Surprises may be in store when a classically trained singer and a pop-rock electric guitarist join forces. Maybe even revelations. Vocalist Nora Fischer and guitarist Marnix Dorrestein, both Amsterdam-based, made their New Amsterdam debut the other night at a one of the Mostly Mozart Festival‘s “A Little Night Music” after-hours concerts. The cabaret setting in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse high above Lincoln Center was just right for the duo’s reduction and rebuilding of 17th-century songs by Monteverdi, Purcell, Dowland, Alessandro Scarlatti, and others. The duo gave these secular songs a modern-day singer-songwriter vibe that nonetheless felt timeless, electronic guitar effects and all.
Fischer shifted effortlessly from classical-style singing to pop and rock modes. One never got the sense that she was self-conscious or straining for effect. Early-music vocal artists often strive for an ethereal or angelic sound in songs of love and sadness, forced bluster to depict bawdiness or bibulousness. By contrast, Fischer’s voice paired with Dorrestein’s carefully constructed guitar parts and smooth electronic effects sounded sometimes surprising but always natural. These re-imaginings showed how little the Western song as a focus of human expression has changed over the centuries.
In realizing the duo’s original arrangements (which they’ve recorded for Deutsche Grammophon), Dorrestein utilized a variety of techniques: folk-style finger-picking, sometimes reminiscent of the lute; rock-and-roll distortion; classical-guitar counterpoint; and a touch of psychedelia. Together with the evocative lyrics, the results were by turns exciting and hypnotic, at once exotic and familiar, emotionally elevated and vocally down-to-earth. Fischer was fully comfortable in several languages, especially perky English and luscious Italian. Dorrestein added fine vocal harmonies in warm tenor and shining falsetto ranges.
I listen to a lot of early and Baroque music. I also play rock, folk, and blues. I’ve often imagined ancient songs transformed for modern ears. Occasionally I’ve heard it done, but typically with unnecessarily radical changes. Fischer and Dorrestein, by contrast, make their new versions sound as natural as if they’d been written this way. I hope this accomplished and original pair returns to New York City again and again.