TCS at Rikers Island: April 2

Words can't describe how powerful it was.

"Three-quarters of the roughly 9,400 people held in New York City’s jails have not been convicted of anything. Most are housed on Rikers. The place has become a warehouse for people too poor to post bail or suffering from addiction or mental-health problems," The Economist says. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to close Rikers Island in a decade, if possible. Meanwhile, the island's ten facilities are aging, and incidents of violence and mistreatment of inmates, some stuck waiting months to go to court, make for troubling reading.

That was the backdrop for a day last summer when members of our orchestra, among the extras for Amazon's "Mozart in the Jungle" TV series, participated in filming episode seven, "Not Yet Titled," of the third season at Rikers, with inmates in attendance. The musicians didn't know at the time, but the show's producers interviewed audience members afterwards who were visibly affected by the experience.

Several of our members wanted to go back and play music more directly for the Rikers inmates. One was clarinetist Angela Shankar, who features in the TV episode. It was an endeavor seven months in the making with a great deal of effort in coordination between the Department of Corrections and TCS (especially by Angela, Emily Wong and E.J. Lee), but it is finally happening. The Chelsea Symphony is taking a full orchestra to Rikers Island on May 7.

A smaller group of volunteers paved the way on April 2, playing for two audiences, one of women and one of men. Angela, E.J., Juliana Pereira, Michael Vannoni and I performed clarinet quintets and string quartets, with valuable on-site support from Mark Seto. That was rewarding in itself, but speaking with the inmates – ranging from incarcerated women who, like Angela, are expecting babies to wistful one-time musicians and a deep-voiced gentleman who mischievously introduced himself as James Earl Jones – was doubly so. Some of our listeners were brought to tears; we were moved by the experience too.

E.J. said it this way: "They were thanking us for the music but I feel the need to thank them back. I have never felt so enriched after a performance... Being in one room, all of us enjoying music together, laughing, conversing was a beautiful form of art in itself." Angela added that "words can't quite describe how powerful it was." That seems about right, and those of us going back in a few weeks can't wait (sadly I'm not among them this time).

A final note: The facilities we visited and the interactions we saw between officers and inmates didn't reflect the frequently terrifying media coverage. The people we met were trying to get by, though of course they didn't want to be there. We hope The Chelsea Symphony can make a difference for them, if only for an hour or two.