The hotshot young (20-something) prizewinner plays like an angel and appears to have the makings of a fine career. His first concert for this year’s Cary Cross Currents Chamber Music Arts Festival featured a “seasons” evening, reviewed here, combining music by Vivaldi and Piazzolla. For his second program with the Brussels Chamber Orchestra, Lorenzo Gatto chose a straight recital of music by Dvorák, Piazzolla, Saint-Saëns, and Franck, but with a twist: all were heard in (premiere) performances of arrangements for violin and string orchestra, prepared by conductor Manuel Villuendas, father of the BCO’s principal cellist and artistic director. The concert was offered in the comfortable and acoustically and visually attractive auditorium of Cary’s new Arts Center.

Ironically, Dvorák’s Four Romantic Pieces began life as arrangements of a set of miniatures for string trio, so having them reemerge as works for violin and string orchestra is not far-fetched. Nor was the transformation of Piazzolla’s “Oblivion” out of bounds; originally a piano trio, it has been heard in diverse arrangements. Saint-Saëns’ “Havanaise” is sometimes heard with piano accompaniment but was written for violin and orchestra so the adaptation heard in Cary involved mostly some thinning out of the textures. And the famous Sonata by César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck – a Belgian composer, please note, here played by a Belgian ensemble – is as often heard in a version for cello and piano, so richer, darker sound fits the expectation of listeners to this radiant score.

The downside of all the strings – 4 first violins, 3 seconds, 3 violas, 2 cellos, and a bass – was some lack of contrast between the featured soloist and the accompanying forces. And of course the whole program took on a decidedly old-fashioned flavor, for since the rise of original instruments and historically-informed performance practice (at first confined to baroque music), the use of arrangements and transcriptions has fallen into considerable disfavor. It wasn’t always so. Just a few generations ago, everybody and his (or her) brother did gussied-up orchestral versions of music intended for solo or chamber forces – the big-name folks responsible for these things included (of course) Stokowski but also Barbirolli, Damrosch, Elgar, Klemperer, Koussevitzky, Mitropoulos, Ormandy, Reiner, Toscanini, and “Old Timber” himself (Henry J. Wood).* And it was common practice to play quartets with entire orchestral string sections – Leonard Bernstein and André Previn are just two contemporary conductors who have recorded these things.

What was amazing on this festival occasion was the brilliance and incisiveness of the playing – all around. If the first part of the program seemed subdued, it was mostly the fault of the music, not the performances. There was some low-key passion in the Piazzolla and more overt virtuosity in the central section of the Saint-Saëns. The relatively quiet and restrained first part of the concert brought to the fore the really serious HVAC noise problems of the newly revamped venue; the Arts Center opened just a week before this concert, and the Town invested millions in its transformation, but the air conditioner kicked up such a racket that soft passages of the music were effectively obscured. This got worse in the second half, where the four movements of the Franck were linked with mechanical sounds. That said, the playing was consistently outstanding, and the expanded accompaniment elevated an already large-scale sonata to a work of art that at times suggested the composer’s Symphony in D Minor, good performances of which can sweep all obstacles aside, much as a great flood can clear out whole towns. The crowd – the 400-seat venue was moderately full – was effectively blown away, responding with enthusiasm and eliciting an encore performance of Piazzolla’s “Winter,” played the previous evening as part of the BCO’s “Eight Seasons” program. This, too, exists in numerous orchestral and chamber guises, so even the lollipop fit nicely into the evening’s programmatic context. If Gatto dazzled in this encore – perhaps more than elsewhere on this occasion – it was merely as a cap to an evening of quite consistently fabulous playing, delivered with just the right mixture of technical skill and artistic understanding. Well done!

The CCCCMAF (that’s Cary Cross Currents Chamber Music Arts Festival) continues through Sunday, July 17. For details, see the presenter’s website or our calendar.

Note: That the new Center is meant to embrace both visual and performing arts was demonstrated by part of a film by Cary Visual Arts called “Home Sweet Cary,” shown before (and presumably after) the concert. A parochial segment featuring a citizen of the Town talking about gourmet food and trips to the beach was largely ignored by the gathering concert audience.

*One of the more amazing compilations of Bach transcriptions – featuring arrangements by all these folks and more – was issued by Biddulph just a decade ago – see BID 83069/70.