Peter Gomes wasn’t stingy with his superlatives when he introduced the trio of musicians about to perform at the Memorial Church on the evening of Oct. 30.
“The kind of joy we are prepared to give you is the kind we specialize in in this place — it is called the divine.”
The performance lived up to Gomes’ introduction, even though the trio had not played together since they were Harvard undergraduates. Richard Kogan ’77, Lynn Chang ’75, and Yo-Yo Ma ’76 used to bill themselves as The Harvard Trio, playing numerous recitals during their student days. When the Rev. Professor Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, asked if they would return for a benefit concert to commemorate the church’s 75th anniversary, their response was “an absolute, unhesitating yes.”
None of the three has let his talent rust. Kogan has become a psychiatrist who has done groundbreaking work on the connection between music and healing, but he has also continued to perform as a pianist. The winner of several important awards, he has been praised by The New York Times for his “eloquent, compelling, and exquisite playing.”
Violinist Chang has been a top prize-winner in the International Paganini Competition in Genoa, Italy, and has enjoyed an active career as a soloist and chamber musician. He teaches at the Boston Conservatory where he directs the Hemenway Strings.
Ma, who had already made his mark as a child prodigy on the cello by the time he entered Harvard, has continued to perform and record. He now has 75 albums and numerous awards to his credit, including 16 Grammys. The founder of the Silk Road Project to promote the exploration of cultural, artistic, and intellectual traditions along the ancient trade routes that united East and West, Ma is known as an indefatigable collaborator, performing with such diverse musical partners as Bobby McFerrin, Ennio Morricone, Stephane Grappelli, and Condoleezza Rice.
The concert was indeed a homecoming for the three musicians. “Nothing has changed much since we were here in the ’70s,” Ma said. “We’re still playing music and looking forward to the bishop’s punch afterward.”
Their first piece, Beethoven’s Trio in B-Flat Major, Opus 11, with its trading of themes from one instrument to another, was very definitely a musical conversation, as if three old friends were catching one another up on their lives and musing over old memories and concerns.
Kogan told the story behind the next piece, Leonard Bernstein’s “Three Meditations from Mass.” The piece owes its existence to two Harvard alumni who were at the College at the same time — Bernstein and John F. Kennedy. After Kennedy’s death, his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, asked Bernstein to write a piece of music for the 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center for the Arts. Bernstein’s response was his unconventional “Mass.” After hearing the composition, Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich asked Bernstein to adapt several interludes from the piece for cello.
Kogan capped the story with a detail about his colleague and former roommate Ma. He said he remembered seeing a fundraising gala for the Kennedy Center (then known as the National Cultural Center) on TV in 1962. “In spite of the two very dynamic presences of John Kennedy and Leonard Bernstein, I remember that all attention was riveted on a little 7-year-old Chinese American cellist. Anybody want to venture a guess about who that was?”
The next piece, “Meditation for String Quartet” was written by Gomes, whom Ma described as “the only living composer whose work we will play tonight.” Gomes explained that it has been his habit to “work out my frustrations by composing a hymn or two,” but that he never thought one of his pieces “would be performed by such a distinguished group as this.”
This particular hymn was begun on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and finished after Gomes learned of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. For the evening’s performance, a world premiere of the short, meditative composition, Chang’s son Christopher joined his father on viola, and Kogan’s daughter Rachel played second cello.
Chang introduced the final piece, the passionate Trio in B Major, Opus 8, by Johannes Brahms. He said the last time he had performed the composition had been at a private gathering organized by John Henry, principal owner of the Red Sox.
“I thought the concert went pretty well, but the Sox were not so lucky. They had been in second place, but then they lost all five games in a series with the Yankees and were eliminated from the playoffs. I hope that now, after they’ve won their second World Series in four years, this performance will make only good things happen for them.”