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None But the Lonely Heart: The Strange Story of Tchaikovsky and Madame von Meck

"Having married at 16 and being the mother of 11 children, you may think I'm a great admirer of marriage but I'm an irreconcilable enemy of marriage. I find it a pity one can cannot cultivate children artificially like fish. Then people would not need to marry and it would be a great relief."— Madame Von Meck
Jonathan Epstein and Ariel Bock (Violinist Susie Park and pianist-script writer Eve Wolf in background)
Photo credit: Kevin Sprague
You go to Tanglewood for chamber music concerts, to Shakespeare & Company for plays. Right? Wrong. None But the Lonely Heart: The Strange Story of Tchaikovsky and Madame von Meck does have two of the company's best actors, Jonathan Epstein and Ariel Bock, play Tchaikovsky and his patroness a reclusive married woman and confidante for years but, at her insistence, never face to face. So you wouldn't be amiss to anticipate seeing this epistolary bio-drama about Tchaikovsky's conflicts about his homosexuality with his music to add background and atmosphere— most likely snippets of the composer's best work.

But forget about snippet-length music. if you're a music lover, and especially fond of Tchaikovsky's "Piano Trio in A Minor," rejoice. You're going to hear it all, plus several other of the Maestro's works, performed by live musicians, one of whom is the playwright. And that's not all. There are also several appearances by a tenor and dancer.

As it turns out, Epstein and Bock while the central characters in the story that's part of the 6-year old Ensemble For the Romantic Century founded by the multi-talented Ms. Wolf, their roles are secondary to the music. Thus instead of a play with some music, we have a story which, though fascinating, has the actors spending a lot of their stage time listening to the music.

You might think of this merger of concert and story as a chamber-ama. Whatever you call it, Ms. Wolf' has found a fine partner in Shakespeare & Company. Though neither Epstein or Bock (especially Epstein) is a wallflower actor, they don't seem to mind spending so much time sitting and listening. In fact, according to the program notes, they are members of the Ensemble and have worked with them on similar concert-dramas previously.

As you enter the Elaine Bernstein Theater, it's instantly clear that this is more than a play with music, but a concert with time out for a backstory about the composer and his strange relationship with von Meck. A grand piano and two music stands dominate the playing area, with tables and chairs at either side for the actors. This positioning of actors is not uncommon in other epistolary plays I've seen and it works very well here.

With a strong assist from set and costume designer Vanessa James and lighting designer Beverly Emmons, Director Donald T. Sanders has created a handsome and easily navigable space for all the performers. Velvet voiced tenor Edwin Vega appears from the elegant upstage drapes as Tchaikovsky's lover. Ballet dancer Daniel Mantei greatly enhances the Intermezzo from The Nutcracker.

The musicians are all superb and the intimacy of the venue is ideal for this type of music. I do have a few quibbles and precautions. Beautiful as the music is, it is allowed to dominate a bit too much. I feel Ms. Wolf and the director could have made room for a few more dramatic interchanges, like the amusing almost-meeting of Tchaikovsky and von Meck at the top of the second act. Also this is open seating so arrive early if you want to sit in the center section which has better visibility.

Finally, the title of the story comes from a Tchaikovsky piece performed in the first act — which may but probably had nothing to do with the beloved old movie starring Cary Grant and Ethel Barrymore.

None but the Lonely Heart: The Strange Story of Tchaikovsky and Madame von Meck
Written by Eve Wolf, based on letters, diaries and memoirs
Directed by Donald T. Sanders Cast: Jonathan Epstein (Tchaikovsky), Ariel Bock (Madame von Meck); Susie Park-violin, Adrian Daurov-cello, Eve Wolf-piano, Edwin Vega-tenor, Daniel Mantei-dancer; also Alec Donaldson-cover tenor and page-turner. July 18 to August 3
Running Time: Approx 2 hours with one intermission
A production of Ensemble for the Romantic Century at Shakespeare & Company's Elaine Bernstein Theater
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at July 19 press opening
Musical Program
Act One
Nocturne for cello and piano
  • Scherzo for violin and piano
  • Vcherashnaya noch'(Last Night)
  • Net =tol'ko rot, kto znal. . .(None But the Lonely Heart)
  • Intermezzo from the Nutcracker, arr. for piano sol (with dance)
  • Piano Trio in A Minor--Pezzo elegiaco
  • Act Two
    • Piano Trio in A minor-- Tema con Variazoni: Variazoni 1-10
    • Otchego? (Why?) with dance
    • Piano Trio in A minor-- Variazione finale e coda
    • Moj genij, moj angel, moj drug (My Angel, My Protector, My Friend
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