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Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart



                        by Julia Polinsky


Where does passion live, in the head, the heart, or the art? In Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart, the Ensemble for the Romantic Century takes a beautiful look at Tchaikovsky’s music and his deepest relationships, his passion and, yes, his loneliness.


The Ensemble for the Romantic Century creates staged reading/concerts of chamber music, melding multiple art forms into drama. Is Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart a play? Not necessarily, but it’s deeply dramatic. Ensemble for the Romantic Century’s work makes for some interesting hybrids, demanding much from actors, and even more from musicians.


In Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart, Joey Slotnick as Tchaikovsky, and Shorey Walker as Madame Nadezhda von Meck, have the difficult task of bringing to life the letters, and relationship, of two people who never met in person, but knew each other very well, and very intimately.




In a world in which email and texts have taken the place of correspondence, it’s hard to understand the power of letters. Yet the Romantics celebrated by this ensemble -- the artists, the composers, the novelists -- wrote copiously, revealingly, about their desires and hopes, their love and thoughts. The Ensemble for the Romantic Century uses such correspondence as the basis for examining the lives of the artists it features. Sometimes, projections flesh out the mental imagery evoked by those letters, and the music that brings them to life, but in Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart, the actors basically have to sit through a magnificently performed chamber music concert and make it look alive, without ever interacting directly with each other.


Joey Slotnick and Adrian Kramer


Not so easy. So, author and artistic director Eve Wolf and director Donald T. Sanders include tenor Adrian Kramer, who sings beautifully as he embodies the object of Tchaikovsky’s desires, and dancer Daniel Mantei who seems to be the Spirit of Tchaikovsky’s Music.


Daniel Mantei


The black box theater, with front row seats practically on the performance floor, makes for terrific intimacy at the same time the “fourth wall” must be preserved. Vanessa James’s set, crowded with two desks on opposite sides, a grand piano, and seats for the violinist and cellist, barely leaves space for the splendid dancer to move, never mind dance so beautifully. Beverly Emmons creates moody and, yes, romantic lighting design.


The whole thing is an exercise in recognizing and valuing intimacy and distance. Why is irrelevant. That separateness, loneliness, and physical distance can coexist with intellectual and spiritual unity between two people who never meet: this is the true kernel of the show.


Everything else is set dressing, sometimes literally. To trivialize Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart by reducing it to a series of incidents would be past bearing, but the gist is: Tchaikovsky’s patron, Madame von Meck, supported him for years, and then suddenly stopped answering his letters; he died without hearing from her again. Basically, that’s the entire plot. Tchaikovsky never knew why she withdrew from their intimacy, and although people speculate that it had to do with revelation of his homosexuality and possible scandal because of it, the truth remains unknown, as does the truth of his death: horrible mistake, or suicide?


Stephanie Zyzak


As magnificent as are the chamber works chosen, particularly the Piano Trio in a Minor, op. 50, they’re just barely worthy of the staggeringly good performance by the musicians, violinist Stephanie Zyzak, pianist Ji, and cellist Ari Evan. This trio takes these works and wring them dry of every last minim of emotion.


Oh, and yes, also the songs, the difficult, beautiful songs!  So feelingly sung, and so appropriately chosen, and so much the perfect last word. Over Tchaikovsky’s dead body, the tenor sings, drenched in longing: “Moj genij, moj angel, moj drug (my protector, my angel, my friend)” FYI, song texts and translations are provided in the program; you don’t have to bone up on your Russian to get the gist.


Did Tchaikovsky and von Meck love each other? An interesting question, and one Eve Wolf answers straight out, blatantly, with the score she chose for this theatrical concert. Tchakkovsky’s music is so thick with currents of passion, the truth this show tells is implicitly: yes, we love. Passionately. Never in the flesh, but deeply in the head, in the heart, and in the art.


Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart
Through June 17 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Manhattan;


Running time: 2 hours, one intermission

Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St

Tues-Fri 8pm

Saturday 2:30 and 8:30pm

Sunday 2:30pm

Tickets:  $50-110