The more you give, the more you get.
That’s how Street Symphony musicians feel after dedicating six years to making music for social justice. These professional musicians have brought their art and activism to 250 performances and workshops in Los Angeles’ Skid Row neighborhood and county jails, designing programs that help people experiencing incarceration, homelessness, and mental illness to tell their own stories. And the players have found it’s not a one-way street. The Street Symphony approach is as restorative for the performers as it is for the communities we serve.
Street Symphony is a network of professional musicians who acknowledge and address the presence of voices that are ignored. In 2011, Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist Vijay Gupta gathered together members of the LA Phil, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Colburn School, and jazz musicians in an effort to bring musical performances of the highest quality to people without access to concert halls. Six years later, the musicians have discovered that the communities we serve often have more to give us than we bring to them.
Through past Street Symphony projects, hundreds of people have found their voice. Many have stood up and shared profound and personal stories of being incarcerated, homeless, or mentally ill, inspiring a new artistic approach for Street Symphony. The stories we hear from them inform and help shape our future programming. For example, the first and second annual Messiah Projects in December 2015 and 2016 were significant community projects designed around what we have learned by listening.
The idea for the Messiah Project came from a member of the Skid Row community. Lifelong vocalist Don Garza is a Desert Storm combat veteran who experienced PTSD and homelessness in Skid Row for many years. Having grown up studying music as a tenor, Don loves Handel’s Messiah. Singing the Messiah carried Don through some of his most difficult times as a veteran, and he had a dream: to perform a Messiah in Skid Row.
Inspired by Don Garza’s dream, Street Symphony hosted the first Messiah Project in 2015. It took shape as a series of three vocal workshops culminating in a final performance at The Midnight Mission in the heart of Skid Row. Members of the LA Phil, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Urban Voices Project (a Skid Row choir), and artists from Skid Row came together in a stunning performance of the Messiah. Dozens of people from the homeless community, Midnight Mission employees and caseworkers, donors, and musicians packed the Mission to hear the music.
Don Garza performed the tenor solos “Comfort Ye” and “Ev’ry Valley shall be exalted” at the second annual Messiah Project in 2016, after taking lessons and developing friendships with professionals from the Street Symphony Chamber Singers for two years. There was not a dry eye in the house as Don sang “Comfort ye, my people” to 200 of some of Los Angeles’ most vulnerable people.
In Street Symphony, we take the position that the lives and stories of Skid Row matter. As artists’ activists, we believe that when we make spaces for those voices to be heard, as equal partners and in tandem with our own, it brings new life to the sounds of the music we have known and loved for hundreds of years. The Messiah Project has become an annual tradition of celebrating the bravery and resilience in the Skid Row community. But, as Artistic Director Vijay Gupta said after the 2016 event, “the musicians were walking away with a far greater gift than we can ever hope to give back to the community.”
Note: The Author is Street Symphony Artistic Programs Manager