Vijay Gupta Asks Big Questions

Victoria Looseleaf on June 15, 2019
Vijay Gupta | Credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

It might seem somewhat out of the ordinary to find a world-class violinist a regular fixture on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. But Vijay Gupta is no ordinary musician. Indeed, Gupta, is anything but ordinary — as a musician or otherwise. Born in a small town in upstate New York in 1987, Gupta, whose parents immigrated from West Bengal in India in the 1970s, picked up the violin at age 3, was enrolled in Juilliard’s pre-college program at age 7, and performed solo for the first time under the baton of Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra when he was 11.

Hewing to the prodigy track, Gupta entered college at 13, earning a pre-med biology degree before attending Yale, where he graduated with a master’s degree in music. The year was 2007 and Gupta, then 19, made the bold decision to audition for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Out-playing 300 other violinists, Gupta became the youngest musician in the orchestra at the time. His story could end there, with the fiddler happily playing the classics, new music, performing in various ensembles, and teaching, but his tale soon took a life-changing turn.

Through an introduction by L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez, Gupta met Nathaniel Ayers, a Juilliard-trained double-bass prodigy who suffered from schizophrenia and lived on Skid Row. Soon Gupta began giving violin lessons to Ayers. He also wondered how many others were like the erstwhile musician — talented, resilient, creative — but living on the streets because of mental illness, drug addiction, joblessness, bad breaks, and/or other untenable life situations that have made Los Angeles’s homelessness population swell to nearly 60,000, the largest in the United States.

Skid Row City Limits Mural | Credit: Stephen Zeigler

Gupta decided to take action: While continuing to perform with the LA Phil, in 2010, the social justice advocate founded Street Symphony, a nonprofit organization comprised of professional and emerging artists and communities disenfranchised by homelessness and incarceration in L.A. County. Its first concert was a program of Beethoven string quartets performed by Gupta and several of his Phil colleagues. What was born of compassion, grit, and the desire to give back, grew into an organization that has since performed between 500 and 600 concerts in county jails, homeless shelters, treatment centers, and transitional facilities, including presenting a yearly performance of Handel’s beloved Messiah, begun in 2015. The Street Symphony’s phenomenal growth also boasts numerous programs, including The Weingart Center’s “Music for Change,” PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) and “Music with a Mission,” a monthly program dedicated to participants of The Midnight Mission’s programs as well as members of the Skid Row community at large.

As for Gupta, he has become a celebrated speaker — his 2012 TED Talk, “Between Music and Medicine,” has had more than a million and a half YouTube views — an educator, a tireless champion for the disenfranchised, and a 2018 MacArthur Fellow. His honors, among others, also include the 2017 Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award for the Elevation of Music in Society and the 2019 Humanitarian Award at the Inner City Law Center. In order to oversee and ensure Street Symphony’s continued evolution, Gupta resigned from the L.A. Phil last December. He also moved the nonprofit organization from his living room into its first office — a space it shares with the homeless advocacy and performance group Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD).

On July 12, Street Symphony, whose tag line is “Social Justice at the Heart of Music Making,” is staging its first ever block party, an event held in conjunction with the Midnight Mission. I caught up with Gupta by phone from New York, where he carved time out of his fiendishly busy schedule to talk about a host of topics.

Do you miss playing with the Phil and what kinds of emotions did you experience during your last concert with the orchestra and Zubin Mehta?

My last concert was the Brahms Second Symphony preceded by Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, with Yefim Bronfman as the soloist. I was incredibly touched that my teacher, Glenn Dicterow, who was hired by Mehta, was in the audience with his wife Karen Dreyfus. I couldn’t have gone out in a manner that was more sacred. Playing with Zubin is always something unforgettable, and I think it was one of the best concerts I ever played.

I miss collaborative music making at a level that is always sort of pushed and expected to exceed a sort of normalcy, if that makes sense. Joining as a teen, I was adopted by the orchestra who never questioned my ability: They wanted to be family to me. They’re still my family. They took the time to get to know me as a person and dispel this weird notion that here was this prodigy. When I started Street Symphony and we started to go to jails and shelters, it was these colleagues who went with me. They never questioned why they were with me or even did it for free. I owe a lot to my colleagues in the Phil [especially violinist] Mitch Newman.

Gupta’s final concert with the LA Phil was conducted by former music director Zubin Mehta

Were you always interested in social justice and when were you first aware of Skid Row?

I would say the first context to that is that music for me was always more than just a performance. In the Hindu culture I grew up in, music was a sacred offering, with no expectation of a return. It’s an act of worship and an act of acknowledging; in Hindu culture we talk about “namaste” — the divinity in me acknowledges the divinity within you. That’s still the way I think about presenting music, as an offering. In that sense, when I joined the LA Phil, I became aware of Skid Row by accident, as I think a lot of people do. My personal connection to it emerged with my relationship to Nathaniel, who was there a lot for me, too.

Skid Row was nearly incomprehensible because I had seen people like Nathaniel when I was at school [in] Manhattan and at Yale — people who kind of drop off the map. It’s not an uncommon thing; it’s a high-pressure environment. My colleagues in the Phil and at Colburn [School], we come from an environment that is rooted in such privilege and yet we don’t talk about the trauma of conservatory, the trauma of isolation. I add to that the trauma of a kind of commodification where we as artists are given more value for what we do rather than who we are. When I met Nathaniel for the first time, I had an immediate connection with him because we shared Juilliard, for better or worse. I knew my connection would be more about sharing and enjoying music than rather me helping him in any way.

I visited him on Skid Row — not because I wanted to help him [as a musician], but I wanted to help him as a human being. He was more than the condition of being a homeless, mentally ill man. Deep down was an incredible spirit, because he had survived for 30 years. That’s how I got introduced to Skid Row and that was the context of how I wanted to engage. There were people there who shared his story and his humanity and the part often referred to as a problem.

What was Street Symphony’s first performance like in November of 2010 when you performed the Beethoven Quartet Op. 18, No. 4?

It’s in C minor and it’s very dramatic. In the middle of the first movement, a woman in the front row put her hand in the air and she kept her hand up the entire time. It was disconcerting to me as a performer to see decorum broken that way, but when we finished the movement, she told us the most human, humble story about her life and how the music helped her think about memories from her life. That kind of connection was exactly what I was hoping to have — the element of the unexpected. It was almost an improvisatory element where we are there not to perform but to engage and hear the dialogue with people who are our neighbors.

How has your life changed since winning the MacArthur “Genius” Grant?

I will say that while I was in the Phil, the last few years had been very difficult because I was working nearly two full-time jobs — both were more than full-time. I was also teaching at Colburn and the Longy School of Music. And I’m a professional speaker, so it was definitely a lot, along with wanting to be an artist beyond the orchestra alone and having my own artistic projects. My life was incredibly full, but I am still experiencing severe burnout as a consequence of being overwhelmed and being pulled between two very severe poles of society.

Skid Row and Bunker Hill are in the same city. It’s like a master class in structural violence — the fact that within that physical space there is a huge economic and racial disparity. It’s the sort of thing like, ‘Oh, Skid Row is like a third world country,’ and I disagree. I think Skid Row is our inheritance and it’s not a different planet or different city: It is Los Angeles.

In that context, my life and the things I was focusing on — the intersection of Street Symphony and the Phil — came to the point where I not only wanted to dedicate my work to Street Symphony, but to citizenship, and to understand who I am in the context of the city where that is the reality. We are going to see homelessness increase [and] the refugees increase. It’s important for us as citizens and artists to understand how to interact with the world around us. Music is not a luxury commodity — art can heal and change lives and change conversations.

I don’t mean to paint Skid Row with a broad, romantic brush — it’s a dangerous and complicated place. But that said, when I and my colleagues see the resilience, power, and grace of Skid Row emerging from homelessness, addiction, and poverty, I would be honored to share my life and home with those individuals. We need to radically redefine our concept of belonging and community and neighborhood, and to look at ourselves from the perspective of being part of a global family. That is a vulnerable process of radical mutuality and honesty.

An award like the MacArthur immediately pigeonholes someone into somebody suddenly being a person who has all the answers — someone with no problems and who is an expert in the world. I think I have more questions now than I ever did before in my life. I also think questions are more important than the answers. That to me is why the artistic process is the most important process in being human. We talk about art being a product, but it’s about process. I think we need to ask better questions.

Credit: Kat Bawden

Wow, those are powerful thoughts, Vijay. On another note, what can we expect from Street Symphony’s Block Party?

Street Symphony is now no longer only classical music. We have made a lot of effort to understand and present music to our community, in which the community feels welcome and seen and understood. It’s not to say they don’t feel this in works of Beethoven and Handel, but people also want a chance to feel good and to sing R&B songs from their childhood and hear Reggae music.

It’s also been our job to learn the music of our community, so that’s what we’re doing in presenting Street Symphony’s first ever block party. The music starts at 3:15 and will include the DJ Sir Oliver, who’s formerly homeless and is a dynamic force. We’re also presenting music of Bob Marley that will be performed by a string chamber orchestra on a flat-bed truck — I’ll be playing in that.

And we’ll have a set from an all-women mariachi band, Las Colibri — The Hummingbirds. They have performed numerous times in L.A. county jails and in state prisons for us. Of course, we’ll have a set from the resident Skid Row community choir, the Urban Voices Project. It was formerly fiscally sponsored by Street Symphony and now they’re their own organization. And we’ll have a set from the Street Symphony Jazz Band that’s comprised of prominent jazz musicians throughout L.A. who have also performed with us numerous times.

Credit: Kat Bawden

We’re also going to feed 2,000 people in partnership with the Midnight Mission. As horrifying as Skid Row is, it’s also the the country’s largest recovery zone. The concentration of services, agencies, resources, and affordable housing [are] present in Skid Row, and what we hope to say through Street Symphony, is that it’s a community worth engaging and worth celebrating.

Yo-Yo Ma recently gave you a shout-out at a Harvard Business School presentation and said, “Art is never for art’s sake.” What are your thoughts on that?

I heard about that and it was very sweet of him. That is the goal, and I think part of that is awakening my own consciousness. I don’t see that process ending. I think the moment we say, ‘I’m woke enough,’ that’s where problems start. Now the focus for me is in balancing and how to sustain an organization that can live beyond me. Street Symphony is experiencing explosive growth. We have four fulltime employees [when] six months ago we had zero. The focus is around how we build an organization and to what end? Who occupies it and who speaks? Those are the kinds of consciousness-raising questions that for the first time I get to ask. Now that I have the time, I find myself in a very different role that I ever had before.

How important is this role going forward?

Understanding how deeply personal this work is, it’s really important. And it’s important to acknowledge this work is not about Vijay Gupta, as personal as it is and as much as I’ve been part of building this work. This is the work of Nathaniel, Benjamin [Shirley, a formerly homeless composer who is now on staff], the work of the Skid Row community, and [LAPD’s] John Malpede and Henriëtte Brouwers — we share an office together.

It’s also important to dispel the myth of the individual who stands alone. We don’t, none of us stand alone. I stand on the platform built for me by my parents, my teachers. When I talk about the work of Street Symphony, I talk about Skid Row because it has my back. They call me on my b.s. That’s an incredible gift and I just want to acknowledge that.

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