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


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.

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."

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. 8 2." 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.

Transcript :



You can hear some of the most beautiful music in Los Angeles in a part of downtown that's been dismissed as the homeless capital of America.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Comfort ye...

MARTINEZ: This concert took place in a homeless shelter. It was organized by a group called Street Symphony. It brings classical music to clinics, jails and shelters in the neighborhood known as Skid Row. Street Symphony was founded by a leading violinist from the LA Philharmonic. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Skid Row feels like a desperate place. It's a site of terrible injustice. There are blocks and blocks of trash and tents and visibly traumatized people.

VIJAY GUPTA: Where we are right now is the Midnight Mission in Skid Row. And this is a 12-step recovery shelter. 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.


ULABY: Vijay Gupta was only 19 when he joined the LA Philharmonic. He played in one of the most spectacular concert halls in the world. It's just over a mile from Skid Row. The poverty and neglect he glimpsed there upset him. But so did the insularity of the classical music world Gupta inhabited, even, he says, as someone...

GUPTA: Who loved being on concert hall stages, who came alive on concert hall stages. And yet there was more to me than just being a performer.


ULABY: Gupta came up with the idea of bringing classical music to Skid Row. Street Symphony, he thought, would be a healing balm, a bridge between two divergent worlds. It's turned out to be wildly popular. But at first, Gupta says, higher ups at LA's Department of Mental Health were skeptical of the idea. The most support came from social workers, such as Luis Garcia.

LUIS GARCIA: It's like, here's these classical musicians, but they genuinely cared.

ULABY: The genuine commitment to Skid Row impressed Garcia - so much, he ended up on Street Symphony's board. Its musicians, he says, do not just show up, play a little music, then go away.

GARCIA: It's not like they're, like, outsiders. They're, like, integral to the community.

ULABY: Street Symphony's performed on Skid Row for 10 years. It's expanded beyond classical music to jazz, mariachi and West African drumming. Founder Vijay Gupta says it's expanded in other ways, as well.

GUPTA: The music shifted from being a human offering to being a two-way street symphony.


ULABY: At a recent concert at the Midnight Mission, you might hear someone's service dog barking in the background. This Bach cantata is based on a biblical story. An aged holy man is given the chance to hold the Christ child. He's filled with bliss. He says, I have enough - in German, (speaking German) - meaning he's ready to die in a state of spiritual grace.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in German).

ULABY: This performance also includes the voices of people who live on Skid Row reflecting on what the words I have enough means in their lives. Seventy-five-year-old Linda Lee onstage recalls how afraid she was to arrive in infamous Skid Row after surviving extraordinary hardship.

LINDA LEE: And I said, oh, my God. oh, my God. That's right. That's exactly right. And my heart cried. My heart cried.

ULABY: It took incredible determination. But Lee explained she eventually found a single occupancy room at a place called the Russ Hotel, where they gave her her own key.

LEE: I was so overwhelmed with having that space that I could go in, unlock the door, close it behind me and not have to worry about anything. The most amazing thing to me was - and I know this is going to sound crazy - but the bed was literally made up. And it had two chocolates, two chocolates on that bed waiting for me. I felt like somebody had given me grace. And that was enough.

ULABY: That is an oratorio, too, one of many on Skid Row there long before Vijay Gupta brought Street Symphony to play and to listen.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.