Walt Disney Concert Hall, a $274 million fortress of swirling, stainless steel designed by the renowned architect Frank Gehry, is just a little over a mile from Los Angeles’s skid row. But for the thousands of homeless people who move in and out of the missions and shelters or sleep in tents on the trash-strewn streets, it might as well be on the moon.
Vijay Gupta had made it his mission to bridge that gap. The 31-year-old violinist makes a living performing for affluent concertgoers at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The rest of the time, he’s at skid row or county jails, playing for an audience that may never set foot inside Disney Hall. Described as “one of the most radical thinkers in the unradical world of American classical music” by the New Yorker and “the most interesting man in the Phil” by Los Angeles Downtown News, his goal is to bring art and beauty to some of the city’s ugliest places.
On Thursday, Gupta’s eight-year-long experiment with taking classical music out the highbrow world of concert halls and into the streets received national recognition when he was named one of the 25 winners of the 2018 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowships. The “genius” grant, as it’s more commonly known, comes with a $625,000 prize that recipients can use in any way that they choose. In its announcement, the foundation credited Gupta for “bringing beauty, respite, and purpose to those all too often ignored by society” and “demonstrating the capacity of music to validate our shared humanity,” while also bringing attention to the social problems manifested in a place like skid row.
Born in 1987, Robert Vijay Gupta grew up an hour and a half north of New York City. His parents, who immigrated from India in the 1970s, had high expectations for their two sons. Gupta was only 7 when he entered the pre-college program at the Juilliard School and 11 when he made his solo debut with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, marking the start of his international career. At 17, he received his undergraduate degree in biology from Marist College.
“My dad was undocumented when he came here,” Gupta told NBC’s “Dateline” this summer. “He worked in kitchens all over New York and worked in JFK doing baggage claim. And so I think the drive came from them having meaning again in the world, because their two kids were talented.”
The pressure to live up to those expectations could be painful. “My brother and I spent a lot of time weeping while playing our instruments,” Gupta told “Dateline.”
After finishing college, Gupta had to decide whether he would pursue a career in music or medicine, he recalled in a 2012 TED Talk. While interning at a medical lab at Harvard, he struck up a conversation with Gottfried Schlaug, a celebrated neuroscientist who studies the effects on music on the brain. Schlaug had faced a similar choice years before, when he gave up a promising career as an organist. He told Gupta that medical school could wait, but the violin wouldn’t.
With that encouragement, Gupta joked, “I decided to shoot for the impossible before taking the MCAT and applying to medical school like a good Indian son to become the next Dr. Gupta.”
When he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2007 at the age of 19, Gupta was hailed as a prodigy. Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who profiled Gupta for the paper, noted that the precocious violinist needed his dad to co-sign a condo loan because he had no credit history, and to drive him around the city because he was too young to rent a car.
In a move that would change the trajectory of Gupta’s life, Lopez later introduced him to another Los Angeles-based musician: Nathaniel Ayers. A bassist who studied at Juilliard before schizophrenia left him homeless, Ayers had inspired Lopez’s book “The Soloist,” which later became a movie starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.
Gupta began teaching Ayers to play the violin. “I found myself growing outraged that someone like Nathaniel could have ever been homeless on skid row because of his mental illness,” he recalled in his 2012 TED Talk. “Yet how many tens of thousands of others there were out there on skid row alone who had stories as tragic as his, but were never going to have a book or a movie made about them that got them off the streets?”
The question motivated Gupta to return to skid row with his violin and play music for the homeless and mentally ill people who live there. In 2010, he founded Street Symphony, which performs at jails, shelters and transitional housing facilities. Each December, it gives a performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” featuring both professional musicians and people from skid row. They also offer intensive musical instruction to a group of fellows, many of them current and former skid row residents.
“The idea of bringing beauty into that desolate, dehumanized place became a calling,” Gupta explained in a 2014 interview with the Independent.
Gupta has been candid in interviews about bleak periods in his own life, categorizing his parents’ form of discipline as “emotional manipulation” and recalling the isolation that he felt as a 14-year-old enrolled in college classes. He has cut ties from his parents, who disowned him when he married the psychologist and activist Samantha Lynne over their objections, he told the New Yorker this year.
“I was fortunate enough to have great people around me who supported me,” he said. “But I think about the very dark places my life could have gone, particularly with depression.”
Those experiences have helped him connect with the people whom he meets on skid row. “I see my pain in them, and I know that they see it in me, too,” he said in an interview with “Dateline.” “I’m incredibly privileged. I got to go to Juilliard, I play in the L.A. Phil. And there’s a part of me that knows, beyond a shadow of doubt, that dark place.”
Gupta hasn’t yet said how he plans to use the “genius” grant money, and told the L.A. Times that getting the call from the MacArthur Foundation while he was pulling into the parking garage at Disney Hall came as a total shock.
“I think I shouted expletives at the committee for the first minute of the phone call,” he said, “because I was in utter disbelief. It was the wildest, possible dream.”
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