Lives in Letters

Chamber Music PLUS's production of 'Confidentially, Chaikovski' also serves as a 'Waltons' reunion

The saying goes, "Behind every good man is a good woman."

In the case of composer Piotr Ilich Chaikovski, this was unarguably the case.

When Nadejda von Meck heard Chaikovski's work, she wrote in one of the 1,200 letters the two exchanged that it was "impossible to describe the impression your work made on me, for several days I was as one in a delirium from which I could not emerge." She became his patron and savior, as he proclaimed: "Without exaggeration I can say that you saved me, that I would surely have gone mad and perished had you not come forward with your friendship and sympathy."

Harry Clark, artistic director of Chamber Music PLUS, who writes scripts that weave together music and the spoken word for the organization's unusual approach to concerts, couldn't pass up the opportunity to pull some of these extraordinary letters together as the heart of Confidentially, Chaikovski, which will be performed this Sunday.

Nor could he pass up the opportunity to ask Emmy Award-winning actress Michael Learned back to Chamber Music PLUS to lend her talents to reading von Meck's letters. And while capitalizing on opportunities, how could Clark not extend an invitation to Emmy-winning Richard Thomas, with whom Learned had worked for several seasons on the 1970s television series, The Waltons, to lend his talents in voicing Chaikovski's contributions to this remarkable correspondence?

He couldn't, of course. So the duo of Learned and Thomas will reunite on the stage for the first time since their work on The Waltons.

Although this will be Thomas' first time with Chamber Music PLUS, Clark said he knew of Thomas' love of music, and he appreciated that the age difference between Learned and Thomas is similar to that of Chaikovski and von Meck. Cellist Clark and pianist Sandra Schuldmann will perform works by Chaikovski, of course, as well as by Wagner, Saint-Saens and Rachmaninoff, all composers Chaikovski knew.

This will be Learned's third appearance with Chamber Music PLUS. "Michael opened our season here in Tucson nine seasons ago in Sister Mozart," a work about Mozart's older sister, Clark said in an email. A few seasons later, she performed Love Letters, as a retiring head librarian of the music division of the Library of Congress reading letters from composers in the library's collection.

"Michael is a brilliant stage actor capable of wonderful emotion stretching from the comic to the very dark. . . Both Sandra (Clark's wife and artistic associate) and I clicked with her and it's been fun ever since."

The admiration is mutual. "Harry and Sandra are marvelous people, so it's always something I look forward to," Learned said in a telephone interview from her home in Los Angeles. "And Richard and I are very close friends. That's definitely part of the draw.

"I'm not schooled in classical music, but I love it because I grew up with it as a child. I loved ballet as a kid. I used to dance for hours to Swan Lake. My parents always had the concerts on, and the radio was always on to classical music. Then we lived in Austria and we were exposed to opera. I tune in to classical music in my car, but I couldn't tell you who the composer is."

It's a different story for theater. "I walk into a theater and I feel like I'm at home," said Learned, was a stage actress before she was tapped for the part of Olivia Walton. And although she has continued work in television and film, she loves the stage. After Tucson, Learned heads to Florida and North Carolina, where she will perform in Driving Miss Daisy, a show she does frequently these days.

"Usually the parts are most interesting in the theater, but television money is very nice."

Her time on The Waltons has proved to be special.

"In retrospect I had a wonderful time, although while I was doing it I didn't know it. I look back on it now, and first of all, it saved my ass financially because I had no money and I was going through a divorce and had three kids to support, so it was a gift to me in that respect.

"It did become a joke after a while. I'd say, 'I can't stand another scene where all I do is say, 'Do you want more coffee, John?' Or, 'Do you want more coffee Grandpa?' So (writer) Earl Hamner, such a beautiful man, and the producers began to have other people pour the coffee.

"But there were days when the day just seemed to go on forever. ... That's the hardest part about television and film, the waiting. In the theater you get to run the race from A to Z, and in television it's stop and start, stop and start."

Learned says she thinks part of The Waltons' success was that it launched many "firsts." "We dealt with very major issues in the first five years of the show. But . . . like a lot of shows, it went on a little too long. Now heroes of TV dramas are serial killers and rapists. I don't think The Waltons would go now, unless John Boy was a serial killer," she says with a laugh.

"Really, we were very, very fortunate. We had wonderful producers, great directors, and we are still like family." Do they keep in touch? "Absolutely! I just talked to Ralph (Waite) yesterday. And the kids and I email all the time. We're very close."

Learned is excited about the opportunity to work with Thomas, as well as the chance to tackle the Chaikovski correspondence. "It's difficult to make reading letters interesting unless you're very familiar with the material. You walk a fine line between overdramatizing the letter and yet making it seem a little more interesting than just reading the letter out loud. That's the challenge."

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