Suffice to say, the band was missed. Fans of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra packed Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Apple Valley on Thursday night, to welcome back musicians after a 191-day lockout. As concertmaster Steven Copes walked to the stage, the crowd rose to greet the SPCO with a sustained and emotional standing ovation.

Conductor Thomas Zehetmair received the same welcome and then quickly turned the ensemble’s attention to one of the most familiar pieces in the classical repertoire, Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro.” As the sanctuary filled with music, the anxiety washed away. The orchestra was back on stage, playing again.

“I’m so proud of these musicians who have made a huge sacrifice and stayed with this orchestra,” said Rolf Erdahl of Apple Valley.

The SPCO musicians ratified a three-year contract on April 29 that ended the longest lockout in the organization’s history. It called for salary cuts of roughly 20 percent, with the board citing fiscal deficits.

“I suspect I’m like most people who attend,” said Donn McLellan of Apple Valley, a cellist who was eager to hear Steven Isserlis perform Schumann’s Cello Concerto. “My sympathies lie with the musicians, but on the other hand, there is a money problem.”

There were no statements from the stage and musicians were not available before the concert. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, a key player in negotiating the contract settlement, did write a letter that was distributed with programs.

“I join the community in welcoming the return of the world’s best chamber orchestra,” Coleman’s letter said. “Both musicians and management made significant compromises in order to bring this treasured institution back to the community.”

In addition to Thursday night’s concert, the SPCO has shows Friday and Saturday at neighborhood venues in Eden Prairie and St. Paul. Tickets are available. The following weekend is nearly sold out and the orchestra will return to its Ordway Center home on May 24.

Joan Darling of Apple Valley considers Shepherd of the Valley her regular SPCO venue. She and her friends were eager to talk about the sums of money spent on sports stadiums while the arts go begging.

“I’m not a highbrow, I was trying to get the Twins on the radio on the way here,” she said. “But we spend a lot of money on stuff that isn’t as mind-opening.”

The SPCO had started its season in September while negotiations continued on a new collective bargaining agreement. When those talks broke down, musicians were locked out Oct. 21 and concerts were suspended. The players arranged several concerts on their own, so the music never entirely stopped. Thursday, however, marked the first official return to the stage, and it seemed to feel good for everyone.

Violist Tamas Strasser walked through the lobby and embraced Joe Weber, who works security for the orchestra. The two chatted for 10 minutes before Strasser had to prepare for the concert.

“We’ve known each other and our families for many years,” Weber said. “It was good to see a friend again.”

In the last days of the lockout, players and management representatives had both worried about the consequences if the entire season would be lost (a fear that was realized for the Minnesota Orchestra on Wednesday). It was important to get back and re-establish the SPCO’s presence in front of its fan base.

“I’m glad they worked it out,” said Judy Martin of Burnsville. “We didn’t take sides. We just hoped they would work it out.”

The SPCO announced earlier this week that former President Bruce Coppock will return to his position, pending board approval, in June. Coppock left the SPCO in 2009 to devote himself to treatments for cancer. He had led the organization for nine years.

“I’m an optimist,” Coppock said, when asked about the travails the SPCO has survived during the past six months. In his previous tenure, Coppock pushed greater access — through neighborhood venues and low ticket prices — and decentralized artistic leadership. Zehetmair, for example, is one of five artistic partners who take the place of a music director.