WBUR

Bringing Classical Music To Those Who Rarely Hear It: The Homeless

Musicians (left to right) Julie Leven, Rebecca Strauss and Julia McKenzie of Shelter Music Boston perform at the Pine Street Inn. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

Musicians (left to right) Julie Leven, Rebecca Strauss and Julia McKenzie of Shelter Music Boston perform at the Pine Street Inn. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

BOSTON — Picture this: three professional musicians, two with violins tucked beneath their chins and the third with a viola, performing the Christmas Concerto, a classical piece by the Italian composer Arcangelo Corelli, for an enthusiastic audience.

You might assume this scene is taking place in a concert hall or, considering the time of year, a fancy holiday function. But this performance is happening at the Pine Street Inn, a Boston homeless shelter.

The musicians are from Shelter Music Boston, which formed in 2010 to bring live classical music to the homeless. Since then, the nonprofit group has performed 130 concerts at several Boston shelters, including the Pine Street Inn in the South End, Hastings House at Crittenton Women’s Union in Brighton, Dimock Center in Roxbury and Shattuck Shelter in Jamaica Plain. The performers hope that — besides bringing professional-level music to a population that rarely gets to hear it — their concerts will have a therapeutic effect.

December’s early-evening concert at Pine Street takes place when much of the outside world is in full holiday shopping frenzy but the facility’s residents are settling in for another night of shelter life — stashing their belongings in lockers, jockeying for time in one of the showers. A big open space with linoleum floors, vinyl chairs and a single television set is the closest thing they have to a living room.

Shelter Music Boston's program during its performance at the Pine Street Inn (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

Shelter Music Boston’s program during its performance at the Pine Street Inn (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR).

The monthly concerts are a break from the usual routine, and when tonight’s performance is announced on the shelter’s overhead PA system, there’s an audible ripple of delight in the room. Shelter residents begin streaming into the common area, some of them making a point to grab front-row seats. Others wave and greet violinist Julie Leven, who founded Shelter Music Boston, as she sets up her music stand and an erasable whiteboard listing the evening’s musical program.

Leven also performs with the Handel and Haydn Society and Boston Baroque but, unlike those more traditional orchestras, she’s designed Shelter Music Boston to be an interactive event.

“We listen to what they have to say about the music,” Leven says. “We talk to each other about composers. In fact, at the Shattuck shelter one night, when we were packing up, two men were having a friendly argument about who was better — Beethoven or Dvorak!”

When Leven first approached Pine Street and proposed putting on classical music performances there, the shelter’s volunteer coordinator, Elizabeth Condron, wondered how to graciously decline.

“When she called, I was like, really? There’s no way,” recalls Condron, who admits now that she used to think of classical music as being too elite for a homeless audience. “I just felt like they’d either boo her out of there or be like, ‘Who is this lady? This is for, like, Symphony Hall. She’s really missed the fact this is Pine Street Inn.’ I just didn’t think she’d get it. But I was definitely proven wrong.”

‘It Took Me Away’

Many of the women seem entranced as the musicians play. Some close their eyes and sway their heads. Others simply smile while watching intently. One women sits straight up in her seat, holds her hands high, and simulates conducting. When each piece ends, the room erupts in cheers and applause. And, since it’s the Christmas season, the concert ends with the shelter residents singing along to holiday classics.

One Pine Street Inn resident, Jen, who doesn’t want to give her last name, describes the concert as transporting, even if temporarily.

“It’s beautiful music. It just — it took me away, you know?” she says. “Away from my problems. Music does that. And it’s a shame that once it’s over everything’s back to normal again.”

Other shelter residents reminiscence about instruments they used to play as children. Leven says some audience members tell her they’ve arrived at the concerts with headaches and aching joints and left feeling physically better.

“Part of what we’re doing is reinventing what classical music is capable of,” she says. “Put it in a different setting and it has a different impact from when folks go to Symphony Hall.”

As the musicians pack up, the shelter residents flock around them to express their gratitude — and their eagerness for next month’s performance.

“You are wonderful people,” one elderly woman says. “Thank you so much!”

“You’re so welcome,” replies Shelter Music Boston violist Rebecca Strauss, who is also the music director of Riverview Chamber Players and Melodic Vision. “It’s our pleasure.”

“Merriest of Christmas, as always,” the woman adds. “Don’t go away!”

“We won’t,” Strauss says. “We keep on coming back.”

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