Chamber ensemble focuses on humor of online dating

‘In Real Life’ reveals sense of longing on matchmaking sites.

By Luke Quinton Special to the American-Statesman


Robert Patterson is the rare composer who has a sense of humor. Not that talented writers of classical music aren’t funny. But, in the modern era, at least, they usually leave the jokes at the auditorium door. “I’m past that,” Patterson says. “I don’t care.” The New York-based composer, along with lyricist David Cote, has a new song cycle, “In Real Life,” for Austin Chamber Ensemble, which will debut it on Feb. 12 and 13 at Westlake United Methodist Church, in time for Valentine’s Day.

It was commissioned for pianist Martha Mortensen Ahern and soprano Mela Dailey, in honor of the organization’s 35th anniversary. And the subject they settled on for this song cycle came from Dailey and Ahern.

“They wanted to do songs about online dating,” says Cote, who was charged with writing the lyrics. “Without being too literalistic about what an online dating profile might sound like. I took it as a cue.”

In the age of and hookup apps like Tinder, Cote says the women he imagined

in the song cycle were all looking for something.

“The conceit is that these are all interior monologues of women who are on online dating sites.”

Cote, who also serves as theater editor for “Time Out New York,” says he has avoided online dating. “It seems to me a strange activity, and possibly a lonely activity. It’s both efficient but also distancing and alienating.”

His wife, however, had done some dating online in the past, and of that experience she recalled, among other curiosities, men’s profiles filled with pictures of them “doing karate moves.”

As Cote was writing, both he and Patterson noticed, with renewed attention, the appeals appearing in their spam email folders.

“Rob would forward me ‘Russian Seeking Husband’ emails,” Cote says.

“We were both getting these emails in our inbox and forwarding them to each other,” Patterson says.

“I make good wife,” one might say. “Russia is all about vodka and bears

— haha, just kidding!” went another.

There are five characters in the cycle, Patterson explains. “One woman likes women — she’s reaching out to women online.”

There’s a war widow, and for her tale the composer tried to evoke a feeling he got from a Dixie Chicks song.

Dailey will be called upon to tell the story of an imaginary Russian bride, and the others, appealing no doubt to her sense of theatricality.

Patterson says he structured the piece to fit Dailey’s flexibility in navigating different styles.

“She is multitalented. She can crossover from operatic to musical pop, so the piece floats between both,” he says. “I would say the way the songs happen is they’re very tuneful — and you’ll remember the tunes when you leave the concert. It’s not completely pop like that, but it’s very listener friendly.”

“I think his music is gorgeous and accessible,” Cote says of Patterson. “He has a terrific ear for really ... I don’t want to say catchy, but, just inevitable, melodies.”

Patterson also had a successful piece performed a few seasons ago by the Austin Symphony Orchestra. But it’s clear that Cote really admires Patterson’s sense of humor.

“He’s not one of these composers who are like the Wicked Witch of the West and water,” who shrink whenever you put humor on them.

For pianist Ahern, who ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise the $15,000 — in addition to city of Austin funding — it cost to create a new piece, this song cycle will land close to home.

“We met online through our church’s website,” she says of her second husband. “We’re both Mormons. We had a long distance relationship for a couple of years, but it actually worked out.”

The characters in the cycle range from women with impossible standards to a divorcee in her thirties who feels, Cote says, like she has “to find someone to go to the prom.”

Each has a distinct personality. “I tried to write them like little dramas.”

But this is a Valentine’s concert, Cote says.

“You don’t want to make it seem hopeless, or to make a statement that somehow technology is dehumanizing all of us. I want to make people happy. I’m an entertainer,” he says.