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Street Symphony plays in harmony with Skid Row's 'sacred spaces'

Vijay Gupta performing with some of the professional musicians in Street Symphony at the Midnight Mission on LA's Skid Row.
David Zimmerman
Vijay Gupta performing with some of the professional musicians in Street Symphony at the Midnight Mission on LA's Skid Row.

Some of the most beautiful music being performed in Los Angeles right now is happening on Skid Row. Street Symphony is an organization bringing professional musicians to clinics, homeless shelters and jails clustered in and around one of the most devastating concentrations of urban poverty in the United States.

"Street Symphony started out of both curiosity and recognition," said founder Vijay Gupta. He first became aware of Skid Row after joining the LA Philharmonic as a 19-year-old violin prodigy. The orchestra's dazzling steel-clad concert hall is located about a mile and a half away.

Longtime Skid Row resident Linda Leigh, speaking during a recent Street Symphony performance.
/ David Zimmerman
/
David Zimmerman
Longtime Skid Row resident Linda Leigh, speaking during a recent Street Symphony performance.

Gupta was shocked by the poverty and neglect he saw on Skid Row. The injustice and inequity upset him. He was also disturbed by what he saw as the airless insularity of the classical music world.

A few weeks before an upcoming concert, Gupta sat outside the Midnight Mission on a circular concrete bench, behind a security gate that separated clients and staff from a community of people living in tents and sleeping on the sidewalks outside.

"This is a 12-step recovery shelter," Gupta said. "And one of the things I've learned from being here for 10 years making music is that we're all in recovery from something."

Vocalist Scott Graff and oboist Aaron Hill performing with a Street Symphony ensemble.
/ David Zimmerman
/
David Zimmerman
Vocalist Scott Graff and oboist Aaron Hill performing with a Street Symphony ensemble.

As a child, Gupta said he experienced tremendous pain and trauma. He was for a while able to compartmentalize that pain while achieving dizzying heights as a musician.

"When I saw Skid Row for the first time I felt like a hypocrite," he said. "I felt that there was more to my life as a person, as an artist, as someone who could belong to the wider fabric of this new city than only being on the stage of a hall where I came alive. And so I kind of came to Skid Row for myself. I came to Skid Row to understand what my own shadow was."

Gupta came up with the idea of Street Symphony as a healing balm, a bridge between two divergent worlds. At first, he said, higher-ups at the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health were skeptical of the project. He found support from social workers.

"It's like, here are these classical musicians, but they genuinely cared," said Luis Garcia, who is now on Street Symphony's board. He was counseling mentally ill parolees on Skid Row when he first met Gupta. Garcia found himself impressed by an organization that did more than drop-in, play a little music, then leave. "It's not like they're outsiders. They're like, integral to the community," he said.

A recent Street Symphony performance at the Midnight Mission included a world-class singer interpreting Bach's glorious "Cantata No. 82." The music is based on a Biblical story. An aged holy man is given the chance to cradle the Christ child in his arms, and the experience fills him with bliss. He announced, "I have enough" – in German, "Ich habe genug"-- meaning, he's ready to die in a state of spiritual grace.

Also on stage was a storyteller: 75-year-old Linda Leigh, a longtime Skid Row resident. She told a rapt audience about getting a key to her very own room after having been on the streets, and how moved she was to find two chocolates awaiting on her bed. "I felt like someone had given me grace," she said. "And that was enough."

"This work has taught me to expect miracles," said Gupta. "Every single person who lives here at the Midnight Mission is a miracle for the fact that they're still drawing breath. And I would actually say that every single one of us has our own miraculous story that we can only truly find when that story happens in service to someone else."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.