Violinist Vijay Gupta Shares Street Symphony’s Ability To Change Lives

[photo: MacArthur Foundation]
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Vijay Gupta was shocked by what he saw just a few blocks from the Walt Disney Concert Hall, where he played as a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Gupta, a child violin prodigy who joined the Orchestra in 2007 at 19, had come upon Skid Row in L.A.  There he witnessed the horrible conditions the homeless and disadvantaged endure living in the area.

“Seeing Skid Row for the first time was a gut-wrenching, horrifying, humbling experience,” Gupta said.

It was during that time Gupta befriended Skid Row resident Nathaniel Ayers, the Cleveland native whose promising career as a violinist was derailed by mental illness. Ayers’ story was told in the 2009 film “The Soloist.”   The time they spent together changed Gupta’s life as he came to see what music could be outside of entertainment.

“My musical conversations with Nathaniel were a way for us to share the most human parts of ourselves. It allowed us to have conversations about loss, pain and grief and sometimes those conversations didn’t need to have words, because we understood what we were saying to each other through the music we were playing, “ Gupta said.

Through those conversations Gupta began to see that music had a redemptive, healing power that he wanted to share with those most in need.  In 2011, he formed Street Symphony, through which he and musical colleagues performed in jails, shelters and clinics.

Gupta said Street Symphony approached their early performances as typical arts outreach.  The musicians gave a concert and left, but they quickly discovered that their audience wanted something different.

“One of the first concerts we had was in the Department of Mental Health clinic in Skid Row.  Halfway through one of the pieces we were playing a woman in the front row raised her hand.  She kept her hand up the entire time, which is something you wouldn’t see in a concert hall because that doesn’t follow decorum, so it made me pretty uncomfortable.  After we finished the movement, she told us a very personal and vulnerable story about her life, which completely fit with the music of the Beethoven string quartet we had just played.  The reason why we moved out of outreach into more mutual places of engagement is because our audiences demanded that we be real human beings with them.  We couldn’t go in perform and leave. They wanted to know who we were and what we felt about the music,” Gupta said.

[photo: MacArthur Foundation ]

Gupta feels that the performances give Street Symphony a different language to communicate with those in need.

“When we present music in Skid Row we are often asked, ‘why aren’t you doing something that is more tangible like feeding or housing someone?’  Of course, housing is critical and we need to have important conversations around policy, but so many of these conversations stay within a silo that is often defined by funding or political pressures.  We need the power of art and metaphor and imagination to give us new language and ideas to approach calcified issues,” Gupta said.

Gupta, who left the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2018, will be in Cleveland to talk about how music can heal and change our lives in an address he calls “The Medicine of Music.”

“I feel that telling the stories of how people respond to music is so powerful. When we start talking about music at the center of social justice and change in the context of those stories, I feel that we all have a way of becoming activated, whether it is making music at your church or a senior center or continuing to make music the way my colleagues do in the Cleveland Orchestra, this is a way for us to connect with something deeply authentic. I think we crave that authenticity in the way we live our lives,” Gupta said.     

Vijay Gupta will give the Keynote Address at the Arts Education luncheon in Playhouse Square’s State Theater Friday at noon as part of the 2019 Cleveland State University Arts Summit.

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