By John Schlenck
Violinist Robert Gupta, a member of the Vedanta Society of New York and the youngest member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, snatches time from his very busy schedule to serve the homeless and mentally ill on L. A.’s skid row in a unique way. He offers them what he does best: classical music of the highest order. Service to the homeless is usually thought of in terms of basic necessities such as food and shelter. We tend to forget that these fellow human beings also have emotional and spiritual needs that often go unfulfilled.
As far as I remember, Robert, the son of Indian immigrant devotees of our Vedanta Center here in New York, first shared his music with us at the age of nine. As the resident musician of the Center, I was asked to accompany his performance. What struck me even more than his remarkable technique was the depth and warmth of his tone quality. Over the years, Robert has played here many times. At the risk of sounding patronizing, I have to say it has been a joy to see him grow up, personally as well as artistically.
Robert made his debut as a soloist at age eleven with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Zubin Mehta. Since then he has performed with orchestras in New York, Bombay, Tokyo and many other cities around the world. He received his education at the pre-college division of the Julliard School of Music, the Manhattan School of Music, and Yale University, where he graduated with a Master’s degree in Music.
Parallel with his music, he received a Bachelor’s degree in biology from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York and held Research Assistant positions at CUNY Hunter College in New York City, where he worked on spinal chord neuronal regeneration, and at the Harvard Institutes of Medicine Center for Neurologic Diseases, where he studied the biochemical pathology of Parkinson’s disease. These studies sparked a keen in discovering more about how music affects the brain, especially in neurological disorders.
At age 19, Robert won a competition with some three hundred other violinists for a position in the Los Angeles Philharmonic and became its youngest member. Shortly after joining the Philharmonic, he met Nathaniel Ayers, a classically trained, homeless, schizophrenic musician living on the streets of Los Angeles. Ayers’ story, discovered by LA Times correspondent Steve Lopez, would soon become known through the film The Soloist, starring Robert Downey Jr. as Steve Lopez and Jamie Fox as Nathaniel Ayres. One evening Ayers came backstage after a concert of the LA Philharmonic, where he met Robert Gupta. This meeting led to Ayers taking violin lessons with Robert. Through this experience, Robert’s study of neuro-science and his passion for music were brought together. He learned directly how music can transform the lives of the mentally ill and can bring profound joy to the homeless. He took his violin to Skid Row in Los Angeles and began to play Bach and other great music. He saw how music deeply affected some of his listeners.
Robert, with the encouragement of friends at TED—an organization that brings together outstanding young thinkers and doers—has recently established a non-profit called Street Symphony, to bring live music “to the most underserved communities throughout L.A.” He also looks forward to playing for “the incarcerated, the severely mentally ill living in hospice and institutional care, and children and adults with Downs Syndrome and autism.”
Those interested in Robert’s life and work can find out more through the following websites: www.ted.com/talks/robert_gupta.html and http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/23767839/ns/today-today_people/t/american-story-master-music-medicine/#.TscnJ3GiZTY
AV salutes Robert Gupta and wishes him success and continued spiritual reward through his endeavors.
JOHN SCHLENCK, a composer of music, is Associate Editor of American Vedantist and Secretary-Treasurer of Vedanta West Communications. He is a resident member and Secretary of the Vedanta Society of New York.