(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)
We can either embrace Valentine’s Day or try in vain to pretend it’s a corporate creation that doesn’t exist.
Arts organizations are no different, but luckily for us, some of them are doing the real work of turning this calendrical occasion into something meaningful.
Austin Chamber Ensemble on Saturday did one better this Valentine’s, commissioning a new cycle of five songs, a work by New York composer Robert Paterson and lyricist David Cote, which did double duty as a celebration of the organization’s 35th anniversary and as a presentation of songs about love.
Or at least the songs of “In Real Life,” are about a modern love; the types of women who are looking for love in this diffused and disconnected digital world of Tinder and JDate.
The night began with soprano Crystal Paull singing jazz and pop standards, accompanied by pianist Martha Ahern. There was a surprising Bob Dylan cover — a late career choice, “Make You Feel My Love” from 1997’s “Time Out of Mind.” Paull’s a UT grad, a singer with a really sweet, but strong tone, another musician who we’re lucky to have singing in Austin even though music is no longer their professional focus.
The airy, striking laminated beams and stonework of Westlake United Methodist Church isn’t the intimate jazz bar these songs may belong to, and the church felt oversized when stacked up against a modest crowd of about thirty. But Austin’s resident crossover star, soprano Mela Dailey, has no trouble filling a room.
For “In Real Life,” Dailey sang the story of five different women: a (rather demanding) “regular woman”; a “late bloomer”; a Russian inbox bride; a war widow; and a divorcee.
Dailey had props for each and used them for a micro costume change (new glasses, a Russian fur hat) to help make each new character.
Lyricist David Cote has a quick wit and an uncomplicated style. His first creation, the demanding “regular” woman lists those demands in her song: “I want a biracial, nonsmoking, bilingual, semi-vegan locavore, with impeccable taste in clothes … a culture vulture, but unpretentious. I hope this is someone you know?”
Cute, right? These sections read instantly like a chamber musical. You can see why the composing duo write opera together.
Paterson takes Cote’s music and bakes into the words a new and often surprising energy.
The five women’s stories diverge. “Collateral” was from the point of view of a woman whose husband died in a recent war, and this is a real shift of pace. It was a poignant story, all well executed, but something here — maybe the rhyming — put the emotive story a little too on the nose.
The funny stuff seemed sharper here. Dailey certainly enjoyed herself, in fur hat, gesticulating the part of Anastasia and bending a little into the cliché. All the focus here was rightly on Dailey as she danced her voice through a verbal variety show.
But underneath, tucked into so many arpeggios is a dreamy, generous piano part, nicely layered by pianist Martha Ahern.
In “The Late Bloomer,” a woman describes her new dating life dating another woman, “Karen from Human Resources.” It had a bit of both the comedy and the seriousness: “Karen leans in and I’m suddenly Sapphic/(Don’t worry, won’t get graphic).”
That tongue in cheek PG humor was indicative of a night that delivered some stories worth knowing, bundled with wit and a good sense of humor.