Thursday, May 24, 2012 'Street Symphony brings music to the margins'

[“Private lesson. Robert Vijay Gupta (right) greets Nathaniel Ayers, his sometime violin student.”]

Professor Janise White of Los Angeles conducts The Afro-American Chamber Orchestra in that city.  She brought Nathaniel Ayers to our attention, resulting in a post on June 15, 2011: "Los Angeles Times: 'Nathaniel Ayers plays the Foshay Learning Center'"   Ayers figures prominently in an article in the Summer 2012 issue of Listen: Life With Classical Music:

Summer 2012
Listen: Life With Classical Music
“Where It Is Needed Most
By Johanna Gohmann

THE MENTAL HEALTH CENTER us in the heart of Los Angeles's notorious Skid Row. Rusty coils of razor wire snake ominously around the outside; inside, a makeshift auditorium has been set up in the basement. The chairs are of the muted, waiting-room variety and have been organized into tidy rows for an audience of about thirty. The attendees are in blue jeans, sweatpants and baseball caps. Some are homeless. Some are addicts. Some are severely mentally ill. Some of their faces carry a hardened, haunted look that speaks to a life of intense struggle.

But right now, these same faces are transfixed. They are upturned with what looks like equal parts curiosity and wonder as they stare at the violinist at the front of the room. He is feverishly whipping a bow across his instrument, and the beauty of the Boccherini Duo for Violin and Cello drifts up to the low ceiling, the intricate notes falling in sharp contrast against the clinical white walls.

“This is Street Symphony, the brainchild of Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist Robert Vijay Gupta. The twenty-four-year-old Gupta may already have his hands full as the youngest member of L.A.'s world-renowned orchestra, but his dreams lie beyond the gilded Gehry glamour of Walt Disney Concert Hall. He wants to bring classical music to the masses and to the communities he feels need it most. For Gupta, this means prisoners, veterans, the homeless and the mentally ill.”


The inspiration for Street Symphony originated with another talented musician: Nathaniel Ayers, the Juilliard-educated double bass player who found himself homeless due to severe mental illness. His life is the subject of The Soloist, a book by Steve Lopez that in 2009 became a film starring Jamie Foxx.”


Gupta met Ayers in 2008. They immediately bonded through intense discussions of Schumann and Beethoven, so much so that Ayers later asked if Gupta might give him some violin lessons. Gupta was happy to oblige, meeting alternately on Gupta's home ground at Disney hall or at Ayers' home at the L.A. Men's Project – a housing shelter a stone's throw from Skid Row. One day, in the midst of a lesson, Gupta witnessed firsthand the extent of Ayers' illness.

“'He just exploded,' Gupta recalls. 'He literally started to have a manic episode. And I really got to see for the first time, face to face, just how ill he was.' Alonein a room with the raging Ayers, Gupta did the only thing he could think of: he picked up his violin and started to play. 'I played for about twenty to thirty minutes. And I slowly sensed that Nathaniel was becoming less agitated. He started to cool down, was muttering to himself less. And then he picked up the violin and started playing with me.'

Gupta was fascinated by the way the music calmed Ayers and seemed to bring some peace to his troubled mind. He wondered: what if music could do the same for others?”


In 2011, Street Symphony was officially born. There have been around seventeen Street Symphony concerts so far, and Gupta is hoping to increase that number in 2012.


The organization has even added neuroscientist Antonio Damasio to the board, who will further explore the therapeutic effects of the program. One of the founders of he Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, Damasio will be working with Gupta to find subjects for a study that will track what is actually happening in the minds of the mentally ill when they listen to music.”

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