Classical quintet, female inmates in mutual awe at L.A. County Jail

L.A. Philharmonic violinist Vijay Gupta and three colleagues perform for 85 women behind bars

The first ovation did not take long. The moment the musicians entered the room Friday morning, the audience erupted.

The spectators were seated in five long rows, roughly 85 women altogether, all of them wearing the same outfit. Dark blue pants, white sneakers and light blue tops with black stenciling on the back.

"L.A. County Jail."

Because they can't attend a concert at Disney Hall, L.A. Philharmonic violinist Vijay Gupta told the inmates, it was his privilege to bring the music to them. His quartet began with the first movement of Haydn's "Sunrise," and the reaction was immediate.

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For the Record:

Nov. 22, 2014, 3:40 p.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed the title of the Haydn piece as "Sunset."

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A woman in the first row closed her eyes and smiled. In the second row, two women wept. And in the third row, a woman sat upright on the edge of her seat, hands clasped under her chin, a look of wonderment on her face.

The light was harsh, and through the windows of the multipurpose area on the second floor of Twin Towers, rows of small cells could be seen. So it wasn't the most intimate of venues, nor the cheeriest, but that didn't matter.

When the first piece ended, there were howls of approval. Some of the women stood and applauded, and the musicians seemed just as awed as their fans.

"Thank you for reminding us why we make music in the first place," Gupta told the audience.

And then it was on to the second movement of Mozart's Duo in B flat, and as I listened, less than a week before Thanksgiving, I noted a message scrawled on a blackboard:

"When there is compassion, giving is not a burden but a joy."

Gupta began performing at homeless shelters and mental health agencies several years ago after meeting my friend Nathaniel Ayers. Gupta was inspired by the Juilliard-trained musician, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia decades ago and ended up homeless on skid row, where he played music day and night to escape his troubles.

Gupta and Adam Crane, another mutual friend, formed a nonprofit called Street Symphony and began recruiting local musicians for their cause. And then Gupta met L.A. County Superior Court Judge Rand Rubin, who gladly arranged for Gupta and his cohorts to go to jail.

Rubin was a backer of the county's merit-based incarceration program, in which motivated inmates study while in jail to prepare for life after release. Recidivism among participants is 27% lower than for the general population, Rubin said, and he thought music would be a soothing and enriching reward for the enrollees.

On Friday, Rubin told the inmates that he and other judges would like for them to move past the revolving door of incarceration. The jail concert they were about to hear, he told them before introducing the musicians, would be the 57th in three years.

"We have had classical, gypsy music, jazz, rhythm-only percussion, and they love all music, absolutely," Rubin told me. "All you have to do is introduce it and there's almost an immediate bond between those in custody and the musicians."

Gupta told me he thinks the enthusiastic reactions are not about the genre of music.

"It's the fact that we're there — that we show up for them.... It's about the offering."

When he first visited Ayers at a skid row mental health agency, Gupta said, it occurred to him that "this place needs music as much as the concert hall needs it."

He reached out to Marv Southard, director of the county's mental health department, and the concerts began falling into place all over town — a total of 160 and counting, including the 57 jail concerts.

"The more I saw, the more I felt I didn't have a choice not to play the concerts," said Gupta, who has personally performed at about 70 of the sessions. "I have people at the Midnight Mission who come up and give me a hug because I know their names and their stories....

"At the beginning, I thought we were changing the paradigm of access for people who can't afford to go to a concert, so we go to them. And then the question became, 'Do we have access to these people?'

"Because you know, we've made a choice not to look at homelessness and incarceration.... But it's a privilege to play for these people because their reactions are human. It may be the best thing that happened in someone's month, and it's because you acknowledged them as a person."

There were more cheers as Gupta and his mates (Zach Dellinger on viola, Jason Uyeyama on violin and Joy Song on cello), were joined by composer and singer Reena Esmail. When Esmail sang, the inmates spontaneously joined the orchestra, clapping along, and they shot up out of their seats to cheer her encore.

"This was my first symphony," one inmate told the musicians when it was over, and she hoped it wouldn't be her last.

"Music digs deep into my soul," inmate Mia Allen told me, adding that she's scheduled to be released in time for Thanksgiving. "Melody calls me, it's soothing, and it lets me know I'm safe emotionally and spiritually, and I can go where I want to go."

She and inmates Stephanie Oceja and Jessica Diaz told me stories typical of inmates — they'd been born into lousy circumstances, their parents absent or addicted or incarcerated, and they'd followed that pattern of bad choices to their great regret.

Oceja told me she briefly played clarinet in sixth grade, and after hearing the concert, she wanted to take it back up and maybe one day be a part of a group like Street Symphony.

Diaz had this to say about the music:

"You can feel different emotions in it. It inspires you and makes you feel like you're in another world. I felt like I wasn't in jail."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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