It was a day of conflicting emotions for Minnesota Orchestra musicians, who rehearsed on the stage of Orchestra Hall Wednesday for the first time since June 2012.
"Coming back is a mixed bag," said Doug Wright, principal trombone and a member of the players' negotiating committee. "We're happy and excited to be reconnecting with our audience, but we can't help but reflect on everything that's happened."
There was joy at being together again after being locked out for 16 months in the longest contract dispute in U.S. orchestra history.
Musicians, mostly dressed in jeans and sweaters — a few still wearing green "Support Minnesota Orchestra Musicians" buttons — milled about on stage. Concertmaster Erin Keefe chatted with principal cello Tony Ross while conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski sat in a chair and reviewed his score of Beethoven's Third Symphony (Eroica). There were a few hugs, but there often are at orchestra rehearsals, and to an outsider, Wednesday afternoon's session seemed like many others.
"It was fun," said clarinetist Tim Zavadil, another negotiator. "One of the special things about this orchestra is how well we get along. It's a unique collection of people."
Since the musicians last played at Orchestra Hall 18 months ago, it has undergone a $50 million face-lift that included an expanded lobby, new charcoal-colored seating and an acoustical tweak in the auditorium.
The room "looks different, smells different and sounds a little different," Wright said.
However, Skrowaczewski's face was a familiar and warm presence to greet them as they sat down to run through the Beethoven. The conductor laureate was the first to lead a musicians' concert in exile in October 2012, and he welcomed the players back warmly with kind words, Wright said. "It was a powerful moment that was not lost on anyone."
Gordon Sprenger, the new chairman of the board, also briefly addressed the musicians before reporters were let into the hall. Sprenger spoke with optimism and empathy for what the organization had gone through and told the musicians he understands people will heal at their own pace, Wright said.
The maestro, wearing his trademark turtleneck, then took the podium and worked the rhythmic and sonic details of Beethoven's innovative testament to emotional heroism. Skrowaczewski is regarded as one of the finest of Beethoven interpreters. Music director of the orchestra from 1960 to 1979, he will lead homecoming concerts on Friday (which is sold out) and Saturday. In addition to the Beethoven, Richard Strauss' "Don Juan" and Skrowaczewski's arrangement of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor are on the program.
"It's incredibly fitting that Stan is able to conduct us, performing the same piece [Bach] that he opened this building with in 1974," said Zavadil. "What's significant is that there is 110 years of history here, and it's important to note we are tying into that history from concert number one."