Violinist and YSM alum Vijay Gupta ’07MM is a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the founder and artistic director of Street Symphony, an organization that “serves to foster a dialogue which tells the unheard stories of the most marginalized communities in Los Angeles through the power of musical expression,” according to language on its website. We spoke with Vijay about the artist’s role in society.
Q: What experiences at Yale and the Yale School of Music, and in New Haven, inform the work you’re doing now with Street Symphony and in terms of how the arts can be a vehicle for social justice in a larger sense?
A: Well, it was two classes in particular. One was my Hearing class with Joan Panetti, which totally transformed the way that I teach and perform and collaborate. I was actually Dr. Panetti’s TA for my second whole year at YSM, so that was really, really special for me. And it’s kind of amazing, I kind of feel Dr. Panetti coming up in my voice and in my steps when I teach, so that’s very cool. The second class was a survey of late Beethoven by Markus Rathey, and he went through, I think, from Op. 90 until the end of Beethoven. And just being able to present in his class, and being able to look at the composers for who they were as people and not just as these marble busts of dead white guys, really, really changed the way that I approach playing. And it’s a direct correlation to the way that I lead programs when I play Beethoven or Schumann in a county jail, because our audiences are not interested in how well we play, they’re interested in the stories. They’re, in a sense, interested in the humanity of the composers. So those are two things that I got from those two classes. And of course I have to give credit to my amazing teacher, who was Ani Kavafian. She was just so wonderful and kind and got me to think about different aspects of my playing that I hadn’t even thought about before, but she also cared about me as a person, which was kind of new for me having come from the conservatory system. Oftentimes in those situations my personhood didn’t count as much as how well I played my etudes. But I played a lot of Baroque violin at school with ISM; I was playing with Robert Mealy and that was an extension of what I was getting from Markus Rathey’s class and from Joan Panetti’s class. It was a very natural extension of what was going on in the life of these composers as they were composing. And one direct example of how that’s showed up for me in my organization is in our Messiah project. We do a yearly sing-along of Handel’s Messiah in Skid Row at a homeless shelter. And we’ve actually now started placing formerly homeless Desert Storm combat veterans as our soloists, and we give them lessons all year long. And when you look at the situation in which Handel performed his Messiah, it wasn’t in a concert hall, it was in an orphan’s hospital, and the first concert released 142 men from debtor’s prison. So if we’re really doing authentic performance practice, if we’re really going to put our mouth where our money is with regard to what these composers were actually dreaming and thinking as they composed, then we also have to have the same kind of social understanding of what kind of music our community needs. It became very clear to me at school that these composers were writing for their communities. I’m sorry to go on a little bit here, but Bach’s passions would have been called engagement sing-along concerts today, because everybody in the audience knew those chorales and they stood up and sang them. So what’s our modern day Messiah? That’s the kind of question that I’m asking in my head right now as I lead my life and do my stuff.