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A Russian Lonely Hearts Club in Tchaikovsky: None but the Lonely Heart

The story of a composer and his mysterious patron is the subject of the latest theatrical concert from Ensemble for the Romantic Century.

Joey Slotnick plays Tchaikovsky in Eve Wolf's Tchaikovsky: None but the Lonely Heart, directed by Donald T. Sanders, for Ensemble for the Romantic Century at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
(© Shirin Tinati)

Is it possible for two people to forge a deep and abiding love without ever meeting? What if those two people are a gay man and a straight woman? It not only seems possible, but utterly beautiful in Eve Wolf's Tchaikovsky: None but the Lonely Heart, which is now closing out the season for Ensemble for the Romantic Century at Pershing Square Signature Center. Chamber music has never been this sexy.

No company in New York creates work quite like ERC, synthesizing dramatic interpretations of the real letters of artists with world-class chamber concerts of romantic compositions. In this case, it's an all-Tchaikovsky program to illuminate the Russian composer's 14-year correspondence with the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck, his most significant patron. Von Meck provided Tchaikovsky with an annual stipend of 6,000 rubles, allowing him to focus full-time on composing. Her only stipulation was that they never meet.

Despite this forced separation, von Meck (Shorey Walker) confesses her love for Tchaikovsky (Joey Slotnick), and her resentment of his wife. The composer also doesn't seem to enjoy his wife very much, preferring the company of young men, something he discusses with a mixture of excitement and shame in his letters to his brother. Still, his most passionate connection is with his patron, who becomes a valued friend, confidant, and funding source.

Joey Slotnick, Ji (piano), Stephanie Zyzak (violin), Shorey Walker, and Ari Evan (cello) star in Tchaikovsky: None but the Lonely Heart.
(© Shirin Tinati)

Wolf has done a better job of making these letters dramatic than she did in Van Gogh's Ear. Of course, unlike Van Gogh, Tchaikovsky actually saved the letters other people sent him. It also helps to have two actors like Slotnick and Walker, who endow their body language with dynamic meaning during the extended musical passages. Walker, in particular, brings a wide-eyed eccentricity to von Meck that seems authentic for a rich and cloistered Russian widow. Director Donald T. Sanders's staging simultaneously conveys their separation and intimacy, as they stare at each other from opposite ends of the stage with the music between them.

As in previous ERC shows, the musicians are the real knockout stars: Pianist Ji (a one-named wonder with as much charisma as Björk or Cher) glides across the keys on some of Tchaikovsky's most difficult piano music. That includes the Piano Trio in A Minor, the entire 47 minutes of which is performed in sections over the course of the play. Violinist Stephanie Zyzak enters on a furious Scherzo, making it all look deceptively easy. Cellist Ari Evan is perhaps the most expressive of the three, convincing us that breath placement is just as crucial for strings as it is for brass and woodwinds. Their musicianship is precise, but never mechanical, as they seem to experience the emotions behind music that passes through ecstatic joy and darkest despair. It's a full body experience for all three as they sweat, sigh, and exchange flirtatious glances. This isn't just a trio, but a ménage à trois.

Daniel Mantei is the dancer and choreographer for Tchaikovsky: None but the Lonely Heart.
(© Shirin Tinati)

Tenor Adrian Kramer makes a compelling fourth, singing some of Tchaikovsky's most hauntingly beautiful songs, including the title number. Playing the role of one of Tchaikovky's lovers, he elegantly straddles the line between actor and musician. Clad in white tights (what would a show about Tchaikovsky be without them?), dancer and choreographer Daniel Mantei manages to find graceful movement on a somewhat cramped stage.

Vanessa James's set and costumes evoke a Russia full of heavy fabrics and rich upholstery. Candelabras (lighting by Beverly Emmons) glow behind darkly sheer curtains. For the second act, James and Emmons artfully suggest a change in climate as the action moves from the Russian winter to summer on von Meck's country estate. The clothing becomes lighter and so does the mood, but we know from the intense emotional range of the music that such levity can never last.

Joey Slotnick plays Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Shorey Walker plays Nadezhda von Meck in Tchaikovsky: None but the Lonely Heart.
(© Shirin Tinati)

Even after seeing Slotnick's convincing devastation following Tchaikovsky's estrangement from von Meck (who eventually stopped returning his letters), some viewers may wonder if he really just misses the money most of all. Yet even if this was just a purely transactional relationship (and I don't believe it was), 6,000 rubles a year is a steal for some of the most beautiful music ever created. And von Meck's patronage was by no means self-serving: Thanks to her support, we all get to enjoy Tchaikovsky's work today. And it is especially enjoyable in this delightfully novel, completely unforgettable theatrical concert.