's original members. "But it was more important to find someone who really buys into the mission of the orchestra. I've played in just about every orchestra in the area, and this is a different experience because of our mental health mission. So it's important that the conductor completely buys in."
"And doesn't 'other' us, like 'Oh, those crazy people,'" Schimelpfenig adds. "She's one of us and is open about what she goes through. She really understands the situations that some of us live in on a day-to-day basis, having mental health conditions and dealing with depression. She sees us for who we are."
Diehnelt has also helped the musicians embrace a sense of ownership of the orchestra during the uncertain transition from Braunstein's leadership, they say.
"It was a reckoning moment," Gliech says. "I was worried this whole thing would fall apart, that it was so dependent on Ronald. But I think we all realized that we have to commit to it as much as we can, each at our personal level."
Gliech recounts an incident that happened earlier on the night of the rehearsal. One of the orchestra's members had been hospitalized for several weeks following a mental breakdown. Before the rehearsal began, the entire orchestra video-chatted with him from his hospital room.
"We care," Gliech says. "And I think this whole transition has made a lot of people rethink their relationship to the group."
"We've had to recommit and say, 'This is why I'm in the group, and this is what I'm getting out of it,'" Schimelpfenig says. Noting that Diehnelt "could do bigger and better things," she describes the orchestra's new conductor as "like us: finding an ensemble that suits where she is in her life and what she wants to do with music."
Diehnelt seems to agree. Me2/Burlington isn't "the typical industry orchestra," she observes, but she's rarely been drawn to such "typical" models in her career.
"Art is rarely perfect," she says. "But that's what makes it art."