Q&A: Vijay Gupta, Founder/Director of Street Symphony

Q&A with Vijay Gupta, Co-founder and Artistic Director of Street Symphony

On Friday, December 9th, the Midnight Mission at 6th St and San Pedro St will become home to a major choral production of Handel's Messiah, performed by homeless and formerly homeless community members living in Skid Row. The project is one of many works commissioned by Street Symphony, which was started in 2011 by violinist/activist/speaker Vijay Gupta. Vijay is a TED Senior Fellow, currently serves on the board of Americans for the Arts, and was only 19 years old when he was invited to join the LA Phil. We sat down with Vijay to discuss Street Symphony, their upcoming performance of Messiah, and arts involvement in Skid Row.

GDT: Give us an overview of Street Symphony.

VG: Street Symphony is a non-profit music organization that places performance and dialogue at the heart of social justice. In the last 5 years, Street Symphony ensembles - comprised of some of the top classical and jazz musicians in Los Angeles - have brought over 200 free programs to the neighborhood of Skid Row and LA County Jails.

GDT: And how did The Messiah Project come about? What are your goals for the event?

VG: This year's Messiah Project is our 2nd large-scale public event - the first event made possible by a Local Impact grant from the California Arts Council. We're bringing several Skid Row agencies, as well as the Skid Row community, together at The Midnight Mission, with the goal to make such a beautiful noise that the entire city sits up and takes notice. 

GDT: Why the selection of Handel's Messiah? Is it merely the Christmas context, or there a deeper connection between the piece and the project?

VG: Handel's Messiah was written in the 1720's, but has a long history of social justice, even in its inception. The first performance in Dublin raised enough money to release 142 men from debtor's prison, as Handel himself was facing massive debts. The performances during Handel's lifetime in London were held at an orphan's hospital and were of such high acclaim that even King George II attended - and rose to his feet - during the famous "Hallelujah" chorus. Many choristers were orphaned boys. 

The reason why we bring Handel's Messiah to Skid Row, however, is that in this piece especially, every voice matters. It's a metaphor for how we must regard the huge numbers of people experiencing homelessness and battling mental health issues in downtown LA - nearly 30,000 people. They - and we - all have stories that matter. In that way, every member of the Skid Row community is their own kind of 'messiah' - they are leaders we must follow. We look to their brave, resilient stories for inspiration. 

GDT: Downtown is home to many prestigious arts organizations like LA Phil. What do you think are some of the best ways for these upper tier cultural entities to support the needs of the greater community?

VG: I and many of my colleagues are regular members of the LA Phil, the LA Master Chorale and students at the Colburn School. We have the immense privilege of making music onstage several times at week at places like Walt Disney Concert Hall. It's up to us as artists to understand that our work has a far greater impact on our society than just what we bring to audiences who can come to our Hall. As artists, it's time for us to get political. It's time for us to speak up and speak out for marginalized, ostracized communities. As artists, we are bridge builders and provocateurs - it's our job to raise awareness and build safe spaces where every person can belong. 

GDT: What are ways you'd encourage Downtowners to meaningfully get involved in the Skid Row community?

VG: To get meaningfully involved with the Skid Row community, get involved - in person - in Skid Row. Go volunteer at the Downtown Women's Center, at Weingart, at The Midnight Mission. Meaningfully put your physical body in a space that makes you feel uncomfortable - and then lean in to that discomfort. Check your privilege at the door and show up to serve. You'll be blown away by the generosity, community, and grace you receive in return. I think we at Street Symphony walk out of events in the jails or in Skid Row having received a greater gift than we hoped to give. That's the way community works. Want to make a difference in your city? Show up. 

 Famed formerly homeless violinist Nathaniel Ayers, who served as the main inspiration for Gupta's organization Street Symphony, returned to join the Messiah performance last year.  (photo via  Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times )

Famed formerly homeless violinist Nathaniel Ayers, who served as the main inspiration for Gupta's organization Street Symphony, returned to join the Messiah performance last year. 
(photo via Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)