George Linkert couldn't get to sleep Wednesday night, he was so keyed up about playing with the Minnesota Orchestra.

"I've always imagined I would come to a concert at Orchestra Hall and they would announce from the stage that their trombone player can't perform, and can anyone in the audience play the trombone," Linkert said Thursday morning.

Linkert, of Mound, was one of 53 musicians whose fantasies came true Thursday as they rehearsed alongside the professionals of the Minnesota Orchestra. They return Friday morning for another run-through, and then they will perform Alexander Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances" Friday night in front of 2,400 patrons, as part of a program that will sample the upcoming season at Orchestra Hall.

Fantasy camps -- the kind we can write about in a family newspaper -- generally refer to old athletes paying good money to lace up their cleats alongside Joe Mauer. For the first time, the Minnesota Orchestra has borrowed that concept for musicians whose dreams of professional symphonic careers ended long ago. Amateurs paid $500 to rosin their bows and moisten their reeds and dig into Borodin's music under the baton of Sarah Hicks, the orchestra's principal conductor for pops.

The happy campers were chosen from 92 applicants who responded to the orchestra's announcement last spring. The list was winnowed on several criteria: how many players were needed in certain sections, level of experience, work with ensembles and a written essay.

'Take a big breath'

"There are some very seasoned musicians in the group," said Jim Bartsch, the orchestra's director of education.

Like a dentist telling patients to relax, Hicks told the group Thursday morning not to be nervous, "but I want you to know, the tempos will be quite fast."

Ann Wiborg, a flutist from New London, Minn., steeled herself before taking the stage.

"I said, 'put your seat belt on and take a big breath,'" she said.

Wiborg sat next to the orchestra's Wendy Williams, who could tell the campers were "a little jumpy."

But once Hicks ran them through the piece, confidence began to replace anxiety and camaraderie overtook intimidation. Hicks dug in on certain sections, demanding better performances, which Williams said helped the campers feel more a part of the ensemble.

"It's important to foster connections to the orchestra," Hicks said during a break. "We aren't this big, scary monolithic thing. We're real people, and musicians can make mistakes."

Hicks singled out Gary Iseminger's timpani on several occasions during Thursday's rehearsal.

"It was far from perfect," said Iseminger, a percussionist from Northfield. "But it will be closer to perfect by tomorrow."

Bartsch said he first heard of the fantasy camp idea from the Baltimore Symphony. Musicians here were eager to do it, the orchestra recognized the value of community engagement, and the season sampler seemed a perfect venue.

"I think of how much I would have killed to do something like this when I was growing up outside Chicago, with the Chicago Symphony," said orchestra bassist William Schrickel.

'Curious, not anxious'

So the call for campers was issued last spring.

Washington County Judge Ellen Maas got a note from a fellow bassoonist who said, "If you do it, I'll do it." So Maas applied and found herself on stage Thursday, "curious, not anxious" about the tempos. A player since seventh grade, Maas plays in three community orchestras and performs about 12 times a year.

Phil McKenzie, executive director of the Grand Forks Symphony, brought his oboe with him from Thief River Falls, Minn., for the camp. Violinist Allen Huang, in real life an ophthalmologist with Mayo Clinic Health Systems in Owatonna, sat next to concertmaster Sarah Kwak, an experience he described as definitely intimidating, "no matter how much you prepare for it." Huang is one of three campers who are blogging about their experience for Symphony Magazine, the publication of the League of American Orchestras.

Not everyone was overwhelmed on Thursday. Sean Vanden Veen of Shakopee said he downloaded the music for his bass trombone and had practiced quite a bit. He wasn't nervous and said he looked forward to bringing back whatever he learned at the orchestra to share with his middle-school music students.

No one, however, expressed their awe at the experience quite like Linkert. Maybe it was the nerves and the lack of sleep talking, but as he got ready to walk on stage for the first rehearsal, Linkert said to a reporter, "Other than my wedding day and the birth of my children, this is the biggest thing that's happened to me in my adult life."