Asian instrumentalists, composers, and conductors aren’t the newest phenomena in classical music, yet the number of seats left vacant at Belk Theater when all three converged there for the latest Charlotte Symphony Orchestra concert would suggest that subscribers and the general public equated the occasion with an alien invasion – or the horrors of modernism increased exponentially. Likely the people who should have been in those seats had not heard the recorded initiatives by such luminaries as Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang to bring the pleasantly retro works of contemporary Asian composers to the attention of mass audiences. Surely if their interest in classical music has even barely crossed the threshold of seriousness, Charlotteans should be aware of how benign such Grammy Award artists as Seiji Ozawa and Ma have been in presenting their music. So the large number of no-shows wasn’t inexplicable, just plain inexcusable.

The dire convergence occurred when guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen led the CSO in Zhao Jiping‘s Concerto No. 2 for Pipa and Orchestra with Wu Man, the 2013 Musical America Instrumentalist of the Year who premiered the piece last year in Sydney, Australia. Sandwiching the dreaded alien work were the overture to Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Schubert’s “Tragic” Symphony No. 4. So I’m sure that most of us who came to this concert, whether we realized how much of a coup the program was for Charlotte, were as surprised as I was by the number of people who didn’t come – and perhaps a little bit embarrassed, for I’ve rarely seen a CSO audience for the classics series so readily appreciative.

No doubt about it, the ovations were richly earned. While I didn’t always agree with the jagged flow of Chen’s Mozart or her broad dynamic contrasts, the music was undeniably fresh and exciting, with a restlessness that would work especially well with Beethoven – and Schubert, I hoped. Sure enough, Chen proved to be perfectly attuned to Schubert’s fluidity in the opening Allegro molto movement and keenly aware of the inner logic of the Andante, with lyrical work from the flutes that never grew saccharine. When the time came, in the final movements, for the music to align with Chen’s propensities for dramatic dynamics and jaggedness, the orchestra showed that they understood what Chen and Schubert were about. In fact, with the orchestra in peak form, there was more color and drive in this “Tragic” performance than there had been three weeks earlier in Beethoven’s “Eroica.”

Having reviewed Wu’s 2008 recording of Lou Harrison’s Pipa Concerto with the Chicago Symphony for American Record Guide (Alan Gilbert and Yo-Yo Ma are among the other artists on this rewarding CD), I was not surprised by the look of the pipa nor by Wu’s proficiency on it. What I had forgotten was the variety of timbres and effects the instrument is capable of. When Wu began playing on the middle of the strings, the lute-shaped instrument sounded very much like a twangy Jew’s harp and when she moved further down, the pipa took on the sweeter colorations of a banjo, a lute, and even a dulcimer. Funkiest of all, her furious strummings on the lowest sector of the strings could sound like rhythm played on a washboard. An encore showed off Wu’s talent for percussion effects as well.

Jiping’s ambitions went far beyond simply showing off Wu’s virtuosity. The big melody, launched over a barrage of Leonardo Soto’s timpani, reminded me of the eminently likable Yellow River Piano Concerto recorded by Lang Lang on DGG in 2006. I’ll admit that I would have been disappointed if Jiping hadn’t gone more deeply than that, but the composer didn’t confine himself to Chinese tradition. There’s an even more glib theme two-thirds of the way through that had the agile, soaring feel of a film score, but when Wu broke in here, her pipa was cuing an orchestral catastrophe with a heartfelt intensity worthy of Shostakovich, and the hushed, wistful aftermath also recalled the Russian master’s evocations of World War II. In the wake of this devastation, the rebirth of flutes and the lyrical regeneration of violins retained a tentative, shell-shocked hush before Wu’s valedictory statement, and instead of resolving triumphantly, the concerto ended with soft flutes, muted trumpets, and a distant tubular bell.

The program was repeated October 11.

(Hear the dazzling Wu Man play our national anthem here.)