Street Symphony is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that “places music at the center of social justice.” It does this by bringing together musicians and individuals living with homelessness and incarceration, who also often struggle with mental and physical illness and addiction. This endeavor was founded by Los Angeles Philharmonic Violinist Vijay Gupta and the musicians who participate are both world-class and burgeoning local professionals.
The Street Symphony website states that tens of thousands of people are homeless or incarcerated on any typical night in LA County. In 2017, the total number of homeless individuals rose 23 percent, up to nearly 58,000, according to the LA Times. The Times also reports that LA has long had the greatest population of homes veterans in the U.S.
In 2011, Gupta connected musicians and members from the LA Philharmonic, Colburn School and Los Angeles Master Chorale, along with other jazz musicians, with the goal of bringing the craft they loved to vulnerable and disenfranchised communities. They began to offer musical performances to those with little chance or opportunity of visiting a concert hall. Since then, the participants have completed 250 performances and workshops in LA county jails and in the Skid Row neighborhood, Street Symphony Artistic Programs Manager Emily Lair explains in Senza Sordino, a publication of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians.
Within Street Symphony programming, established and developing musicians join with members of the Skid Row community to form a variety of groups, including: the Street Symphony Instrumentalists, Street Symphony Chamber Singers, and Street Symphony Jazz Band, as well as these ensembles and Partners: Mostly Kosher, the Urban Voices Project (a Skid Row choir), and the Street Symphony Fellows.
“The musicians were walking away with a far greater gift than we can ever hope to give back to the community,” said Gupta after a 2016 event. Lair describes the process of musicians working with community members as “restorative” for all involved. Community members are invited and encouraged to share personal backgrounds, struggles along with their relationships to music, and many have. These stories influence and shape Street Symphony programming.
The “Messiah Project,” which is now a central annual event for the nonprofit, was inspired by Don Garza, a vocalist and Desert Storm combat veteran who has PTSD and experienced homelessness in LA county for 11 years.
Garza is an experienced tenor who explained to the Street Symphony team that singing Handel’s Messiah had helped him to face and survive many challenges as a veteran. In the video below, he reflects on the cultural challenges of having illnesses like PTSD, anxiety and depression that “you can’t see” and says both the words and instrumental aspects of the Messiah “have a healing and soothing effect.” He also shares that he has attempted suicide. “What saved me inside here,” he says, touching his chest, “was that music.”
Garza had an idea and request to bring the music that had been so supportive to him to other members of the Skid Row community. Garza’s vision was realized in 2015. Street Symphony held three vocal workshops and then the culminating Messiah performance featuring members of the LA Phil, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the Urban Voices Project and other Skid Row artists was held at Skid Row’s Midnight Mission. Lair shares that members of the homeless community, musicians, Midnight Mission employees, donors and other locals attended the moving event.
Garza performed in the 2016 Messiah and he hopes Street Symphony’s Messiah programming and performance becomes a tradition “forever and ever and ever.”