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Meet The Newly Minted MacArthur 'Geniuses' From LA

Vijay Gupta, Founder and Artistic Director of Street Symphony, plays the violin at a Laemmle Live community event in Santa Monica. (Becca Murray/KPCC)
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By Carla Javier, Ryan Fonseca, and KPCC's Take Two

Vijay Gupta wasn't thinking about being named a MacArthur 'Genius,' when the L.A. Philharmonic violinist created the non-profit Street Symphony seven years ago.

Not that it's an award you can apply for anyway. The prestigious fellows -- who get $625,000 to use however they choose -- are selected through a secretive nomination process. Twenty-five new fellows were named this week and Gupta, who is just 31 years old, was one of three based in Los Angeles.

"I'm still kind of reeling from the announcement," Gupta told KPCC's Take Two. "But certainly I'm very grateful to have the affirming support for Street Symphony as an organization."

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Gupta's inspiration for the organization -- which brings professional musicians into communities where you might not expect to see them, like Skid Row and county jails-- came from a fellow violinist, a homeless man named Nathaniel Ayers.

Ayers was a frequent subject of L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez, who also wrote a book about Ayers titled "The Soloist." If you saw the film adaptation, Ayers was played by Jamie Foxx.

"He was a person who absolutely deserved to be on any concert hall stage in the world," Gupta said of Ayers. "But, because he was poor, because he experienced a mental illness and undoubtedly, because he was black, he was also somehow homeless. And that was something that didn't make sense to me, that someone that talented spent 20 years living in the 2nd Street tunnel."

That, Gupta said, made him wonder: "'Well, how many more Nathaniels are out here?'"

Street Symphony now works with eighty musicians to bring performances and workshops to underserved communities.

And every year, the organization helps community members create original pieces to perform along with Handel's "Messiah" on Skid Row.

Here's a clip produced by Street Symphony from the 2017 performance:

Gupta told Take Two that there was always music playing in his childhood home.

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"But at the same time, I also grew up around abuse, and I grew up around mental illness," he said. "When I started making music on Skid Row with my colleagues, there was a part of me that felt very somehow grounded and engaged making music in a county jail, or a shelter, that I didn't necessarily feel playing for the most elite audiences that I get to play for at a place like Walt Disney Concert Hall."

This honor was the latest in a string for Gupta, who joined the LA Phil at just 19 years old. He was a 2017 Citizen Artist fellow with the Kennedy Center and teaches at the Colburn School, just to name a few accolades and accomplishments.

He said artists like him have a responsibility to be engaged in "social and civic discourse."

"We need art now more than ever, as a public health intervention," Gupta said. "Because what comes with art is human acknowledgement."

One of Gupta's colleagues at Street Symphony and at Colburn, Jazmín Morales, said she believes this recognition will help other arts organizations fulfill their missions, too.

"It is so urgent, timely, and necessary for this type of recognition," Morales said. "In a lot of these music and social justice circles, there's always so much resistance of the work and so these sweeping recognitions only work to empower us, and keep us going."

Two other 2018 MacArthur Fellows are also based in the Los Angeles area.

Matthew Aucoin plays piano at The DiMenna Center for Classical Music in New York, NY on September 15, 2018. (Photo by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.)

Opera composer and conductor Matthew Aucoin, 28, was recognized for "expanding the potential of vocal and orchestral music to convey emotional, dramatic, and literary meaning." He is anartist-in-residence at the Los Angeles Opera.

Hetold NPRhe's planning on giving "a substantial chunk of this money away," referring to the $625,000 grant that comes with the fellowship.

"For as long as anybody is starving in the world, we starving artists should be relatively far down the totem pole of who gets help," he said. "So I would feel seriously guilty keeping all of this money for myself."

Neuroscientist Doris Tsao works in her office and lab at California Institute of Technology. (Photo by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.)

Caltech neuroscientist Tsao, 42, caught the foundation's eye with her research on facial recognition.

"By providing a systematic model for how the brain accomplishes a complex task essential for stable social interactions, Tsao's experiments hold the potential to illuminate a range of other neural computation and sensory-processing functions," the MacArthur Foundation wrote about her work.

She said she was in an airport in Virginia when she got an unexpected call from the MacArthur Foundation.

"My lab is taking some completely new directions right now--venturing into new parts of the brain and a new species," Tsao said in a Caltech press release. "This award says to us, 'Go ahead, take whatever risks necessary.'"

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