Monday, December 25, 2017

John Malveaux: The New Yorker: Zanaida Robles conducts at Midnight Mission on Skid Row in Los Angeles

Zanaida Robles, conducting at the Midnight Mission. She welcomes friendly interruptions from the audience.
Photograph by David Black for The New Yorker

John Malveaux of 

Zanaida Robles conducts at Midnight Mission 

The New Yorker

Handel’s “Messiah,” on Skid Row

A visionary Los Angeles violinist makes music with the homeless.

By Alex Ross

Three years ago, Brian Palmer, a forty-three-year-old native of Beaumont, California, was a homeless man struggling to overcome heroin addiction. All he owned was a bag containing some clothes, a blanket, and a pillow. He sought assistance at a recovery center at the heart of Skid Row, the dismayingly large tent city in downtown Los Angeles. One activity that helped him through the skittish early period of sobriety was singing. As a kid, he dreamed of becoming a professional singer; he was a member of the church choir and appeared in musicals at school. In 2015, he encountered the Urban Voices Project, a choir made up of Skid Row residents and allies. This led him to Street Symphony, a group of professional musicians, mostly from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the L.A. Master Chorale, which works with homeless, mentally ill, and incarcerated populations. In February, Palmer began taking voice lessons from Scott Graff, a member of the Master Chorale and of the Street Symphony Chamber Singers. Graff told me, “I gave Brian some tips on vocal technique, and he taught me life lessons. I got the better end of the deal.”

A few days after Thanksgiving, Palmer sang in a musical workshop at the Midnight Mission, a charitable institution on Skid Row. He had been studying “The People That Walked in Darkness,” a bass aria from Handel’s “Messiah.” In ten days’ time, he would sing it with Street Symphony, which presents an abridged “Messiah” at Midnight each year. At the workshop, five string players accompanied him; a few dozen members of the Skid Row community were in attendance. Before performing, Palmer shared with the audience some thoughts about the music. A tall man with shaggy hair and a drawling voice, he was dressed in jeans and a “Rule Your Own Destiny” T-shirt. He told his story with the practiced directness of someone who has attended many twelve-step meetings. “When I came here, three years ago, I didn’t know where my life was going to take me,” he said. “I just knew that I needed to change, and that I needed help. When I was walking through my life in addiction, and the darkness and the hell I had created for myself, it was like the phoenix coming out of the darkness and seeing the light.”

Palmer then sang the aria. The text, from the book of Isaiah, is as follows: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” Handel’s “Messiah” is such a fixture of the repertory that it takes some effort to focus on the words and register what they mean. In that respect, Palmer surpassed any singer I have heard. He performed well for one who has been studying vocal technique for less than a year, and in the lower end of his range he had a round, full tone that can’t be taught. More important, he made the text sound as though it had been taken from his own life.

The first performance of “Messiah,” in Dublin, in 1742, was, according to a contemporary announcement, presented “for the Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols.” Proceeds from the première helped the Charitable Musical Society to free a hundred and forty-two people from debtors’ prison. Street Symphony’s “Messiah” therefore comes closer to the original spirit of the piece than most modern versions do. The first “Messiah” attracted a “most Grand, Polite and crowded Audience”; the performances at the Midnight Mission draw Skid Row residents, charitable workers, benefactors, and musicians’ friends. People may start dancing during the “Hallelujah” Chorus or shouting out encouragement during the arias. Zanaida Robles, who has been conducting the Street Symphony “Messiah” since 2015, welcomes such friendly interruptions, often turning around to acknowledge them.

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