Classical violinist brings concerts to Skid Row with 'Street Symphony' : Deceptive Cadence Vijay Gupta was a 19-year-old violin prodigy when he joined the LA Philharmonic. Now he runs Street Symphony, an organization bringing music to clinics, jails and homeless shelters on Skid Row.

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

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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.

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