LENOX -- Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, exchanged 1,200 letters during their 14-year relationship toward the end of the 19th century. The imperious widow of a Russian railroad magnate, von Meck's financial support helped the composer create some of his most important and enduring music, and their letters reveal a profound mutual admiration and unquestioning love. But they never met.
Tonight, Shakespeare & Company and the Ensemble for the Romantic Century will delve into this unconventional epistolary relationship with the Berkshire premiere of "None but the Lonely Heart: The Strange Story of Tchaikovsky and Madame von Meck" by Eve Wolf, performed by Shakespeare & Company veterans Jonathan Epstein and Ariel Bock, with Wolf on piano and violinist Susie Park, cellist Adrian Daurov, and tenor Edwin Vega. American Ballet Theater dancer Daniel Mantei will represent Tchaikovsky's balletic works with a Nutcracker solo.
Wolf created the dramatic concert from their letters. "[von Meck and Tchaikovsky] are both in certain ways in love with each other," Wolf explained. "Von Meck falls in love with his music, but also with the man. At times Tchaikovsky is conflicted, because he is taking money from her, but he also loves her deeply... on his deathbed he was calling out her name."
For 12 seasons, Wolf -- a former Tanglewood Music Center fellow and founding artistic director of Ensemble for the Romantic Century -- and her creative team, led by co-artistic director Max Barros, musicologist James Melo, and theater director Donald Sanders, have presented more than 40 productions in New York, California, Italy and Brazil, bringing to life artistic luminaries from Jules Verne to van Gogh through literature, letters and music of their times.
Epstein and Bock have interpreted many of these roles, including Freud, Tolstoy and Schubert, Fanny Mendelsohn, and Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. They will reprise Tchaikovsky and von Meck in Lenox.
"I've always admired their acting very much," Wolf said. "[Epstein] has a profound complexity and is deeply intelligent. [Bock] has a lot of emotion and sweetness. Because they're married, there's a chemistry between them."
"When we started, it was just chamber music and readings in this wonderful old town house," Bock recalled. "It reminded me of performing at the Mount, with a huge drawing room upstairs."
Over the years, productions have become increasingly theatrical, and this is the first extended run of 10 performances, she said.
"There's a kind of strange alchemy like a magic that happens with these different kinds of artists, musicians and actors," she explained. "When you bring them together, the way they layer the experience on each other, they make something greater than the parts."
Tchaikovsky and von Meck made a vow never to meet. But they would attend the same performances and vacation in Florence in separate villas.
"She wrote, ‘I caught a glimpse of you at the opera last night. It was reassuring to know that you really exist,' " Bock said. "I have a feeling she thought that in meeting him their relationship would become so prosaic that it would diminish her experience of the music."
Tchaikovsky's monumental Piano Trio in A minor is the musical backbone of "Lonely Heart," which also includes Nutcracker Suite excerpts, a violin scherzo, a cello nocturne and songs.
The music is interwoven with the dramatic script as an equal partner, Wolf said.
"I'm interested in the connection between music and literature and drama," she said. "Music isn't in a vacuum, it's in a cultural context."
"The A minor trio is really distilled Tchaikovsky," Epstein observed. "It's the most symphonic trio that I know."
Last year, he listened to it before every performance of "Red" at TheatreWorks Hartford.
"It puts you in the right voice," he explained.
Epstein believes Tchaikovsky was "deeply conflicted" about his homosexuality and ashamed of how short of money he was.
"Every time [von Meck] wrote, she put money in the envelope," he said.
"Like my grandmother," Bock recalled, laughing.
"I don't think anybody of her class could have understood exactly what being poor meant if you are an artist," Epstein said, "having to make a decision between ink to write with and heat."
The play is a "love script to patrons," Wolf said; she has dedicated it to Susan Winokur, her own steadfast supporter.
If von Meck had not supported Tchaikovsky and allowed him to dedicate himself to his composing, "we might not have anywhere near the output," Wolf insisted.
"Von Meck gave us the gift of Tchaikovsky," she said.
If you go ...
What: 'None but the Lonely Heart: the Strange Story of Tchaikovsky and Madame von Meck' by Eve Wolf
Where: Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox.
When: Begins tonight at 8:30 Performances through Aug. 3
Admission: $50, Friday show and reception $75
Information: (413) 637-3353, www.shakespeare.org