Inside the mental health ward of the Twin Towers jail in downtown Los Angeles, 35 incarcerated men in brown and blue jumpsuits responded with raw emotion as the tender, sometimes tumultuous sounds of Robert Schumann's First String Quartet in A Minor washed over them.
“That music sounds like the way I feel,” an inmate told Vijay Gupta, the L.A. Philharmonic violinist whose nonprofit organization, Street Symphony, presented the jailhouse concert.
Gupta vividly remembers another man's response that day: “He said to me, 'You know why I love this music? All these composers had real shit happen to them. Bach was an orphan. Mozart's mom died. Beethoven's dad beat the shit out of him. And Schumann? Schumann died in a place like this.'?”
Gupta was stunned by how accurately the men's responses mirrored his own feelings. “I went home from that concert and sat in my bed and cried and ate pizza and ice cream. I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that I had this life-changing conversation with these incarcerated men,” he says. “And I got to leave.”
Stout, brown-skinned, tattooed and sporting a thick head of slick, shiny black hair, Gupta often sees himself in the inmates and homeless people he and his Street Symphony collaborators meet in L.A. county jails and on Skid Row.
The child of Indian immigrants, Gupta picked up his first violin when he was 3. By the time he was 7, he was studying at Juilliard. He enrolled in college when he was 13 and by 15 was simultaneously pursuing two undergraduate degrees (one in music and one in biology). At 19, after graduating with a master's degree in music from Yale, Gupta beat out more than 300 applicants for a seat in the L.A. Philharmonic's violin section.
But that extraordinary, seemingly privileged upbringing was shrouded in a haze of instability, familial dysfunction and abuse. For the first two decades of his life, Gupta's aggressively controlling parents were his wardens, and their impossible definition of success his prison.
“I went home from that concert and sat in my bed and cried … I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that I had this life-changing conversation with these incarcerated men.” —Vijay Gupta
As an adolescent, Gupta sat in the front row of high-level college biology classes, eagerly raising his hand to correctly answer the professor's every question. But as much as he thrived in that intellectually freeing environment, he suffered from social isolation. “My voice hadn't changed yet, and I was tiny,” he recalls. “It was fucking terrifying. The wound for me was, I'll never belong.”
Music was a lifeline. When his parents were fighting bitterly in the next room, Gupta took refuge in practicing the violin. He found the love and community he longed for in chamber groups and orchestras. As a young adult, when his relationship with his parents was severed completely over his decision to marry a white woman, his L.A. Philharmonic colleagues supported him like family at his wedding.
Gupta began Street Symphony in 2011 after he met and began teaching a schizophrenic, Juilliard-trained violinist who lived on Skid Row. Since then, the organization has given more than 200 concerts in homeless shelters and jails.
“The work isn't just about us performing and leaving,” Gupta says. “It's about staying. For me personally, staying matters. The Street Symphony is my family. The L.A. Phil is my family. There is something powerful about being in relationship through music, and applying that relationship to folks who are incarcerated or living on Skid Row.”
He adds, “When I say that staying matters, I'm also saying that these people matter, their lives matter and their neighborhoods matter. Every person deserves access to a creative and expressive life.”