Strings Music Festival: Street Symphony spreads joy of music to homeless people |

Strings Music Festival: Street Symphony spreads joy of music to homeless people

Nancy Engelken
For the Steamboat Pilot & Today
Nancy Engelken, development director for Strings Music Festival is pictured with Vijay Gupta, violinist with the L.A. Philharmonic who performed with the Strings Music Festival this summer.
Courtesy photo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — “Do you know the movie “The Soloist,” asked Vijay Gupta, violinist with the LA Philharmonic who performed with the Strings Music Festival this summer.

He referenced the 2009 film starring Jaime Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. about Nathanial Ayers, a brilliant musician who developed paranoid schizophrenia and was forced to drop out of the Juilliard School. Ayers ultimately became homeless on the streets of Los Angeles.

“I was Nathanial’s first violin teacher,” Gupta said.

We were visiting over coffee last week and discussing Street Symphony, a nonprofit Gupta founded eight years ago with a group of LA Philharmonic musicians to bring the joys of music to people who are homeless and incarcerated in Los Angeles.

These talented and generous musicians also performed with Strings Music Festival this summer as orchestra members and as soloists. We see them on stage but don’t always know about their other projects.

“Nathanial’s talent could land him on stage with any major orchestra in the world,” Gupta said. “His memory and knowledge of music rivaled that of any professor I had at Juilliard or Yale.”

But, Gupta explained Ayers’ mental illness, ensuing poverty and the fact that he is black led to homelessness rather than fame.

Ayers was a major inspiration for Street Symphony and led Gupta to wonder how many other “Nathanials” resided among the homeless and incarcerated community.

Street Symphony started with professional performances in shelters and the Los Angeles County Jail in 2010. The idea has since evolved to be far more participatory and educational.

Street Symphony has performed nearly 500 concerts on Skid Row and annually engages homeless and incarcerated communities and individuals through lessons, composition and performances including the annual performance of Handel’s “Messiah” featuring soloists who are homeless.

“I’ve played a ‘Strad’ in the L.A. County jail,” said Gupta about his experience playing a Stradivarius — a violin of aging wood made in the 1700s that is notoriously desirable and expensive. “There’s something about the vibration there.”

I couldn’t help but notice the juxtaposition this represents: a Stradivarius and a L.A. Philharmonic musician in the county jail. Yet, it’s the perfect representation of the commitment of Street Symphony to disenfranchised communities.

“I’m passionate about Street Symphony’s effort because every life and every neighborhood matters,” said Joanne Pearce Martin, one of the musicians involved with the nonprofit. “One can clearly see that the gift of music that Street Symphony brings is just that — an enormous gift — feeding their hearts and souls, uplifting them, transporting them to a better place.“

Nancy Engelken is the development director for Strings Music Festival. Last year, 54 percent of Strings programs were free to the Yampa Valley community and served three counties in northwestern Colorado through Strings School Days, Music on the Green and performances in Craig, Hayden and Steamboat Springs.

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