"Ladies and gentlemen, we're back."
With those words, principal trombone Douglas Wright on Friday welcomed the first audience to hear the Minnesota Orchestra in Orchestra Hall since June 14, 2012.
Concertgoers responded with multiple standing ovations.
In the ensuing 20 months, the hall underwent a $50 million face-lift, musicians were locked out in the longest work stoppage in U.S. orchestra history, and the 2012-13 season and the first five months of the current season were canceled.
The orchestra will play again Saturday. These homecoming concerts are the first since a contract was ratified on Jan. 14.
Despite, or perhaps because of all that has happened, the sold-out house Friday warmly welcomed the musicians back to the hall they have called home since 1974, even waving bright green hankies in the air.
Wright appeared on stage with new board chairman Gordon Sprenger at intermission. Both men said collaboration was the antidote to the bitterness that defined the last 16 months.
"We need to forge a partnership among the musicians, the board and the entire community," Sprenger said. "The hall is full tonight, and that's the way it needs to be."
As Sprenger spoke, shouts came from the audience, "Bring back Osmo!" which has become a rallying cry for supporters of former music director Osmo Vänskä, who resigned in October. Sprenger acknowledged the sentiment but made no promises.
"We appreciate that, we understand that and we are addressing that," he said.
This was the first chance for most of Friday's audience to see the remodeled hall. The expanded lobby has better sight lines and traffic flow. Windows give a more expansive view of downtown and adjacent Peavey Plaza. But the building took a decided second place to a concert led by conductor laureate Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, who opened this hall in 1974 when he was music director.
Principal cellist Tony Ross greeted patrons at the door ("I must have hugged 500 people").
Board member Doug Kelley said it felt great to be back at a concert.
"This is what we worked 18 months to accomplish," he said. "I just hope everyone will pull together as a team to help propel us forward."
Buddy Scroggins and Kelly Schroeder of Minneapolis were happy that the musicians were back at work.
"I wish Osmo were here," Schroeder said. "I get a little choked up about it." While Vänskä was not spotted at the concert, he stopped by rehearsal Friday to greet Skrowaczewski and musicians.
Music critic Michael Anthony, formerly with the Star Tribune, was preparing a report for BBC radio. Anthony said the hall sounded "just as it always did."
Wright said at intermission that he noticed better acoustics on stage in the ability of players to hear each other.
Of the 89 musicians who played Friday, only 55 were regular members of the orchestra. Thirty-four were substitutes, an unusually large number, because the agreement that brought musicians back to work allowed them to honor existing commitments to other orchestras.
"Right now we're running on adrenaline," Wright said. "As we calm down, and more of our members come back, we'll find that sweet spot again."
CEO and president Michael Henson, who was a lightning rod for criticism from musicians and their backers, said before the concert that he was "thrilled to have a packed house and it's wonderful to have the orchestra back on center stage."
One patron at intermission stopped Julia Maddox and told the Minnetonka woman, "You have the best outfit in the room." Maddox had dressed for the occasion with a white dress festooned with musical notes and staffs.
"This is fantastic," said Maddox, of the concert. "It's been a void in our lives that's been filled again."