In 2007, Vijay Gupta was one of the youngest violinists to join the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but his path in music took an unexpected turn when he met Nathaniel Ayers — a Juilliard-trained double bassist whose crippling schizophrenia ended his professional career and left him homeless. Actor Jamie Foxx portrayed Ayers in the 2009 movie based on his harrowing life story, The Soloist.
“[Nathaniel] had a more encyclopedic knowledge of music than my professors at Yale,” says Gupta. “This was his oxygen, this was his survival. A lot of people on Skid Row turned to self-medicating with drugs, but Nathaniel turned to music.”
When Gupta would visit his unlikely new friend at his home on Skid Row — less than two miles from the Phil’s gleaming Disney Hall — he felt an overwhelming sense of shame. “[My first thought] was, ‘I should’ve become a doctor because this is where people need a doctor,’” he recalls. “My other thought was, ‘What I can give [to] this place is music.’”
That’s exactly what he did. In 2011, Gupta launched Street Symphony, an organization that hosts 80 free concerts every year for the city’s homeless, disenfranchised and incarcerated. In 2017, he expanded it with a mentorship program pairing homeless people with professional musicians for two years of intensive, free musical instruction. He received a MacArthur Genius Grant of $625,000 for the project in 2018, and now, at events like its annual Messiah Project (set for Dec. 13), people who live on Skid Row perform alongside world-class musicians.
Thanks to the grant, Gupta is able to invest in the Skid Row community in more meaningful ways, like paying musicians — including the homeless performers — for those free concerts. “Show up” has become Street Symphony’s unofficial slogan, says Gupta.
“This isn’t ‘drive-by Beethoven,’” adds Benjamin Shirley, Street Symphony’s community engagement director. Shirley, who played in the L.A.-based rock band U.P.O. and battled a drug addiction, understands both worlds and the importance of continued social support for the homeless. “I saw other organizations come down and try to be helpful on Christmas and Thanksgiving, and then everyone pats themselves on the back and goes back to their million-dollar homes,” he says. “[Street Symphony] is an actual level of care and love. It has the right motive.”
More recently, the organization has been diversifying its concert repertoire beyond Handel and Bach to include mariachi music, West African drumming and even some recognizable modern tunes. At the upcoming Messiah Project, members will perform Diana Ross’ “Reach Out and Touch Someone” and The Sound of Music’s “Climb Every Mountain.” In fact, “Climb Every Mountain” is the theme of this year’s event, Gupta says, “honoring the resilience of this community.”
Despite these achievements, Gupta says working on Street Symphony doesn’t always result in redemption. In October, one of its homeless musician fellows died of a drug overdose after five years of sobriety. “We gauged our impact by telling his story, but then we lost him,” says Gupta. Meanwhile, since Street Symphony was founded, L.A.’s homeless population has nearly doubled: According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the number of homeless rose from 39,414 in 2011 to 58,936 in 2019.
That’s part of the reason why Gupta isn’t interested in expanding Street Symphony to other cities yet. “The story of Skid Row is complicated and nuanced, and could change tomorrow,” he says. “The only thing we have is today.”