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Bringing symphonies to Skid Row - playing a concert for LA's Downtown Mental Health Center

Nathaniel Ayers (far left) watches as his friend Robert Gupta plays the violin for the clients of the Downtown Mental Health Center on Skid Row.
KPCC / Sanden Totten
Nathaniel Ayers (far left) watches as his friend Robert Gupta plays the violin for the clients of the Downtown Mental Health Center on Skid Row.

Last week on Skid Row, the melodies of Mozart, Bach and Handel filled the air. L.A. Philharmonic first violinist Robert Gupta performed an exclusive concert for clients of the Downtown Mental Health Center. It's part of his continuing effort to combat mental illness with music.

The basement of the Downtown Mental Health Center, with its fluorescent lights and barren white walls, is a far cry from Walt Disney Concert Hall. But when Robert Gupta starts playing, his small audience looks as if it’s been transported to another realm.

Gupta says the drab room has one thing going for it: “Surprisingly good acoustics!”

Gupta plays with an authority beyond his 23 years. He started with the L.A. Philharmonic when he was 19, before he could legally drink.

Music wasn’t his first career path. Despite his love of music, his family pushed him toward medicine.

“My parents said, look, you’ve got to do the responsible thing," Gupta recalls. "You’ve got to go to school and become a doctor. So I went and studied biology. I was pre-med and I fell in love with neuroscience.”

From there, Gupta worked in labs studying spinal cord regeneration and Parkinson’s disease. He was excited at the prospect of helping people lead better lives.

But music kept tugging at his sleeve. He returned to school for violin, auditioned for the Phil and found himself playing before crowds all over the world.

“And it was like a dream for me, but after a couple months I said, what am I doing here? What about those people I wanted to help? What about them?”

Not quite three years ago, Gupta met Nathaniel Ayers, the formerly homeless double bass virtuoso featured in the movie “The Soloist.” Ayers, who battled with schizophrenia, was seeking a way to improve his playing. Gupta offered him a free lesson.

“So we started the lesson and he went right off," explains Gupta. "He started talking about smoke monsters and red and green heads popping out of his shoulders. And it’s just like this manic look starting in his eyes. But I had my violin so I just started playing. And I played Beethoven. And this guy completely changed. In an eye blink! And I realized that this music was what was hitting him.”

Since then, Gupta and Ayers have become friends. Ayers says he believes in Gupta's mission.

“Music really heals you inside," says Ayers. "I heard him say that. And it really is like medicine. And I have a great time. You know, feeling of accomplishment for that moment, that day, and you put your instrument away and start again.”

Gupta says that experience with Ayers convinced him music could balance people’s mental health. Because almost a third of all homeless people in L.A. suffer from mental illness, Gupta decided he would deliver classical music to Skid Row. He has done three so far.

For Mental Health Center client Maria Delgado, the effect was immediate.

“A lot of pressure! Let go a lot of pressure!" Delgado gushes. "It’s very relaxing. I am the victim of domestic violence crime and that really helps.”

Gupta hopes to expand his efforts by working with neuroscientists to find out what else regular doses of Brahms can do for brains. But he says that even without understanding the mechanisms, it’s hard to argue with the results.

“What we do know is that music hits us hard," says Gupta. "And for me, playing for this crowd, playing for this public that are so changed by this music, changes me as a musician. Because it reminds me that playing music is not just about playing on stage. It’s about a human connection, and that's what I get here."

Gupta says his violin has taken him everywhere. But only after he traveled a few blocks south from the L.A. Phil’s home base, Disney Hall, did he find his ideal audience.