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‘Songs of Life’ Feature: The Uplifting Power of Chamber Music for Homelessness

The members of Shelter Music Boston's quartet smile on stage during their concert "Songs of Life."
The members of Shelter Music Boston's quartet smile on stage during their concert "Songs of Life." By Courtesy of Shelter Music Boston
By Dailan Xu, Contributing Writer

In the well-lit, sacred space of Boston’s St. Cecilia’s Parish, a string quartet from Shelter Music Boston first performed their newly composed chamber music pieces. The audience listened peacefully, letting the power of chamber music wash over their soul.

The 2023 Julie Leven Artistic Project “Songs of Life” was performed on Sept. 27. The annual project aimed to bring classical music to people who experience homelessness, and those facing financial and social hardships. Wednesday’s concert featured new musical pieces that were inspired by songs listeners shared at shelter music’s previous concert this year. In particular, these compositions evoked the human emotions of peace, sadness, hope, and joy.

The Artistic Project “Songs of Life” — founded by violinist Julie F. Leven in 2010 — has now been around for 13 years. Inspired by a group in New York who played for homeless shelters, Leven envisioned serving homeless individuals in the form of chamber music concerts.

Leven has brought her artistic project to fruition, proving that classical music belongs to everyone, including people living in the homeless shelters.

“Some people assume classical music is exclusive or that you have to know a lot about certain things. And we say ‘no you don’t have to know anything,’” Leven said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson. “Just listen and give it a try and tell us what you think.”

By playing professional music and engaging the audience in conversation, Leven and her team brought a bit of human warmth to the shelter.

In fact, Leven recalled the words that listeners at the shelter often express: “Wow, you made me feel like a whole person again.”

Amy Sims, a violinist who played in the shelter, was thrilled to have the opportunity to introduce chamber music to individuals who had never had the opportunity to listen to it live.

“It’s like maybe serving them some food they’ve never had before. They’re willing to taste it and try it and often enough like it enough to come back,” Sims said.

Adrian S. Anantawan, an alum of the Harvard Graduate School of Education as well as the Artistic Director and Ensemble Leader of Shelter Music Boston, wanted to bridge a gap in empathy through delivering concerts for the public.

“And the more that we can enjoy these pieces of music, the more that we can hopefully appreciate someone who might be different from us when we encounter them on the street for instance,” Anatawan said. “Or if we read the news something about homelessness, we can really think about the human emotion behind it.”

Rebecca Strauss, a classical violinist and violist as well as one of the original members of the Shelter Music Boston, touched on the uniqueness of chamber music.

“Chamber music is a form of communication without words. And it is very collaborative,” Strauss said. “And when you’re playing music, everything is happening instantly so you’re communicating with your colleagues in the moment.”

Shelter Music Boston empowered musicians to console, lift up, and transform lives through the beauty of classical chamber music, touching the souls of everyone present.

“I think just the beauty of music is amazing,” Strauss said. “But I also see the impact and the transformative power that music has on others — and on the musicians themselves.

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