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Back on skid row with Nathaniel Ayers: A chorus of hallelujahs for 'Messiah'

Nathaniel Ayers, who lives at a board and care home in Whittier, was summoned to the house phone Friday morning to take my call.

"Mr. Ayers," I said, "how are you today, and would you like to attend a concert this afternoon?"

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I already knew the answer. Mr. Ayers — he calls me Mr. Lopez, so I return the favor — lives for music.

"I would be delighted to do that," he said, asking me the specifics of the performance.

"Handel's 'Messiah' is coming to the Midnight Mission," I told him.

Ayers was even more excited when I told him that violinist Vijay Gupta of the Los Angeles Philharmonic would be playing, and that a good friend of ours, Adam Crane, had flown in for the performance.

"I better wear something nice," said Mr. Ayers.

Nathaniel Ayers plays the violin in downtown Los Angeles in 2008. Friday, he was back on skid row to attend a concert.
Nathaniel Ayers plays the violin in downtown Los Angeles in 2008. Friday, he was back on skid row to attend a concert. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Crane is now an administrator for the St. Louis Symphony, but when I began writing about Ayers in 2005, he was in communications at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Crane opened the doors of Disney Hall to Mr. Ayers back then, inviting the former Juilliard student to concerts and introducing him to musicians Peter Snyder, Ben Hong and Gupta, among others.

About five years ago, inspired in part by Ayers' love of music and his countless serenades on downtown streets while he was homeless, Gupta and Crane started what became Street Symphony.

The idea behind the nonprofit was to take music into shelters, mental health centers and jails, delivering the gift of something beautiful to suffering souls. The concert count is now approaching 200.

"I played 'Messiah' in college," Mr. Ayers told me on the drive from Whittier to skid row. "It's absolutely beautiful."

He was wearing brown corduroys and a tan sport coat, and he was in good spirits, even though it's never entirely clear to either of us what might be next in store for Mr. Ayers.

Each day brings new challenges, resistance to treatment and the threat of consequences that could mean less freedom rather than more.

The one constant comfort for Mr. Ayers is music. It's with him by day; it's with him in sleep.

We parked on Maple Street and walked past the apartment where he lived a few years ago.

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This is the heart of skid row. If anything, it's worse than it was when I met Mr. Ayers 10 years ago, with sick and addicted people everywhere you look.

We couldn't use the sidewalk on 6th Street because tents filled an entire block of pavement, a human catastrophe met with repeated official promises of redress that never materializes.

The Midnight Mission offers a recovery program and serves about 1 million meals annually to the sick and the poor, and Mr. Ayers and I stepped past the masses huddled in the courtyard, waiting on a chance to spend the night indoors.

Then we were in a gymnasium that had been converted into a concert hall filled with warmth and light to counter the scene outside.

Old friends from skid row greeted Mr. Ayers, and he smiled through reunions with Crane and Gupta. Philharmonic pianist Joanne Pearce Martin hugged him, and Mitch Newman, a Philharmonic violinist who was among the first members of Street Symphony, was there as well.

Mr. Ayers never says it, but it means the world to him that all those people treat him as a fellow musician, as someone whose career might have paralleled their own if not for the schizophrenia that darkened his dreams after so many years of hard work.

He sat in the front row for a stirring concert and paged through the score as he absorbed the music, a spiritual expression of life, death and ascension.

The Street Symphony Chamber Singers performed, as did the City of Angels Community Choir and Urban Voices, a skid row choir.

The singers included Don Garza, a Gulf War vet who told me the music of 'Messiah' lifted him out of despair at a low point in his life, and Christopher Mack, an outreach worker I once shadowed as he shepherded sick residents in for medical treatment.

A hundred or so members of the audience were homeless, and the music was a hit with them, with Mr. Ayers, and just about everyone else.

I'm no music critic, but Alex Ross of the New Yorker is. He was there and posted this on Facebook:

"Hard to find the words to describe the Street Symphony's performance of Handel's 'Messiah' at the Midnight Mission on skid row. 'Wonderful' doesn't seem quite right, since there was darkness all around, but it was."

Georgia Berkovich, communications director at the Midnight Mission and a Street Symphony board member, says people sometimes ask her how an hour and a half of music is going to help anyone.

"My feeling is that if we have moments of sweetness in the midst of the trauma and horror on the streets," she said, and bring people of different worlds into one room, "those moments can be strung together and start to bring hope."

When the last mighty roar of "Hallelujah Chorus" was heard, Gupta paid tribute to a member of the audience — someone to whom he had once given violin lessons.

"I learned so much more from Nathaniel than I could have ever hoped to teach him," Gupta told the assembly. "Nathaniel introduced me to this place. He introduced me to the resilient, creative, beautiful stories that exist in this place, and I'm talking about skid row."

On the way back home, we listened to the music of the gods on the radio. Mr. Ayers kept remarking on how inspiring it was and how beautiful the concert had been.

I told him it was nice to see Gupta single him out as the inspiration for a symphony without end.

"That was very kind of him," said Mr. Ayers.

Twitter: @LATstevelopez

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