Robert Gupta at a recent visit to the GOOD office
Downtown Los Angeles is a neighborhood of extremes. On one end, there's the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Frank Gehry-designed home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Less than 10 blocks away is Skid Row, the nation's largest congregating spot for the homeless, where as many as 50,000 people can be found on the streets on any given night. Robert Gupta, the Philharmonic's first violinist, is hoping to bridge the gap between the two sides by taking "music out of the ivory tower" of the concert hall and bringing it to people who would never hear it otherwise.
Gupta created the nonprofit Street Symphony, an ensemble of socially conscious musicians "dedicated to delivering the tremendous therapeutic power of live classical music to mentally ill individuals" in Los Angeles' poorest communities. Founded in 2011 by TED senior fellows Gupta and Adrian Hong, an activist for human rights in North Korea, the group performs concerts at clinics and shelters.
Gupta joined the L.A. Phil in 2007 at age 19 after receiving a masters in music from Yale and studying neuroscience as an undergraduate. Gupta came to realize the transformative power of classical music in the lives of the mentally ill while working as the violin instructor for Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic Julliard graduate who landed on Skid Row (and whose life was portrayed by Jamie Foxx in the 2009 film The Soloist).
"My challenge has been to go into these places where there is no access to music," Gupta says, recalling how terrified he was the first few times he took music outside of the concert hall. "In these spaced the music takes on a new meaning." Barriers come down. Veterans who suffer from PTSD and appear "glazed over" begin to connect emotionally with the music. "I feel like we're doing something profoundly important, profoundly beautiful, and profoundly therapeutic as well," he says.
A Street Symphony concert typically consists of performances by a string quartet or sextet, following by an opportunity for audience members to ask the musicians about the music. But often, the musicians are the ones doing the real learning. "Performing for these audiences has taught us why we make music," says Gupta. "It's a human service that allows us to reach a deeply ostracized community."