Imagining the artist's life

by Alicia Anstead

Harvard reunions are often marked by a celebratory spirit. Those were the days! Great to see you! How's life been? A smaller, more intimate and casual reunion that took place earlier this week celebrated not only the "good old days" but the professional potential of a future generation of Harvard students who gathered Jan. 22 to hear a distinguished lineup of Harvard alums perform Beethoven's Piano Trio, popularly known as Before I Work, I Must Eat, and to speak about careers as artists.

Violinist Lynn Chang '75, pianist Richard Kogan '77 (MD '81) and cellist Yo-Yo Ma '76 met as undergrads and have stayed in touch over the years -- so much so that when Chang's daughter was married recently, the three met up at the wedding. When Chang told the story to Jack Megan, Office for the Arts director (and a musician and composer in his own right), the seed was planted for yet another reunion, this time in the very hall in which the three men had first performed in 1974: Kirkland House Junior Common Room.

At the heart of the OFA mission is supporting students in artistic pursuits and also encouraging them to think broadly about a life in the arts through the Learning From Performers program that brings working artists to campus. Chang, Kogan and Ma talked "about the path they've been on, divergent paths they didn't imagine when it all began but they knew they had a deep calling in the arts," said Megan. "For most artists, you become many things. There are so many wonderful ways to live a life in the arts, and it's bounded only by imagination."

The imaginative life of the artist was writ large as approximately 100 students gathered to listen to the short performance and a longer, wide-ranging discussion among the three musicians, all of whom have forged lives based on their art. Chang, a top prize winner at the International Paganini Competition, is director of the Hemenway Strings at The Boston Conservatory and a member of the Boston Chamber Music Society. Kogan is a distinguished concert pianist and psychiatrist whose lectures and recitals explore the role of music in healing and the psychological factors that influence the creative output of composers. And Ma is a world-known cellist, as well as artistic director of the Harvard-based Silk Road Project and a member of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

Each man spoke about the influence of family -- especially their mothers -- and about the balance (or lack thereof) between artistic discipline and daily life. They joked about their own artistic identities: Chang, first born in his family, was always the ring leader, Ma called himself "dweebish" in his college years, and Kogan said, as a youth, he might have preferred to be a point guard rather than a pianist practicing scales on the weekend.

What they collected from each other 40 years ago, however, was formative to them as artists and men.

"One of the things I learned was how to create a democratic way of working with three people," said Ma. "Everything I've done since college has a resonance with what I experienced in the four years I was here, and working with Lynn and Ricky was a

seminal moment."

Chang encouraged students to pay attention to the conversations and connections they make not only in the classroom but in the dining hall, where ideas have free play and edgy projects -- ones that create art and careers -- often take flight.

"Creativity, communication and personal expression" are the bedrock of edgy ideas, said Kogan. The best decision makers, added Ma, are the ones who can toggle between critical thinking and empathetic thinking.

"All of you have great ideas, all of you have fabulous thoughts," said Ma. "The question is: What prevents thoughts or concepts from becoming real?"

The three men, as if continuing the fluidity of their music (which they did a second time at the end of the 90-minute event), agreed: A life in the arts requires new ways of thinking about the value an artist brings to a variety of roles in society and the work force, and about finding one's place -- not only on the stage but in an imaginative, passionate and necessary profession.

[Caption: Yo-Yo Ma, Lynn Chang and Richard Kogan discuss their divergent lives as artists. PHOTO: JACOB BELCHER/OFA]

[Caption: Students asked the musicians about making their way as artists in society. PHOTO: JACOB BELCHER/OFA]