DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - On a sweltering day in late August, Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist Vijay Gupta steps in front of a crowd and bows his head to polite applause. He glances at the audience and surveys the cellist and violist to his left. He takes a breath, lifts his 2003 Krutz violin and tucks it under his chin. Once it’s settled, he slowly pulls the bow across the strings. As the first strains of the “Passacaglia” by George Frideric Handel and Johann Halvorsen usher forth, the murmurs of the crowd go mute.
While the scene is one that audiences at Walt Disney Concert Hall pay up to $266 a ticket to take in, no one here has spent a cent. In fact, many in the packed room at Skid Row’s Midnight Mission know little about classical music and even less about the men playing in front of them. Still, the approximately 100 people, many of whom sleep on the streets at night, sit rapt on their blue plastic chairs. They remain largely quiet — if not as silent as Disney Hall crowds — during the 45-minute performance.
When it ends, the crowd busts into raucous applause. Screams of “Encore!” are heard. One man, sitting amidst plastic bags of his belongings, belts out a curious request for Ice Cube. Gupta and his fellow musicians, Jacob Braun and Ben Ullery, smile widely and bow.
Skid Row may seem an unlikely place for a classical concert. In fact, it was, prior to Street Symphony, a nonprofit organization founded by Gupta in 2011. The New York native was just 24 at the time, though he had already been a member of the Phil for five years. He was the youngest player in the orchestra when he joined at the age of 19, and at 26 today, he’s still the youngest.
Street Symphony is an ensemble of socially conscious musicians dedicated to bringing live, classical music to the mentally ill, imprisoned, homeless and the otherwise marginalized members of society. Gupta founded the group with Adrian Hong, a human rights activist and the managing director of consultancy Pegasus Strategies, and Adam Crane, the former director of public relations for the L.A. Phil who now serves as vice president of external affairs for the St. Louis Symphony.
The path that brought Gupta to Skid Row is as twisting as it is unlikely, and though he has now played the Mission three times, it’s clear that it’s a visceral experience for the man who suffered his own mental abuse while growing up. The normally loquacious violinist is prone to becoming overwhelmed with emotion when discussing the physical, psychological and spiritual struggles of his non-Disney Hall audience.
“I’m this privileged musician,” he said recently. “Who the hell am I to think that I could help anybody?”
Chasing Zubin Mehta
Gupta will be front and center this week when the Phil kicks off the celebration of the 10th anniversary of Walt Disney Concert Hall. Along with the 105 other members of the orchestra, he’ll spend much of the next nine months in formal clothes and playing in front of affluent crowds. In addition to the Downtown dates that start on Monday, Sept. 30, the Phil this season will tour domestically, including stints in Washington, D.C. and New York.
Vijay Gupta was born in 1987 in Walden, N.Y., in the Mid-Hudson Valley to Vivek, a travel agent, and Chandana, a bank teller; the couple immigrated to the United States from India. His musical inclination was clear from an early age — he continually sang and danced around the house — and when he was 4 his parents took him to a music teacher. He was soon given the choice of piano or violin. While Gupta’s younger brother, Akshar, later opted for the piano (Akshar, now 23, is a classically trained pianist who just finished a PhD in chemistry), Vijay took one look at that stationary behemoth of an instrument and started bawling.
“I just wanted to dance with my fiddle,” he said, laughing.
Daily practices led to an audition at the Juilliard School’s pre-college program when Vijay was just 6. To the shock of his parents, the boy nailed the audition.
In the following years his parents poured a considerable amount of time, money and energy into supporting their son’s music. Vivek was so sure of Vijay’s talent that he semi-stalked Zubin Mehta, the director for life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (and the former music director of the L.A. Phil), flying Gupta to Tel Aviv and Germany — wherever the maestro was conducting — trying to get him to hear Gupta play.
The effort eventually paid off: Vijay made his solo debut at age 11 with the Israel Philharmonic in Tel Aviv.
The school district was less forgiving than his parents, and administrators failed him in sixth grade for missing so many classes. It didn’t matter that Vijay was doing his homework in the car during the 90-minute drive back and forth to Juilliard (which Akshar was also attending).
Eventually, Chandana quit her job and made transporting Vijay to international music festivals and other gigs her full-time pursuit.
The time constraints never eased and, finally fed up with battling the school system, Vijay’s parents yanked him out of middle school. After he passed a high school equivalency exam, Vijay enrolled at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburg, N.Y. He was 14.
There was a caveat: His parents said he still had to study science. Music was a lovely hobby for doctors, they told him, but it would never be his life.
Vijay felt differently, and recalls needing to play music the way people need to breathe oxygen. Thus, he signed on for a second undergraduate program at the Manhattan School of Music.
Torching the Candle
Gupta and his parents fought frequently over music versus medicine. A decade later, he clearly recalls the harsh words and “emotional manipulation” that he said cloaked him in self-doubt. On several occasions, the earliest occurring when he was 9, the vicious arguments led to his parents ordering him out of the house. He remembers sobbing in the yard, watching his breath form a cloud in the cold night air. To them, he said, it was discipline.
Still, his parents continued to support his musical pursuits, to a degree. His mother traversed New York during the week, waiting for 12 hours some days while Gupta slogged through his studies. Between both schools he was carrying 32 credits (18 is considered a full load for a college student).
Just as Vivek and Chandana compromised, so did Vijay. At 16, and enthralled by biology, he accepted a research assistant position at Hunter College. He studied spinal cord repair.
However fatigued Vijay was from torching the candle at each end, his mother’s health bore the brunt: She collapsed from fibroid tumors just after he turned 17. The effect on his schedule was immediate: He left Mount Saint Mary and Manhattan School of Music and transferred to Marist College, where he graduated with a pre-med biology degree at 17. Music was pushed to the back burner as Gupta accepted a research position at Harvard University, where he studied Parkinson’s disease and the effects of pollution on the brain.
Still, Gupta couldn’t escape music’s pull. Unbeknownst to his parents, he applied to a master’s program at Yale University. He was accepted and given a full scholarship.
He believed it would be his last opportunity to play music consistently. As he begrudgingly accepted that medicine would be his life, he played every gig he could, as many as 10 concerts a week, all while taking classes, working as the head of the school’s philharmonic library and being a TA for two music theory courses.
Still, every few days his parents called: You’re wasting your time, they told him. There’s no point. Why are you doing this?
Gupta graduated at 19 and, on a lark, applied for one of two violin positions advertised by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra also had an opening, but he needed his parents to buy the airfare, and they chose Los Angeles. His parents reasoned they could “visit our cousins when you don’t win the job,” he said. It was his first-ever orchestral audition.
Just like when he was 6 at Juilliard, Gupta nailed it. This time, however, he beat out hundreds of applicants with years, and sometimes decades more experience. Once he got the job, he began winning over the members of the orchestra.
“He’s probably one of the most talented people who’s ever auditioned for the Phil,” said Daniel Rothmuller, who retired in 2012 after 42 years with the Philharmonic.
Rothmuller, 70, who played the violoncello, said he was impressed by Gupta’s musical maturity and sophistication, and quickly befriended the then-teenager. He described Gupta as “hungry” for a deeper understanding of music.
“We adopted each other,” he said. “I had the experience and knowledge he was looking for so we latched onto each other. He made it quite clear he had respect for what I knew, and I 100% enthusiastically enjoyed playing with him.”
The friendship continued outside the confines of the Phil, as Rothmuller has played with Gupta during Street Symphony concerts at the Twin Towers jail and the Midnight Mission.
Though he may not have grasped the magnitude of scoring a seat in the Philharmonic orchestra at such a young age, Gupta today doesn’t take it for granted.
“If I didn’t get that, I’d very possibly not be here,” he said. “I’m so grateful — I’m making a living doing what I love. It’s my dream job.”
Skid Row Journey
While Gupta enjoyed the accolades and companionship of the Philharmonic, he was only in his early 20s and still finding himself. Then, in 2008, he met Steve Lopez, the Los Angeles Times columnist who had been writing a series of articles about Nathaniel Ayers, a onetime Juilliard student whose longtime battle with schizophrenia had landed him on the streets of Skid Row. Lopez’s columns would lead to the book and movie The Soloist.
Gupta first met Ayers at a birthday party. It was there that Ayers asked Gupta to give him a proper violin lesson. The first time they played together, Gupta recalled, “I got a real taste of his illness. It is really gut-wrenchingly terrifying to see someone so talented in the midst of such suffering.”
Soon after, Gupta learned about the Midnight Mission’s monthly concert series in which bands, often the rock or pop variety, perform in the Skid Row facility’s multipurpose room.
Gupta called Georgia Berkovich, who runs the Music With a Mission series, and asked if he could bring Street Symphony to Skid Row. Berkovich was overjoyed and the group made its first appearance in January 2012.
Street Symphony has come back two more times. After the August performance, Berkovich reflected not just on the music and the repeat appearances, but at how Gupta strives to relate to those in the room.
“He didn’t simply play music, which would have been wonderful anyway,” Berkovich said. “He talked about the composers and their lives and he answered questions from the floor. It was truly an interactive experience.”
It’s the kind of experience that Chris Ayzoukian, vice president of production for the Philharmonic, said he finds inspiring. Gupta, whom Ayzoukian called a “unique talent,” is in a class of young musicians who are using their gifts to promote social causes.
“He made the conscious decision to follow the music track, luckily, for all of us,” said Ayzoukian. “He brings great purpose to his work and is a valued member of our violin section.”
Street Symphony isn’t bound to Skid Row. In the past 18 months, Gupta and his colleagues have played 40 concerts at Southern California jails through the Maximizing Education Reaching Individual Transformation (MERIT) program, which is run by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Judge Rand Rubin, who works out of the Criminal Courts Building in Downtown and frequently addresses inmates in the MERIT program, approached Gupta, whom he’d met at a party, with the idea of bringing Street Symphony to jails. Gupta signed on immediately. The first event was for 200 inmates at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic.
Bringing classical music to a place where men live behind bars has a humanizing effect, Rubin said. He notes that when the concerts end, the inmates, some of them crying, routinely jump to their feet in thunderous applause.
Still, his highest praise is reserved for Gupta the person as opposed to Gupta the musician. The judge is struck by the violinist’s humility.
“He’s as impressed to meet you as you are to meet him,” Rubin said. “Whoever you are.”
This is a heady time for Gupta. In addition to his individual achievements and his role at the Phil, he has a new sense of inner comfort. On May 26 he married Samantha Lynne Wilson, who is studying for her master’s in divinity from Claremont College. Gupta is quick to say that his best friend and life partner keeps him grounded and reminds him that he’s good enough just being him, regardless of all the attention. He calls her his “highest blessing.”
Still, it was music and the audience that occupied Gupta’s mind during the August performance at the mission. In addition to the Handel-Halvorsen work, the group performed pieces by Mozart and Ernö Dohnanyi before entertaining questions from the spectators. Street Symphony always includes a Q&A in addition to the concert.
The musicians soon played “Happy Birthday” for Ryan Navales, who was one day shy of two years sober. It was a big moment for Navales, a former client of the Mission who now works as its public affairs coordinator. The scene quickly moved beyond music and Gupta listened intently as Navales told the room that his drugging days started at age 10, and that he hopes the healed punctures in his arm will stay healed. But that choice is up to him, he said.
For every hand that rose during the Q&A, a smile stretched across Gupta’s face. It was clear that, just a few miles but worlds removed from the gleaming steel of Disney Hall, he was in his element, even if he never expected it to be his element.
One audience member, a gray-haired man leaning on a wooden cane, asked what Gupta and the group hoped to get out of playing these kinds of concerts.
The answer was easy. Gripping his violin, Gupta leaned forward, his brown eyes laser-focused on the man.
He said, “I hope to meet you.”
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013