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Lifting spirits through music

A young L.A. Philharmonic violinist offers free concerts at a mental health clinic on skid row. Music 'isn't just something that makes us feel good … I believe it is therapy,' he says.

March 09, 2011|Steve Lopez
  • L.A. Philharmonic violinist Robert Vijay Gupta, right, and Colburn School student Zach Dellinger performed a free concert for the homeless and mentally ill of Skid Row's Downtown Mental Health Center on Monday afternoon. They practiced for a few minutes before the concert.
L.A. Philharmonic violinist Robert Vijay Gupta, right, and Colburn School… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

I don't recall the exact date that Robert Gupta, a Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist, first told me about his plan. But at some point after Gupta befriended my buddy Nathaniel Ayers, roughly three years ago, he said he wanted to give free concerts at mental health clinics.

Busy lives often get in the way of good intentions, and I wondered whether a rising phenom like Gupta — who joined the Phil in 2007 at the age of 19, and that's not a typo — would find time for charity.

But on Monday afternoon, Gupta was exactly where he had promised he would be. He was about to give his third in an occasional series of matinee concerts in the basement of the L.A. County Department of Mental Health clinic on Maple Street, across from the police station on skid row, and the small auditorium was packed with mental health workers and their clients.

In the audience was Greg Goedtel, who's been getting help for deep depression since 2004. He was a repeat customer, having seen Gupta late last year in a performance he described as: "In a word — fantastic."

In the second row sat Adam McQuerry, who also caught a previous concert. "I just know I'm going to cry today," said McQuerry, who told me he was going through a particularly difficult time. He added that some of his best work as an artist has been done while he was listening to music.

Also there was Robert Ham, who told me the mental health workers in the building had literally saved his life.

Lisa Wong, clinical program director at the center, stepped to the front of the room for the introduction.

"In the words of Plato," said Wong, "music gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything."

She introduced Gupta as someone who was no longer a guest of the mental health center, but a friend to the cause. And out waltzed the man of the hour, accompanied by a Colburn School student, Zach Dellinger, on viola.

Music, Gupta told the small crowd, "Isn't just something that makes us feel good …I believe it is therapy."

On that topic, Gupta is no amateur. At 19, he had not only a master's degree in music from Yale, but a pre-med biology degree from Marist College. He was fascinated by the mysteries of the brain and was on his way to becoming a neuroscientist when, on a whim, he auditioned for the L.A. Phil and nailed it.

He and my friend Mr. Ayers both studied at the Juilliard School in New York. Mr. Ayers, who played in a school orchestra with Yo-Yo Ma, suffered a breakdown and ended up on skid row 30 years later. And few people have done more to help Mr. Ayers than Gupta, who occasionally gives him lessons but more importantly is his friend.

Mr. Ayers was at my side for Monday's concert.

"Bravo!" Mr. Ayers sang out as Gupta channeled Mozart, Handel and Bach. He and Dellinger played like angels, lifting spirits.

Behind us sat a smiling Neena Paltanwala, a Mental Health Department official. She saw Gupta play last year in Long Beach with Mitch Newman, another L.A. Phil violinist who helps organize an annual benefit concert that has raised an estimated $120,000 for mental health advocacy and services. Paltanwala said she introduced herself to Gupta at that concert, and he now refers to her as his honorary auntie.

"Robert said he had a passion for giving concerts on skid row," said Paltanwala, who was more than happy to make the connection.

Gupta, who studied under famed violinist Isaac Stern among others, told me that at a concert for formerly homeless veterans in Long Beach, he felt out of place and wasn't sure he could engage his audience. But the moment he began playing, he said, "They came alive," and he was as moved as the vets who had come to see him play.

He became interested in giving concerts in part to satisfy his own curiosity about the effects of music on the brain. Is it simply soothing, or is it restorative? In other words, can music be thought of, in a scientific sense, as medicine?

Those answers may be elusive, but Gupta plans to do more research. He said his goal is to give 10 concerts a year to those who are dealing with various forms of mental illness, and he has begun discussing his experiences around the world as a TED senior fellow. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, and describes itself as a nonprofit whose mission is to bring together "ideas worth spreading."

At Monday's concert, Gupta asked his accompanist if he cared to say a few words. Dellinger began to speak but lost his composure, pulled himself together and continued.

"I can't tell you how special it is to play for this audience," Dellinger said. "I've never felt such appreciation. It's like a dream come true. You guys are great. I can feel your heart."

When he was dealing with his own daunting issues and difficult family dynamics as a child in South Carolina, Dellinger later told me, music "was my savior." He said he keenly understood "the healing power of music."

I think everyone in the room shared that sentiment on Monday. In a building people visit to share their suffering, to confront their fears and to fight the grip of paralyzing torment, here was an afternoon of beauty, freedom and hope.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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